Combating NIMBYism in the K-W LRT Debate

Portland LRT

Back in June, the Region of Waterloo voted in favour of an ambitious proposal to establish an LRT line running up the centre of Kitchener-Waterloo between Fairview Mall and Conestoga Mall. The line would be augmented by express buses running south from Fairview Mall into Cambridge. The total cost of this proposal is currently budgeted at over $790 million. The province has committed to covering a third of the cost, and the federal government practically tripped over itself in order to offer support for the line. In total, two-thirds of the cost would be covered by federal and provincial taxes, leaving the region on the hook for the remaining third.

The proposal appears to have widespread support. Despite the presence of a few residents expressing concerns, ordinary people turned out to encourage regional councillors to vote in favour of the proposal. And although the proposal has been approved, the conversation isn’t finished. We have work ahead in determining where exactly the line should run, where the stations should be located, how often the service should operate, and how fares should be collected. It will be important to pay attention to this process and lend our voice to ensure that this proposal, as adopted, serves the community to the best of its ability.

Unfortunately, a group of individuals who appear to be opposed to the concept of an LRT, are organizing to have yet another fight on whether we should build an LRT in the region. The thirty-member strong Taxpayers for Sensible Transit (T4ST) have set up a web site, and are speaking out in the local media. The community newspaper, the Kitchener Citizen ran an article on this debate, interviewing only Peter Gay, a representative of the group, rather than a wider selection of individuals.

As I said, it is important for the public to remain engaged in the process so that the details of the implementation of the LRT serve the community well. In this, T4ST has an opportunity to contribute to the good growth of the region. It is unfortunate that, in trying to drum up support, T4ST has resorted to series of talking points and contextless links which seem designed to create a climate of fear. By their approach, they appear to want to polarize the community, and rather than talk about how the LRT can best serve the region and how the design can be improved, they simply seek to oppose change, regardless of its merits.

The group is planning “an educational evening” this November where Andy Haydon, the former regional chair of Ottawa, will talk about his fight against an LRT plan in that city — a fight which culminated in the line’s cancellation. Oh, and a $36.7 million out-of-court settlement against Ottawa for breaking contracts with Siemens. Oh, and, best of all, a completely new LRT plan that operates over much the same route the old plan ran over in the first place. If T4ST want to talk about the mechanics of fighting a transportation proposal from the city, perhaps Mr. Haydon is a good expert to call. But in terms of working to ensure a smooth planning process, rather than jerking your knee and breaking your own nose by making costly decisions that you eventually have to go back on, there doesn’t seem to be as much forethought there.

The most disingenuous claim offered by T4ST is that the LRT operating down the middle of King Street will “essentially turn King Street into a one-way street”. So says Peter Gay, co-chair of the opposition group. This seems a silly argument, and he compounds it with such handwringing lines as “What will happen to the Oktoberfest Parade if King Street is made into a one way street?” Oh, yes, why won’t anybody think of the children.

Here’s the reality: the LRT plan calls for transit vehicles to operate north on King Street from Breithaupt to at least William along the centre of the street. To ensure that these vehicles can operate without being affected by traffic congestion, cars might be kept off these two lanes. One way to do this would be to build a centre reservation — essentially a raised curb — occupying the two centre lanes of King Street.

Essentially, the LRT might change this portion of King Street into a boulevard, no different from what exists on Queens Boulevard between Highland Road and St. Mary’s Hospital, and nobody sensible complains that Queens Boulevard here is a one-way street. People on one side of the street, hoping to turn turn left, simply turn right, until they get to the next intersection, at which point they do a U-turn. This is what happens already on centre reservation streetcar lines in Toronto, such as on Queen’s Quay and Spadina Avenue. It’s not a major inconvenience. So why is Peter Gay resorting to such a misleading term? The group also raises the old canard about the loss of parallel parking on this street, but King Street along this section has very little parallel parking. Most stores, like the Central Meat Market, have their own parking lot, which often stands mostly empty.

Moving on, Is Peter Gay worried about emergency vehicles being kept out of the centre reservation? Well, of course he is, as that’s the sort of attention-getting stuff NIMBY groups thrive on, but the centre reservation can actually improve emergency response times, since vehicles like fire trucks and ambulances can duck into it and dodge around stopped transit vehicles, without being blocked by competing automobile traffic. This is already in place on Spadina Avenue in Toronto. If you can hop a curb in a car, firetrucks can hop the curb leading onto the centre reservation.

