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Woolwich right to turn a critical eye to public transit

Woolwich council got it right this week in opting not to spend any additional money on Grand River Transit route 21. Ridership, never significant, has been dropping. Nearly empty buses are the norm, and dropping another $73,000 on some extended evening hours won’t change that.

While the numbers indicate the township could axe the bus entirely with little consequence, saving $500,000 in the process, council isn’t looking at that option … yet. As Coun. Murray Martin noted, it might be appropriate to bring back the “use it or lose it” ultimatum that was bandied about when the bus was a pilot project in 2009 and 2010, with few takers.

If the bus is to remain, ridership will have to increase dramatically to warrant the ongoing expense, let alone expanding the service.

There is some merit to the argument that improving the service – extending the hours, increasing the frequency, lengthening the route to encompass more of Elmira – would boost ridership, but the numbers would likely be inconsequential. As with all of Grand River Transit, you could double and double again the amount of money spent on the system, and it would still be too slow, too inconvenient and too costly for anyone to choose to use it where another option exists.

Therein lies the rub for public transit in the region: it’s generally used only by those who don’t have other options. It’s a captive audience, who’ll use transit no matter what state the service is in. Nobody will opt out of taking his or her car in favour of the public transit unless the service is some combination of faster, cheaper or more convenient – that’s not applicable in the region, and never will be.

Systems that meet those requirements do exist, but in much larger cities. For all the region’s growth forecasts – historically not accurate – the numbers will never work out in any version of the foreseeable future.

As it stands in the region today, transit provides a necessary service to relatively few residents. It’s essential in some form, though every effort must be made to reduce costs in order to make the system more manageable.

That reality is what makes the LRT an even bigger fiasco beyond the massive waste of taxpayers’ money. It’s destined to be a white elephant not just because of the huge cost overruns, but because of the harm it will do to the public good, diverting resources from useful purposes.

The benefit of adding a mall-to-mall train into the transit mix is precisely zero. Really, less than zero. Not only will it directly waste unprecedented amounts of our money, it will impede any chance of competent fiscal management, while delaying and cancelling actually useful projects as the region scrambles to cover up its folly.

All of the shortcomings were easily identified years ago, when there was still time to treat the project as a silly pipedream – the facts were all there. As well, in the run-up to the build, it was clear that technology, especially autonomous vehicles, was poised to do for transportation what it has done to, for instance, manufacturing. Any kind of transit expansion – including bus routes such as Elmira’s – should have been put on hold until other options, including the elimination of costly labour, became clearer.

Instead, and apparently with no sense of irony, we have a region that’s trying to tout its high-tech street cred. by deploying 19th century technology.

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