So we’re about a year away. By next spring, barring any unforeseen delays or snags, and so long as Bombardier meets its expected delivery targets, the first trains will roll with paying passengers along the tracks that have caused so much upheaval since Waterloo Region’s LRT project gained the green light back in June, 2011.

Few would argue that the project is one of the most transformative developments in the region’s history, changing the face of the city and the way people engage with their community.

Fewer would know the LRT project is a transformative tale of urban planning, a lesson in how cities and communities evolve and grow sustainably, and the healthy outcomes that flow from co-operation and good-faith decision-making from governments and citizens alike.

“There’s still water that has to go under the bridge, but I’m really quite gratified,” said Tom Galloway, Chair of the Region of Waterloo’s Planning and Works Committee and regional council’s point person on the LRT project.

In a wide-ranging interview with Communitech News, Galloway said the LRT project has already generated $1.8 billion (2011 dollars) in high-density development near the stations along the route. Old properties are being purchased, new condo developments are under way and more are in the pipeline. The line will save the region a further $500 million in roads that won’t have to be built or widened over the next 30 years.

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Waterloo Region Councillor Tom Galloway (Communitech photo: Craig Daniels)

Not a bad return on the $818 million price tag ($300 million of which came from the federal government, $240 million from the province and $278 million from the Region).

And of course, once operational, once it begins to move paying customers, the line will fundamentally rewire the way the Kitchener and Waterloo function, and change everyone’s transportation decision-making.

It’s remarkable, all that given, to learn that the LRT wasn’t conceived solely as an answer to the problem of moving people. It was conceived as a way generate density intensification – to build up instead of out. The notion is somewhat counterintuitive.

“I often say, the LRT is a planning tool that happens to move people,” says Galloway. “Moving people is important, but it’s the planning piece, the development, that was the key.”

The imperative to generate urban development and density began, Galloway explained, in 2005. That’s when the then-McGuinty-led Ontario Liberals passed the Places to Grow Act.

“The act said, specifically to the Region of Waterloo, ‘You have to plan for 250,000 more people,’” said Galloway. “‘They are going to arrive between now and 2031. So start your planning.’ So. What to do?”

Indeed. Another 250,000 people amounted to a 50-per-cent leap in population. Those people would need places to live. They’d need roads and bridges and schools and sewers. They’d need infrastructure.

The Region realized that kind of growth, left unchecked, would gobble up farmland and green space, and that was unsustainable, particularly given that those greenfields, as they’re known, help recharge the region’s water aquifers. So the Region drew a limit around the the area’s urban centres called the Countryside Line, and committed itself to not allowing development past it. That meant growth would have to come within the boundary.

“Back then, development was about two-thirds greenfield, one-third existing neighbourhoods,” said Galloway. “We needed a way to reverse that. Or at least get it to a 50-50 split.

“So research was done, and what other communities had done is they had used rapid transit as incentive to create more development in the interior of the community and reduce reliance on greenfield development.”

The research showed that developers like to build near inner-city rail lines, which, unlike bus routes, don’t change. Rail lines, therefore, give developers certainty: The land becomes more valuable because people will pay a premium to live near rapid transit, particularly rail-based rapid transit.

In particular the Region studied Calgary’s LRT line and the one in Portland, Ore. The two projects were vastly different, with different goals.

“Calgary’s system was intended to move people from the suburbs to the downtown,” says Galloway. “Just get [people] in[to the core] and out. They didn’t care so much about development along the line.

“But Portland was a whole different story. Portland was intended to spur development and turn their development inward.”

Portland’s experience, he said, showed that a rapid bus system running along the same route as an LRT “is about 40 per cent cheaper to build.

“But you get 40 per cent more development with rail. You’ll get 20 per cent more riders with a rail project.”

So Portland became the model. The Waterloo route was chosen with the potential to drive development. Rider numbers have yet to materialize, of course, but there’s now no doubt about the success of the development piece.

“We have moved the needle from 65-35 [per cent urban vs. greenfield development] to 35-65 depending how you count it. And we haven’t run a train yet.”

The key now are the trains themselves. The first, built at Bombardier’s plant in Thunder Bay, is on hand. The remaining 13 are being built in Kingston.

