LRT Investment is the Right Choice

(Photo: William Murphy / Flickr)

As most people have heard, two weeks ago Prime Minister Harper announced Federal funding for Waterloo Region’s Rapid Transit project. The amount is 1/3 of project costs, up to $265 million, for the first phase of light rail (LRT) and express bus line. But the conversation in local media and by many municipal candidates has shifted to the so-called shortfall. That, horror of horrors, the lower-tier municipality would have to contribute a portion (around $235 million, or less than 1/3) of the capital costs of a long-term transit and growth management project. This post addresses several common themes in objections to funding light rail.

From seeing some discussion of the LRT, you would think this is something that would be built for today’s needs. Infrastructure, however, can’t be built overnight, and can’t influence much until it is built. But while the project would be a well-used part of a transit system on opening day, the larger purpose is to manage future growth of the Region. The area continues to grow rapidly, and is to add 200,000 to its existing half-million population. LRT is about building the transportation infrastructure that will attract development to the urban core areas and that will be able to handle the resulting travel demand. Failing to do this would result in major development occurring on greenfield sites and pressure to push out the urban boundary to accommodate more sprawl. The costs of the road widening and other infrastructure needed to support that sprawl are far higher than the costs of the LRT system. Avoiding building any new transportation infrastructure will result in serious traffic congestion and lost economic productivity in the Region.

You may also have been led to believe that the full capital costs of LRT have to be paid immediately. Dividing $235 million by 500,000 people in the Region, you do get the sum of $470 per average person. Which is a fair chunk of change, sure. However it pales in comparison with other large, common sums such as a home ($200K+) or a car ($50K+ lifetime cost). It also pales in comparison to the cost of building highways or widening roads to accommodate a similar volume of people. The light rail would be a project that pays its substantial benefits over decades. Dividing that $470 per person over ten or twenty years should give a much more reasonable perspective on the investment.

Some suggest that since the Region has to pay something, it should go with a cheaper option that was rejected earlier, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). In the context of the Rapid Transit project, this would entail a similarly segregated right-of-way as the LRT, but with diesel buses on pavement instead of electric trains on tracks. Note that most of the costs come in the construction of stations and the right-of-way, which is the most effective means of ensuring that the system really is rapid. Going with buses isn’t cheap – the figure was $585 million. Still, for the Region, the Provincial and Federal contributions would make the local portion $90 million, so this is certainly tempting.

However, there are serious reasons why BRT was rejected in the project assessment. Buses bring more noise and pollution, more labour costs (due to smaller vehicles), and a less comfortable ride for many. Bus infrastructure is also less likely to attract development to station areas, and would attract fewer riders. However, the much bigger reason is a technical one: it won’t be able to handle the capacity in twenty years. Where light rail can just run more trains or longer trains, BRT would need to be rebuilt as a rail system at huge costs. In street-running operation with even the most efficient station design, you can only really run about a bus every 2 minutes. The kind of BRT that could handle the capacity is basically a bus highway, with passing lanes and few or no grade crossings; this is much more expensive to build than LRT and is not feasible or desirable in our downtowns.

Instead of ignoring the issues that we will have to face in the coming decade or two, we should use the light rail project as an appropriate investment in our Region’s infrastructure and economy. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that for every dollar we invest in ourselves, the Provincial and Federal Governments will be kicking in another two.

8 thoughts on “LRT Investment is the Right Choice”

  1. Very good article! I really hope that short term fears about small tax increases do not stop us from getting the LRT system.

    I ride GRT buses every day, and for the last 4 years I’ve seen nothing but a constant increase in usage. In fact I have had many times when I can not get onto the iXpress and other buses because of the demand.

    I will happily pay the $460, or even more if necessary, to make the LRT plans a reality.

  2. “Regarding the proposed new transit system, I cannot for the life of me see why the region needs it. At 2 p.m. recently, while running errands, I passed four or more transit buses with less than three people on them.”

