LRT Debate is on the Road to Nowhere

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On Friday my Rotary Club (Kitchener-Conestoga Rotary Club) had a speaker in to cover the pro side of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) issue that has everyone buzzing locally. The presenter was excellent, his slide deck full of facts/data, and the argument was sound. When he was done the club members (mostly very successful community leaders in both business and volunteerism) took on mainly the facts and figures. They were right to do so, facts have been warped by all sides of this debate and the arguments have become about unimportant things (yes even the cost is not important, more later).

However, even these community leaders got caught up in the details of community growth projections, cost, hypothetical increases in property value (has anyone noticed the hockey stick growth curve on prices locally?), and the obvious but ignored issue by the province that the hwy 401 corridor is holding us back — we need better rail to Toronto. Why are we arguing about guesses on growth or ridership or value when this is really about what type of community you want my kids to grow up in.

What does Waterloo Region in 2026 look like?

The Light Rail discussion should be about what kind of community do we want to live in. What should the downtown cores look like? How do we connect the amazing architecture of Galt to the growing tech hub of Kitchener and the youthful energy of Waterloo’s two exciting uni campuses? Do we want to? What are our values as a community? A committee isn’t going to come up with that in this generation btw. Our community leaders should be defining it and leading this vision from thought to execution.

Who is leading or defining a vision? Certainly not the Mayor of Waterloo. Her opinion is as fluid as the Grand River — the people that complain seem to influence her the most and she doesn’t seem to have any vision for the future. Mayor of Kitchener? Well maybe. You can certainly see a vision coming together for the downtown there and where Waterloo is loosing Kitchener is winning. How about Cambridge? There is a mayor with an opinion and a backbone. Sadly he is mayor of urban sprawl land but he has some gems to work with.

This is a Region though — where is our leadership? Who is standing up for what they believe in and not getting into silly arguments about details that don’t matter? The Three mayoral musketeers make up a committee on this (ignoring regional council because relatively they don’t matter)… leadership by committee is the path to mediocrity.

Why is this about my kids?

I have three amazing kids with the oldest only starting school next year. What we debate now is the community that will help shape their view on the world. My wife and I bought a house near the schools we wanted them to go to before we knew we were having kids and our thinking is a long term commitment to this area even with cars arriving upside down into my garage. I will likely not get to enjoy the lifestyle I would like to see in Waterloo as we don’t have reliable transit, our downtown cores are just starting to be rebuilt, and condos that I would have loved just 10 years ago are now starting to go up.

My life has changed. I don’t need LRT, I could use a fast train back and forth to Toronto and an airport that flew to Boston, New York, and San Francisco. This isn’t about me. Even at the age of 35 I see I am living in the present Waterloo and I must make do with what we have now. However, I look at the future of Waterloo (my kids or even the students I work with every day) and I want them to live in a modern city with dense modern core with a ton of culture and no need for a car. Sure I want a gentrified city that I too can enjoy, the more things that contribute to that the better, but again I know that if I want one at an age that I can really enjoy it (now) I need to move somewhere else.

Will LRT represent gentrification of medium sized town? Maybe. What I really want is to know where this community is heading and what the core values are that driving this. The really talented people (not saying that is me) don’t need to live anywhere specific. They are attracted to work in cities by both opportunity and environment. Risk takers that like novel things don’t like communities that fail to plan and develop with an eye on the future. If we don’t modernize our environment we stand to be left behind by more hungry cities that are desperate and have yet to shift out of a manufacturing economy (London, Hamilton, St Catherines — with 2/3 having a much better core to redevelopment). I think this debate is only a debate because “we have it good now, why change it” thinking.

The LRT debate is out of control, expensive, and disheartening

I applaud the folks over at snapsnort for the excellent infographraphic. Kudos for doing that. However I still think it misses the point. The numbers don’t matter, the stats to support or shoot down LRT don’t matter, what matters to me is this debate is bordering on asinine:

  • The Region won’t grow that fast, we don’t need it now (Population growth shouldn’t be in the argument for LRT)
  • What about Cambridge? (seriously my Cambridge friends, the distance and the rail cost would make it a $1.5Billion or larger project to start but I am with you on the coolness factor, you need to let it go or move if you want a less sprawlish area to live in)
  • My taxes will go up. (taxes will always go up)
  • You will make a bigger traffic problem on King st. (argument carries as much weight as the ridership reducing traffic… strong economy, lots of cars. Rails or no rails the traffic is going to suck more and more)
  • It will cost more than what you say it will. (yes it will but that money is being spent locally so that is $1billion or so being injected into the local economy through taxes or other ways, that won’t be a bad thing)
  • All those facts are wrong and here is why… (I don’t care, the facts don’t matter.)

