View from the ‘Loo: On GO and LRT, the time to act is now Anthony Reinhart March 20, 2014 Communitech, View from the ‘Loo It’s been a great week if you’re a fan of the future. This is due to two big steps forward – one taken on Tuesday, the other last night – involving public transportation in our community. On Tuesday in Waterloo, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the Ontario government’s commitment to two-way, full-day GO train service between Waterloo Region and Toronto by the end of 2016. And last night, just before 9 p.m., Waterloo Region councillors voted 11-4 to award the main contract to bring light rail transit to Kitchener and Waterloo, with improved bus links to Cambridge, by 2017. These two rail projects hold huge potential to draw us closer together, not only by making travel more efficient, but by spurring increased density along these routes. Connectivity and density are essential to the growth and health of innovation clusters like ours. Better GO train service will be key to developing a Waterloo Region-to-Toronto innovation “supercluster,” as Premier Wynne called it during her announcement, and could help create more than 30,000 high-quality jobs. This corridor of creative collaboration, similar in scale to California’s Silicon Valley (though without the great weather), cannot pin its hopes on an increasingly car-clogged Highway 401. The LRT, meanwhile, is already contributing to a similar process within Waterloo Region’s central commercial corridor, where an increasing number of companies and their employees are choosing to locate. These two rail systems will intersect at a new multi-modal transportation hub at King and Victoria streets, allowing inbound travellers from the GTA to easily connect via LRT to destinations from north Waterloo to south Kitchener, and outbound travellers to reach Toronto 20 to 30 minutes faster on some runs than current GO service allows. All of this is good news for the technology sector, in which companies tend to co-locate around knowledge and talent, and where easy interaction between people feeds creative collaboration. Good transit is key to the growth and health of clusters, especially those in denser, core areas, as road space and parking become increasingly scarce. “Inevitably road congestion will become a limiting factor if those clusters continue to increase employment,” says a December 2013 report from the American Public Transportation Association, which studied the role of transit in high-growth business clusters in the United States. “That can present a problem, for firms reliant on highly concentrated business clusters cannot simply move to less crowded or congested locations without losing many of the productivity and competitiveness advantages of the cluster business environment.” In other words, the LRT, just like the GO train, is about growth and jobs. Viewed in that light, it should surprise no one that close to 90 per cent of Waterloo Region tech companies surveyed in 2011 felt LRT was “very or somewhat important to their company and co-workers.” Many have since reiterated that support, as startup activity has accelerated considerably along the central transit corridor. In spite of this, LRT has had anything but a smooth ride since discussions around building it began in 2002. As the largest infrastructure project in the history of a region where a vast majority of residents still commute by car, perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising, either. The controversy continued right up to this week’s awarding of the design, build, finance, operate and maintain (DBFOM) contract for LRT, as a Waterloo business owner went to court in an unsuccessful bid stop it – and even then, vowed to fight on. While it’s entirely appropriate for people – especially those who don’t and likely won’t ever use public transit – to raise questions about a major project that will require tax increases, the LRT has been the most studied and publicly discussed project in the region’s 41-year history. While that hasn’t been enough to satisfy everyone, it was enough to bring about last night’s result: a public-private partnership between the region and GrandLinq, at a cost within the region’s estimates, which protects taxpayers from cost overruns during construction and includes a contingency for unforeseen issues. Questions around other aspects of the project have long since been addressed, for those who have taken the time to follow the LRT’s progress in news reports, attend public meetings, call or write to their councillor or regional staff, or wade through the copious amounts of information posted on the region’s website throughout the process. Are there risks? Of course there are; no project of this magnitude comes without them. But as any good entrepreneur knows, the greater risk is to become trapped in an endless cycle of analysis as opportunities to act roll on by. When it comes to building the infrastructure to take us into the future, those opportunities are right in front of us, and the time to act is now. 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.