And as for the Oktoberfest Parade, I too would hate to see it taken off of King Street, but there is no reason why it and the LRT have to conflict. Toronto’s Santa Claus Parade has operated for over a century and its big floats have had no trouble navigating the overhead wires of Toronto’s streetcar networks. I see no problem temporarily suspending service on the LRT while this civic institution takes place.

Gay goes on to get several facts wrong. He says, “the plan doesn’t even include stops at the major places people will want to go. It won’t stop at the airport, the high schools, the Centre in the Square, and it won’t go to either the Waterloo or Kitchener farmers’ markets or the Aud.” Well, the LRT plan does go past the high schools — two, in fact (Kitchener Collegiate and Cameron Heights). It most certainly passes the Kitchener Farmer’s Market and will include a stop there.

What the LRT does serve includes Fairview Mall, the Schneider Plant and nearby industries, Cameron Heights Collegiate, the Kitchener Farmer’s Market, downtown Kitchener, the UW School of Pharmacy, Kitchener Collegiate Institute, Grand River Hospital, Sunlife, Uptown Waterloo, Wilfred Laurier University (albeit, at some distance), the University of Waterloo, the RIM Tech Park, the residents of lower Lakeshore and Conestoga Mall. In short, some of the biggest employers and major trip generators across the Region.

It’s true that the LRT doesn’t stop at the airport, but no other transit service does: the airport is in the middle of nowhere. (And, unfortunately, it seems unlikely that any transit vehicle will have any reason to stop at the airport in the near future, given that the number of regular flights out each day can be counted on my hands.) It’s also true that the LRT doesn’t stop in front of the Centre in the Square, but other buses do, and the LRT is not designed to replace them.

Look, Mr. Gay: an LRT works best as a (pretty) short (pretty) straight line. LRT advocates would like to include the St. Jacob’s Farmer’s Market, Centre in the Square, the Aud, and Highland Hills Mall in the mix, but to do that, we’d have to add separate lines, and I’m sure you would agree that it’s best that we start small.

Finally, Peter Gay is quoted as saying “There is no other city of our size that supports an LRT,” but here he is wrong. While we would be the smallest city in Canada to operate an LRT when it opens, the city of Portland, Oregon today boasts a population of 575,930. Moreover, Portland opened its LRT back in 1986, it had a population of under 437,000 (Note: it is the centre of a wider metropolitan area of around two million, but the LRT largely serves just Portland). The City of Calgary opened its LRT in 1981, when it had a population of 591,857. It currently has a population of roughly 988,000. The City of Edmonton started construction on its LRT in 1974, when it had a population of 445,000. Today, 730,000 live in Edmonton.

Today, over 478,000 call the Region of Waterloo home, which if you’re looking for magic numbers, appears to be right in line. (Total population is not a great way to gauge transit need: the truly telling thing is that the iXpress bus the LRT will parallel is routinely jammed full.) More importantly, for the past ten years, the Region of Waterloo has been exceeding its growth projections. In 2031, the Region expects to house almost three quarters of a million people.

When that time comes, the people in the region will think one of two things: either they will thank us for having the foresight to build an LRT to serve the region’s needs, or they will curse us for being short-sighted, small-minded and fearful of change. Fortunately, I believe most residents in the region fall in the former category, not the latter, and I am confident that we will build an LRT, and that it will serve us well in the years to come. I hope that the members of T4ST will come forward with constructive suggestions on how to improve the system, rather than simply standing firm and saying ‘no!’

(Update: Friday, 9:07 p.m.): Helen Hall publisher and editor of the West Edition of the Kitchener Citizen newspaper contacted me to let me know that the article I quoted was not the only piece they have done on the K-W LRT project. Indeed, they have been covering this issue since it went before council earlier this year, and have run a position paper by the Grand River Environmental Network endorsing the LRT. She was concerned that the wording of my article above implied that the Citizen was reporting only one side of the story with the article above.

My comments were related only to the article above, and did not take into consideration the other work the Kitchener Citizen has done covering the LRT issue. I apologize for giving that impression and would like to retract the insinuation.

Further Reading

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