Waterloo LRT more than justified

This weekend, I came upon an editorial written by the Globe and Mail for Monday’s Simcoe Day paper. I have read it a few times, and each time I am angered by the blissful ignorance and misrepresentation of facts contained within the editorial. Here is the editorial; below I aim to set the record straight.

This week it was Michael Ignatieff’s turn to drop by. In an effort to court local favour, the federal Liberal Leader threw his support behind the region’s $800-million light rail transit commuter proposal. “I am a passionate believer in light rail,” he said, promising to “make this happen.” For an area with such a reputation for intelligence and education, however, the region’s train plan is a surprisingly poor idea. And an issue of national significance.

This may be the paragraph that introduces us to the editorial’s true purpose: illustrating Mr Ignatieff’s perceived naivety and pandering. While I have not heard him speak of light rail before, there are numerous reasons for Mr Ignatieff to believe in LRT, such as increased mobility, increased transportation choice, and possible economic benefits. But the Globe manages to slander both Mr Ignatieff as well as the entire Region of Waterloo for being so smart, yet “surprisingly” so stupid.

While Mr. Ignatieff’s passion may be commendable in general, there’s little to recommend this plan in particular. Light rail transit makes great sense for large urban centres with dense commuter traffic travelling to a downtown employment core or other significant destination. This is not the case in Waterloo Region, which lacks a recognizable downtown and has a population of just 500,000. As it stands now, the train would run from a shopping mall in Waterloo to a shopping mall in Kitchener. Most area jobs are distributed throughout the suburbs, and few commuters use existing bus services. Building a train track will not change this reality.

Oh wait, so they’re not slandering Mr Ignatieff for taking a stand. The Globe is simply endeavouring to educate their readers on where LRT really should be. They tell us that it should be in large urban centres (like Toronto I guess?) and should travel to a “significant destination” or “downtown employment core”.  This would not be news to planners at the Region, who know this full well and planned accordingly. What will be news to them, however, is that the Region of Waterloo “lacks a recognisable downtown”. I spent a few minutes thinking about this statement and how it could be justified, but I cannot wrap my head around it. The Region has not one, but three recognisable downtowns, those being Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge. Certainly they are not the sort of Central Business Districts associated with slightly larger cities such as Hamilton or Quebec City, but they do contain some large offices (insurance companies in particular). The fact that this commercial activity is spread across three downtowns is an even greater cause to rope them together with an advanced LRT system.

The Globe also implies that at 500 000, the Region’s population is simply too small for LRT to be justified. They are conveniently ignoring the example of Edmonton, which had a mere 450 000 people when the city started building the currently successful LRT (for the 1978 Commonwealth Games). And population is the least scientific of measures that can be used to determine if LRT would be viable.

Given equivalent fiscal constraints at the federal level, the inappropriateness of Waterloo Region’s $800-million rail project assumes national importance. That money would be better applied to other, more pressing transportation needs. And for those wishing to dream big, high-speed rail among major urban centres, such as Toronto-Montreal or Calgary-Edmonton makes more sense in the long run. The Waterloo LRT is one train Ottawa would be wise to miss.

In the last three paragraphs of the editorial, the Globe attempts to make the Waterloo LRT a national issue by mixing transportation planning in politics. They tell us that numerous ridings in the Region were narrowly won by Conservatives, and so any MP wanting to hold on to his seat would presumably support and fight for funding for the LRT. That would seem to imply that residents are in favour of the project, suprising given that the Globe calls it a “surprisingly poor idea”.

Furthermore, the editorial ventures into the territory of creating dangerous misconceptions. In the final paragraph, it is called an $800M project, and that “…that money would be better applied to other, more pressing transportation needs.” But in the previous paragraph, it was mentioned that the Ontario government has already committed $300M, making it, at most, a $500M contribution by the federal government (and it won’t likely be that high). And by suggesting that the money could go to more pressing transportation needs, but not suggesting any such needs for consideration, the reader is left hanging.

Finally, while I am an advocate of high speed rail in this country, throwing the “dream” of HSR into this editorial makes no sense. $800M would likely get you from Waterloo to Guelph on a truly high-speed rail, but that is not what the Globe is advocating.

Seriously, this kind of paint-by-numbers and ignorant editorial has become more and more common amongst newspapers in this country. The Globe really hit one out of the park this time.

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    • Don Buckwald
    • October 19th, 2010

    I hope our new Regional Council continues on a path that includes LRT. This is an investment that I’m personally willing to make to create an even better city with continued innovations for my children and their generation. When you look at the real costs involved, which very few actually do, we’re not looking at such a major investment. Some infrastructure maintenance would be included in the project and long-term, you’re removing cars from the road and the region would require less roads. There is a small but very influential group of people in the ear of those seeking positions on council. Brenda Halloran has already flipped on her support and Doug Craig has the attitude of a 2 year old. If he can’t have it, no one should.

    Look at some of the success stories from other LRT projects. Please don’t become short-sighted politicians who only work for their current term in office. Have some vision for the future and the evolution of our city from a car-centric city that is spreading out much in the way that London, Ontario has done to an intensified city that has a strong core.

    For the rest of us who have silently supported this project as rail rather than bus, it’s time to speak up to prevent more flip flop politicians like Brenda Halloran.

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