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Light-rail disease







Special to Financial Post Aug 23, 2011 – 6:47 PM ET


Politicians love light-rail transit — even when it makes no sense and cost overruns are sure to follow


By Peter Shawn Taylor


Forget AIDS or SARS, there’s a new billion-dollar contagion popping up across the country. Symptoms include visions of grandeur, severe loss of reality and a propensity to enact massive tax hikes. It’s called LRTS: Light-rail transit syndrome.


And while the surest cure for this new ailment is a large application of public input and a quick dose of common sense, the antidote appears in extreme short supply.


Patient zero in the current Canadian outbreak of LRTS is southwestern Ontario’s Region of Waterloo, a high-tech hub as home to BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion and the University of Waterloo. The diagnosis was confirmed this June when the region, population 500,000, approved an $818-million light rail transit project.


Light rail transit is beloved by bureaucrats and planners for its sleek and modern look that provides the aura of a big-city amenity. Those susceptible to LRTS claim it can transform modest cities into booming metropolises by instantly boosting transit usage, curbing congestion, spurring rapid downtown development and attracting young mobile workers of the Richard Florida ilk.


But like any fixed-track mass-transit system, light rail is best suited to moving high volumes of commuters to and from dense downtown employment cores, as is the case in Calgary. It requires specific densities and geographies to work effectively and even large cities such as Baltimore and Buffalo have struggled with light rail. And it’s expensive.


Waterloo Region would be the smallest urban centre with an urban commuter-style light rail transit system in North America. The region also exhibits one of the lowest transit usage rates in the province. The typical bus rider is either attending school or unemployed. This is largely because the region comprises three separate cities (Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge) and thus lacks a central business district. Most jobs at RIM and elsewhere are scattered across the suburbs and unsuited to commuter transit.


City planners infected by LRTS, however, come to believe tracks have the magical power to transform drivers into eager transit users, regardless of local evidence, density or geography. The region claims transit ridership along the traffic spine will triple the first year that tracks open. It seems implausible, given that this would require more rail transit riders in Waterloo Region than currently exist in Minneapolis, a city of three million.


Local politicians suffering from LRTS come to see a rail system as crucial to their future success (and a handy monument to their own forward thinking). “A failure to move forward will doom us,” Waterloo Region chairman Ken Seiling warned darkly in advocating light rail transit last December.


Improvements to the existing bus system would clearly be cheaper and more appropriate for an urban area the size and scope of Waterloo Region (an entire rapid bus network could be built for as little as $187-million), but once LRTS takes hold, buses appear as a repulsive and unsophisticated form of transportation best left to lesser cities.


Of course LRTS requires favourable conditions to incubate: namely politics and other people’s money. Ottawa has pledged $265-million and the province $300-million. Ottawa’s commitment may seem a puzzle given the dubious nature of the plan and the federal government’s recent claims to fiscal probity. Then again Waterloo Region has that medium-sized urban profile Conservatives find very attractive: In the past two elections it has delivered a full slate of Tory MPs.


Local taxpayers, however, tend to find LRTS rather unnerving. Even with higher-order funding, Waterloo Region taxpayers are still on the hook for $253-million, or an equivalent 10.5% increase in local taxes. And with federal and provincial funding capped, any overruns will be the sole responsibility of the local tax base. Legendary cost overruns on the St. Clair light-rail project in Toronto — a $48-million project ended up costing $106-million — is a grim reminder that much can go wrong with light rail, even in big cities.


In fact an Ipsos-Reid poll this summer showed 83% of Waterloo Region voters wanted a referendum on the plan, in large part because of cost concerns. All demographics, all cities and both transit users and car drivers alike agreed a public vote on the issue was appropriate, and by a massive majority.


Caught in the clutches of LRTS, however, regional council ignored this outbreak of sober second thought and approved the $818-million plan by a vote of 9-2.


And now the disease is spreading. Victoria, BC, with a smaller metro population than Waterloo Region, has begun planning a bigger and even more expensive light-rail transit system — its $950-million light-rail transit plan makes no sense based on city size, geography or transit usage. It is similarly dependent on massive contributions from higher levels of government and it is driven by grandiose dreams of area politicians. And once again the taxpaying citizenry, in the form of the local chamber of commerce, is demanding a referendum.


Hamilton and Winnipeg are also showing symptoms of LRTS. And given Canadian politics, how long will it be before Quebec City is feeling a bit flush as well? With Waterloo Region setting the precedent that billion-dollar fixed rail transit systems are no longer the exclusive domain of major metropolitan centres, every Canadian city of a certain size will soon be demanding its slice of federal government track cash. The promise of a big-city image paid for by other levels of government should prove highly contagious.


For anyone wondering about palliative care for terminal cases of LRTS, consider an earlier outbreak on the other side of the Atlantic:


Edinburgh, Scotland, population 490,000 was infected by LRTS a few years before Waterloo Region. Its $870-million light-rail transit project was also presented to local taxpayers as the means by which their city would boldly march into the future. And it would be free — paid for by higher levels of government.


Today three-quarters of the budget has been spent but less than a third of the infrastructure is in place. With cost overruns entirely the responsibility of local taxpayers, this summer Edinburgh city council (after rejecting calls for a referendum) debated tearing up the whole thing and forgetting it ever happened. In the end they decided to shorten the route substantially. And they still need to come up with $438 million.


Don’t let Light Rail Transit Syndrome happen to you.


— Peter Shawn Taylor is editor-at-large of Maclean’s and a member of the community group Taxpayers for Sensible Transit, which commissioned the Ipsos-Reid poll.

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