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Being heard from in region’s transit debate

When Woolwich Mayor Todd Cowan called for far more public input into Waterloo Region’s proposed light rail transit plan, he touched on the trouble with the process so far: limited feedback, with no way of knowing how much of it is has come from organized proponents.

“What’s 700 responses when there are more than 500,000 people living in the region?” asks Cowan of the questionnaires done to date.

Surely, the region is not getting answers from an adequate cross-section of the public. Still, there’s a sense of urgency to move ahead with the LRT. It’s time to back the train up.

Proponents seem to be suffering from what Danish economist Bent Flyvbjerg calls the “optimism bias” in hyping big infrastructure projects.

That’s something Steve Lafleur has seen in his studies of light rail transit schemes globally.

A Toronto-based public policy analyst, Lafleur most recently studied the LRT system in Calgary. His report finds proponents in that city understate the costs while overstating the benefits.

“LRT is often thought of as a happy medium between buses and trains. In reality, it combines their disadvantages.  Light rail transit is slow, inflexible, and expensive.”

Having lived in Calgary – and other cities where he’s studied transit systems – he’s seen firsthand the myths and the realities of the LRT there.

“The LRT hasn’t really helped – most people don’t even think about using transit.”
Where ridership numbers have been boosted is in the downtown core, where parking has been reduced and rates increased: people will drive to a park-and-ride station, then take the train for the last leg of the trip.

Although he hasn’t studied the Waterloo Region LRT plan – he lived here while doing his master’s degree at Wilfrid Laurier University – a cursory look at the numbers doesn’t look promising.

“These are honestly the worst numbers I’ve seen for an LRT system,” he says of the regional proposal. “This is one of the weaker cases for LRT anywhere.”

Of course, the region long ago gave up selling LRT as a good transit option (buses are better) and as cost-effective (again, buses are better), but instead focus on the urban development aspects. Proponents hope the train will reshape the urban area, prompting businesses to relocate and residents to live along the rail line.

But Lafleur is skeptical about what he calls transit-oriented development. It just doesn’t work.

In the recent Calgary study, he notes LRT there may be fuelling urban sprawl rather than curbing it. His data also show the development that does occur along the rail lines isn’t necessarily a benefit for the community.

In Calgary, property values along the line increased from zero to 40 per cent. Where prices do increase, it tends to drive away the less affluent, precisely the people who most benefit from transit – and the ones likely to use it.

“It creates value for those who don’t need it, at the expense of everyone else,” argues Lafleur. “It doesn’t do a lot for people who need transit to get around.”

Planners often miss the mark when trying to use projects such as LRT to shape a city, for instance to increase density.

“With transit planners make two assumptions: that people are going to do the things we want them to do, and they won’t do the things we don’t want them to do.

“It doesn’t work out that way.”

In order to curb sprawl, municipalities need policies to limit land use. They need to make developers pay 100 per cent of the costs of expanding: all the roads, all the infrastructure, all the soft costs. That’s beyond the pale, so we get sprawl and we all pay for it. By going that route, municipalities end up sending mixed signals: encouraging sprawl, and then punishing those who live in those newly-developed areas.

And when their plans go awry, failing to deliver the promised benefits – and likely going massively over budget, more than 40 per cent higher is the average for LRT projects – we all pay the price. Well, except for those who pushed for the project. From them, we get excuses: didn’t spend enough, didn’t market it properly, not enough public education … anything but an admission they made a mistake, he notes.

Politicians in particular like to hype big projects, talking up the benefits and downplaying the negatives. Heck, they may not be around when the failures become evident, already collecting their pensions. So, who’s got something at stake in this debate? Those of us who’ll foot the bill, and put up with all the downsides that will come with the project.

As Woolwich’s mayor notes: how come we can have a referendum over something as inexpensive and reversible as fluoride, but not about a massive plan already earmarked to cost more than $2 billion – not just in costs for the train, but in a host of other capital projects and ongoing operating expenses – from which there’s no going back?

Certainly we’re in no hurry. Plenty of time for a referendum, a proper consultation of the public mood.

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