Yes I said that. The facts don’t matter. Do we invest in the core of our city or not…? that is the question. Investment in the core requires transit to move a more dense population across a spread out core. No one can argue that. Is it rails disrupting our core or is it the Ottawa style mess of buses? If cost were no object what would you choose?

I keep hoping a leader will emerge that is dynamic and inspiring to put a character to a vision of the city and region I might want to live in. I am tired of the “never let go of power” baby boomers, more tired of their parents grumping up the coffee shop (generalization here, but it only takes a few), just as they are tired of this lazy younger entitled and immature generation that have no respect. Lets do things better than our parents, think outside of the next election cycle, and stop arguing about things that just feed arguments. If not, I may just need to extend the stone wall to my front yard sooner than I wanted to.

 

9 thoughts on “LRT Debate is on the Road to Nowhere

  1. As far as Cambridge goes, I’m not interested in the “coolness” factor, nor am I particularly interested in an RT link to KW.

    The transit/RT priority in Cambridge needs to be intra-city transit – making it easy to get to/from each of the four core areas (Preston, Hespeler, Galt and Hwy 24).

    If we do make any investments in inter-city transit, it should be in an easterly direction, not northerly.

    I’m more than happy to let KW twist itself into knots over LRT – just leave us (and our tax dollars) out of it.

    I’m increasingly of the opinion that we should look again at the original municipal reform recommendation in 1972 that said the most appropriate system was two single-tier cities. One comprising what is now Cambridge & North Dumfries township and the other what is now KW and the three W townships.

    • But that is silly. People live and play in Cambridge and work in Waterloo and vice versa. The challenge is the geography given there is no density in the tax base to pay for the scale on projects that are region wide. Could Cambridge sustain itself on its own? Probably. But you don’t get that privilege given how intertwined the economies are. Need to think bigger, we are stronger as a Region. Plus you ignore the likelihood the workers on this will be from Cambridge, the companies providing parts will be too, etc. The Kitchener core growing into a dense hub will benefit the entire region. Pretending Cambridge won’t benefit is a convenient argument but a short-sited one.

  2. Nail on the head Jesse, total utter lack of vision and dare I say “vision-casting” what we need is the Architects of the coming generation to articulate idealisms, not hold back and not let stoopid crap like money get in the way of our imaginations. We all tire of political posturing it is long overdue that some strong and deeply detailed visions of the future get put to paper. Some body blow $1000 on the KWAwesome fund with an idealised LRT that connects our 5 major historic cores and snubs the malls for once! { Maybe I have to? }

    ENDB..//

  3. Thanks Jesse. I could not agree more. What bothers me the most is that the vast majority of the people against the proposals have _never_ lived in a city with excellent transit. They think that because they are miserable in their cars every morning, we should all have to live out the same fate.

    I live in a city in France right now (Grenoble). Population ~150,000, 60,000 of which are students. They have a light rail system with 3 lines that covers over 30km. It makes you realize how unnecessarily miserable Waterloo can be in the winter.

  4. I’m glad to see you’ve got a clear perspective of all the facts on all side of the table.

    One thing I don’t think is getting enough attention is the tourism factor. People who fly in from other parts of the country/world might not have a vehicle. A strong/efficient rail system, that connects the city to the province/country will be a good attraction – while the tourists are here they can use the back-bone of a rail system to make it to many destinations around town. People will be more likely to visit the city, while they’re here, they’re likely to do more and stay longer – a HUGE boost in revenue. More than one might think. (Look at the sight-seer’s haven, Europe and their euro pass.)

    With that, there is an argument on both sides of the fence as it stands: tourist revenue wont directly increase the population, but the tourists being here will expose more people to the city, in theory, more people will find a place they really want to call home.

    The price we pay for LRT now will be pennies compared to future prices. The need for low-emission, high-capacity, efficient, straightforward transit in this city is huge. The need for a relief on commuting in and out of the city is even greater. The income potential is massive and the need will be there until we implement it. The longer we wait, the higher the price will get….

    Not to mention the “public transit credit” on taxes is a way to help stimulate the local economy with some indirect federal funding.

    Where we’ll be paying the city transit fares, local citizens will be collecting the tax credit from the federal government.

    Just a couple points that I feel deserve way more credit than they’re given.

  5. Catherine Trewin

    I have lived in a city with so-called rapid transit and absolutely would not recommend it. I still spend 2-3 days in Toronto and have lived in KW for over 30 years..trust me you do not want anything like street-cars as a fixture on your main streets bogged-down every time a few wet leaves start blowing around, nor do you want the reduced-valued eyesores the surrounding housing becomes as people wake up and try to move as from the tracks as they can afford.

    • I don’t think Toronto is a fair indicator of the future. You can’t compare a system in desperate need on an upgrade on dated infrastructure to a more modern rail system.

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