Photo: Waterloo RegionView from the ‘Loo: It’s time to look forward to LRT Anthony Reinhart February 13, 2014 Communitech, View from the ‘Loo Photo: It’s time to embrace Waterloo Region’s light rail transit project and move on, nearly three years after councillors approved it. What do leaders outside Waterloo Region know that some of our own citizens don’t? I find myself asking this question whenever I read another cynical rant against the region’s light rail transit project. In other words, pretty often. The $818-million project, the largest infrastructure undertaking in local history, continues to draw fire from those who seemed to have missed the memo back in June of 2011. That’s when our duly elected representatives at regional council approved the LRT, after eight years of study, public consultation and debate. They did so with the full support of the federal and provincial governments, which have committed $265 million and $300 million respectively to the project, leaving Waterloo Region residents to make up the remaining $253 million. Preliminary work worth tens of millions of dollars is already well under way, and in a few weeks, councillors will award the $550-million contract for all work and materials to launch the Ion, as it is called. The project has been anything but uncontroversial. Some remain unconvinced the Ion will deliver enough value to justify its cost. Others have studied the plans, weighed the options and, in good faith, believe fast buses would do an equally good but more economical job of moving people. Still others appear misinformed at best, and wilfully ignorant at worst, not only of the project’s details, but also of the fact that jobs and homes are increasingly concentrating in core areas, and being filled by people who are choosing to drive less. They dismiss the fact that our community is changing from what it has long been – namely, a big small town – into what it soon will be – a small big city. And they cling to a disappearing past, instead of grabbing hold of a future they could help to shape. This sense of disconnect came into sharp focus this week as I listened to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne give a radio interview to Craig Norris, host of The Morning Edition on CBC-KW 89.1. The Premier didn’t just confirm (yet again) that Ontario’s $300-million LRT contribution remains on the table – a commitment made almost four years ago, a couple of months before Ottawa pledged its $265-million share of the costs. She went one further by saying two-way, all-day GO train service between Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto is “a very high priority,” and one she heard much about during her most recent visit to Communitech last month. Better intercity rail service is key to strengthening the link between the Waterloo Region and Toronto tech communities, a link that could foster development of a Southern Ontario innovation “supercluster” to rival Silicon Valley in scale and potential. It will also tie in smoothly with the Ion and the rest of the Grand River Transit network, through the new multi-modal transportation hub near Victoria and King Streets. This will provide a ready link between our burgeoning Innovation District and downtown Toronto. “When I talk about investing in infrastructure as one of our pillars of our economic plan, investment in full-day, two-way GO (service) is very high on that list,” Premier Wynne said. While she couldn’t provide specifics on timing, she said her government’s upcoming budget will include a transit investment plan, “and there should be more clarity then.” The federal government’s LRT commitment, meanwhile, remains as firm as when it was announced three and a half years ago. “Rapid transit is crucial to the future of our community, serving our high-tech sector and creating the infrastructure necessary to support our growing population,” Kitchener-Waterloo MP Peter Braid said at that time. All the while, Waterloo Region has been thorough and clear in communicating the rationale behind the project and the details of its progress, within the necessary limits that a fair tendering process demands. And so the question remains: If our elected representatives – at all levels of government and regardless of political affiliation – can readily grasp the value of LRT as the spine of a robust, future-forward transit network, why can’t some of us? It’s the cost, some will say – while ignoring the fact that continued reliance on cars would mean $1.4 billion in road spending in this region over the next two decades. Since 2004, the region spent $247 million expanding roads – an amount just shy of what it will invest in its share of LRT construction. No one will ride the Ion, others say – while ignoring that Grand River Transit ridership reached 22 million in 2013, three years ahead of projections, and up from 9.5 million in 1999 – a growth rate that has far outpaced population growth. Currently, 20,000 rides per day are taken on the bus routes the Ion will replace. Buses are a better option, some say – not acknowledging that light rail is more reliable and comfortable, runs clear of traffic congestion and does a better job of attracting development to central transit corridors, which is a primary aim of the Ion. I’ll never give up my car, others say – not realizing that investing in more transit, not less, is the best way to preserve their hassle-free drive and prevent gridlock. So what do leaders outside this region know that some of our own citizens don’t? I suspect they know that in a changing world, it’s better to have your hands on the controls than pressed over your eyes. The LRT was approved nearly three years ago. Isn’t it time we all looked forward? Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo is a weekly look at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.