The saga of Bombardier and the cars, which are about six months behind schedule, has been well documented.

Galloway says Bombardier’s decision to move the production of Waterloo’s 14 trains, which are the front end of an order for 182 trains placed by Metrolinx, the provincial transportation agency, to Kingston from Thunder Bay has improved the production outlook. Thunder Bay will continue to build similar vehicles for Toronto’s transit system.

Galloway was at the Kingston plant three weeks ago and says train No. 2 is “basically finished,” and Nos. 3, 4 and 5 are at various stages of completion behind it. Once No. 2 is delivered, the others are expected to follow approximately every two weeks, with all on hand by mid-December. The cars then need to be “burned in” for several hundred hours each, and the entire line has to operate, with all the trains, for two weeks before passengers can board, to make sure the line and the trains perform as expected.

“The pudding is not there yet,” says Galloway. “We have to have a successful system. We have to have a certain ridership for the revenue.”

But the “sleepless nights,” the ones where Galloway wondered if the Region had made the right decision, are largely past. The anticipated urban development is unfolding. The arrest of greenfield development has been largely achieved.

And, relatively speaking, it happened without too much gnashing of teeth. Certainly the outcome and the process stand in contrast to what has unfolded in London, Ont., and Hamilton.

London, after much discussion, ultimately decided to forgo LRT, opting instead for a rapid bus route.

Hamilton’s LRT debate, in particular, has been long, bitter, and isn’t over. A key recent vote likely staved off the project’s collapse. The debate, waged since 2007, has largely pitted councillors on what’s known as “The Mountain” against those in the city core below, and has played out amid the transformation of the city from its older, blue-collar, steel-plant-based roots to one of youth and urban renewal.

Waterloo Region, Galloway said, didn’t have Hamilton’s  geographical hurdle shaping the debate. It also benefited from a two-tier government structure versus one in Hamilton; Waterloo Region councilors are elected “at large,” so they have the entire region’s interest at heart, rather than a particular ward’s narrow, vested concerns.

Galloway pointed out that there are shared benefits to a project like the LRT even in the areas to which it won’t travel. Property assessments increase, the tax base grows, development fees get shared, fewer roads need to be expanded or built, generating savings.

“[Cambridge] went along with [the LRT] partly on the promise they’ll get [a rail line] eventually, but also because the assessment growth will be shared by everybody.”

And, he says, another key difference in Waterloo Region is there’s a long history of co-operation.

“We’ve had a council that, for the most part, has worked very well together,” said Galloway. “Sure there are issues, and some parochialism from time to time as you’d expect, but generally people see the region at a high level and understand the implications of those large infrastructure projects.”

That co-operation, he said, generates a virtuous legacy. He pointed to the 1960s, when the imperative was, ironically, to drive population growth outward, during the era when the automobile ruled. The region quickly got behind the province’s offer to build an expressway. London, he said, didn’t.

And the Region, Galloway said, has a long track record of embracing change, of recognizing a problem, of quickly generating a solution and then implementing it without fuss.

A legacy, perhaps, of the area’s pragmatic Mennonite roots?

“A lot of people take that one step back to the [Region’s] Mennonite culture, too,” said Galloway. “It’s roll up your sleeves and get the job done. Barn raising? Everybody shows up and two days later you have a barn. It is that mentality.

“It’s like those industrialists coming together [in the late 1950s] and saying, ‘We need a university that puts out engineers.’ And University of Waterloo was born. [They] didn’t wait for the provincial government.

“So, yes, I think you can chalk it up to a lot of those things. Even [the creation of] a Communitech [is an example]. What do we need? Let’s make it happen.”

About The Author

Craig Daniels
Senior Journalist

Craig Daniels is a veteran reporter, columnist and editor who has joined Communitech’s editorial team as senior journalist. He worked most recently at Postmedia in Hamilton, where he led the team that produced the National Post, and before that at the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Sun, Financial Post, the Montreal Daily News and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, N.B. He has an abiding interest in the transformational power and promise of tech and startup ecosystems, is a commercially licensed pilot, and has a debilitating wrist-watch fetish.