    Wanda Hoffman

    Where did you see these four buses with less than three people on them, Wanda? Were they iXpress or Route 7 buses on King Street, or were they the lesser used routes in your suburban neighbourhood? Many of these letter writers see empty buses cruising by their suburban homes and not the packed iXpress and Route 7 buses along King Street, which is where the LRT will go, and say that nobody will use the LRT. Baloney!

  3. Also in response to Wanda Hoffman: Even if the region does not need this system today (which I believe it does along the iXpress/7 lines), a system like this will encourage people to use public transit over cars. In Toronto people use the subways and LRT not because they don’t have cars, but because it is faster than cars. As a result there are less people on the roads, and less need to expand roads in the next 20 to 30 years as the region grows by 30-50%

    Furthermore 2 p.m. is an off peek time of day (you don’t see many cars on the road either). Try riding the 13 or the 12 during morning and afternoon rush hours. They can be so packed people are left behind, and these are suburban routes!

    I feel many people don’t want to spend money on a transit system because they have a car, and would never use public transit, however what they don’t realize is that the people who will use public transit (for speed, environmental, or cost reasons) are no longer taking up space on the roads, there by reducing the congestion that has started to plague our region for the last 10+ years.

  4. There’s a problem with the arithmetic. Not all 500,00 people are tax payers – some are children. In fact, since taxes are property taxes, the cost should be divided by the number of homes, which would probably result in a figure closer to $1500 or 2000 per house. Of course you also have to figure in other forms of tax revenue, notably business taxes.

  5. Actually, given that Waterloo Region has close to 200,000 households, that figure is closer to $1000, not $2000, but sometimes I think we don’t let the facts get in the way of a good fearmonger.

    But seriously, assuming that the region has to cover a $256 million price share on its own, divided against 200,000 households, we have a still hefty cost of $1280 per household. In one lump sum. But here’s the thing: we’re not paying that in one lump some. If nothing else, the costs of this LRT will be spread over the duration of the construction. If we assume three years, the cost per household drops to $426.67 per year or $35.56 per month. Much more reasonable. Adding in the businesses’ share further reduces that cost per householder.

    As a taxpaying homeowner myself, I have no problems paying $35.56 per month to build an LRT, especially considering that without this transportation initiative, I’ll still be spending that money in other ways, such as the widening of Weber Street that has to happen anyway, but would no longer be covered under the provincial and federal contributions to the LRT project, as well as many other road improvements. Killing the LRT does not automatically save us $35.56 per month. We end up spending that money anyway on improvements that the feds and the provinces will NOT cover 2/3rds of, and which are less beneficial to the region.

    Finally, there are ways we can spread this cost out further. Issuing bonds to pay for this project with a ten or twenty-five year amoratization rate reduces the cost to $10.66 or $4.27 per household per month respectively — with the caveat that interest costs will add to this rate, just as any mortgage does. However, now is a good time to borrow for infrastructure projects such as this. Interest rates are unlikely to get any lower.

    And it’s important to note that this is how most of our municipal infrastructure is paid for, in any event. If we go all busway, we’d have to issue bonds anyway. We are paying twice the amount of our share of the LRT for water treatment plants (half a billion dollars), and nobody’s batting an eye. If we can do that, the cost of the LRT isn’t that onerous at all.

  6. Hi Michael,
    I have to add a question, I have been searching for the maps that show where people live and where people work in KW, ie something which shows the naturally occurring concentration along a central spine as you state elsewhere, but I can’t find anything!
    I tried to start a blog with Architects views here:, (so far its just me, oh well..). Do you have such a map? Have I missed this on the site?
    Lisa Harmey

  7. Lisa – I’ve unfortunately not seen any good visualizations of densities in the region. Satellite imagery is a first approximation to that. The data does exist, and I know Prof. Casello at UW has used it for calculations of the (large) proportions of Regional employment and residential uses within the central transit corridor.

  8. Thanks Michael, This information, as the peer review noted, needs to be part of the public presentation, I can’t understand why it isn’t.

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