Waterloo Region’s LRT: the debate that won’t end

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The Region of Waterloo is undergoing a major public works project that will place Light Rail Transit along the core of two of the major municipalities in the Region: Kitchener and Waterloo. This ambitious project is being sold as an important infrastructure project for the future of a rapidly growing and exciting place to live. I support the idea of it. I see the long term benefits and I think it will help build a better city.

Sadly, even after a decision was made the debate goes on. It will be a highlight of the upcoming municipal election which I fear could get some people elected based on the public’s feeling on a particular issue that will be oversimplified and placed into sound bites. LRT is so much bigger than an election cycle or two.

I think there is complex set of reasons why this argument will not end but these are my three big ones:

  1. Population density and how/why people use their cars is a big risk that is being brushed over. The “field of dreams” argument (build it and they will come) can not be a suitable response! Explain it to people in how they get around now and how it will be better. If you can’t there is a problem! Figure out how to manage the problem.
  2. If you oppose it or question it openly you are shouted down as being against “the future.” When a young community leader spoke up at council they tried to discredit him instead of discussing his main point that people won’t switch to transit from cars. What are they so worried about? Engage these people and their different views. Adapt! It will make it better.
  3. A very dynamic and flexible leadership group is needed to ensure the plan can adapt to future realities. One example, it might make more sense to place the GO train in Cambridge. The LRT doesn’t get there and a transportation hub is planned for Kitchener — what if you can’t likely have a 1 hour train on that line for 20 years but you can next year in Cambridge?

There needs to be less storytelling and more practicality in the discussions. Good leadership tells it like it is and deals with issues head on. This community needs to take on the issues like the crippled transportation infrastructure with Toronto and not sweep potential risks out of view with idealistic statements of what they hope will happen. Also, there needs to be a larger theme of a walkable city that isn’t just about tech startups but involves the future of recreation, manufacturing jobs (because the discussion can’t ignore the largest employment sector in the region), research, and retail. Make this future more inclusive.

Lets talk big. Talk positive. Include the young leaders and diverse economy into the discussion!

Otherwise, I fear, something that could be so positive for the Region, the Province, and the country might not become a reality.

 

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.