The Province offers to pay the capital cost for a transportation investment that will concentrate new development within the already built-up area and increase the city's property tax revenue per unit of area.
By Ryan McGreal
Published February 10, 2015
this article has been updated
There is an urban express transit corridor running through the middle of a large, diverse municipality of over half a million residents, comprising multiple downtowns and a variety of local interests.
The region is characterized by under-performing urbanized areas, extensive suburbs and a large rural area, comprising some of the best farmland in Ontario.
Ridership on the urban transit corridor has been growing steadily for years and now sits at around 20,000 rides per day - almost half the total ridership for the entire system.
Some years ago, the local government started planning and design work on a light rail transit (LRT) system for the corridor. The LRT system as planned will cost over $800 million to build, a large and frightening number.
However, the goals of this investment are to shape new development around the line, increase the density of the already-urbanized area and the productivity of already-existing infrastructure, reduce pressure to keep expanding suburban sprawl into the rural area, and reduce the need to spend money on new expensive suburban infrastructure - roads, water and sewer systems to service a far-flung, low-density population.
The planners determined that, despite the high price tag, it would ultimately cost the government less to invest in LRT than it would cost to continue with the status quo of suburban sprawl across the farmland.
I could be talking about the amalgamated City of Hamilton, of course, but in this case I'm talking about Waterloo Region. Here is how the two cities compare by the numbers:
|* The Province increased Waterloo Region's 2031 population projection based in part on completion of the LRT system.
|Population - 2011
|Population - 2031
|Area (sq km)
|Urban Area (sq km)
|Total Annual Ridership
|Daily Ridership - LRT Corridor
|Total Service Hours
|LRT Capital Cost
Hamilton's LRT plan has been drifting along since early 2013, when Council approved it and then dismantled the city's Rapid Transit Office.
Waterloo's LRT system was approved in 2011 and is scheduled to open for operation in 2017.
Are you squirming yet?
In Hamilton, our capricious local government has recently been backpedaling away from investment in higher-order transit along our B-Line corridor, just two years after Council unanimously approved an LRT plan.
One of the excuses, onto which some councillors have latched the way a drowning man latches onto a nearby piece of flotsam, is that our current ridership numbers are not already at a level that makes rapid transit necessary just to meet existing demand.
But Waterloo's ridership numbers are the same as Hamilton's. In fact, Waterloo has been growing its transit ridership rapidly over the past decade or so as it prepares to launch its LRT system. Since 2000, when regional transit was amalgamated under the Grand River Transit (GRT) umbrella, annual ridership has doubled from 10 million to 20 million.
Waterloo's local government is taking the lead in designing, planning and investing for the ridership they want, instead of reacting to the ridership they have.
In fact, if Waterloo had sat back and just planned for the ridership they had instead of being proacive, the system would likely still be stagnating in the vicinity of 10 million rides a year.
Amazingly for anyone in Hamilton who is paying attention, all of this is despite the fact that Waterloo's LRT capital funding strategy, negotiated outside the envelope of the Metrolinx funding model for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, requires the local government to contribute $253 million, or 31 percent of the total cost.
For LRT in Hamilton, the Province has already agreed to pay 100 percent of the capital cost.
Waterloo is not alone in choosing to invest in LRT before the existing bus system crushes its lower-order transit capacity. According to Hamilton's Rapid Ready LRT plan, which our Council approved unanimously in February 2013:
A comparison of the proposed B-Line LRT with other systems in Canada and the United States showed that system performance as it relates to ridership would be mid-range as compared to the other successful LRT systems on opening day and be one of the top-performing systems in 2031. [emphasis added]
Are all these other cities crazy to build LRT before their bus systems are maxed out?
Maybe not. Waterloo is investing in LRT primarily to direct new developments into the existing build-up area and make more cost-effective use of the infrastructure that already exists. As their Rapid Transit project explains:
Without ION, the Region would need to build 500 new land kilometres of roads over the next 20 years to accommodate expected growth. These new roads - the equivalent of 25 [seven-lane arterials] - would cost approximately $1.4 billion and would need to be built through existing neighbourhoods.
The reason large Canadian cities like Hamilton are in an infrastructure deficit crisis is that they have spent the past several decades growing via the kind of low-density suburban buildout that costs more to build and maintain than it will ever generate in development charges and property tax revenues.
Waterloo Region planning staff have calculated that each one-percent mode shift away from driving trips to walking, cycling or transit will save the region $30 million in infrastructure costs. As far as I can tell, no one at the City of Hamilton has made such a calculation here.
Likewise, no one at the City of Hamilton has calculated the cost of not investing in LRT. For a city whose local leaders are driven by fear more than vision, we don't know how much it will cost us to abandon LRT and keep doing what we've been doing.
What we do know is that the city's unfunded infrastructure lifecycle deficit increases by $195 million a year and currently stands at a staggering $3 billion, out of a total infrastructure value of around $15 billion. Every year, our roads lifecycle deficit alone increases by $110 million or more than half the total deficit.
Each lane-kilometre of roadway costs $10,000 a year just to maintain, so a four-lane road costs $40,000 per kilometre per year.
The Province offers to pay 100 percent of the capital cost for a transportation investment that will concentrate new development within the already built-up area, increasing the city's property tax revenue per unit of area without having to build expensive new roads we can't afford.
What Councillor in their right mind would even consider turning this down? Could they actually not understand what is at stake?
Why, then, did they vote unanimously to approve Rapid Ready just two years ago? Have they forgotten why they voted for it? Nothing has changed since then - except that the Province has signaled more clearly that they will pay the full capital cost if Hamilton can get its act together.
Can we? Can we get our act together? Council? Is anyone listening?
Update: here is yet another transportation comparison between Hamilton and Waterloo Region, courtesy of this Statistics Canada table:
|Census metropolitan area
|Car, truck or van (total)
|Car, truck or van (driver)
|Car, truck or van (passenger)
|Kitchener - Cambridge - Waterloo
h/t to the RTH reader who sent this in.
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