Major Transit Increases Begin

This year will be the first year of a new program of major transit improvements in Waterloo Region.

Last night Regional Council passed its 2011 budget, with a 0.75% increase for Police Services and a 0.72% increase for everything else. Thanks to some uploading to the province, the service improvements this year still leave the overall increase (1.43%) well below the 2.2% or so current level of inflation.

The most notable aspect of this year’s budget is its inclusion of an increase to fund the first year of the 20-year Regional Transportation Master Plan (RTMP), which calls for a major shift in focus to transit. The plan calls for an increase of 1.15-1.2% to fund transit over the first five years, and then ramping up to 1.3-1.5% in the subsequent fifteen years. This year staff had asked for 1.25% in order to avoid that ramp-up later, which would have seeded the newly-created RTMP Reserve Fund with $4.05 million.

At Budget Committee yesterday, Councillors took that down to 1.2%. They also further removed a budget item for increases to MobilityPLUS (paratransit service) and directed it to be funded from the RTMP allocation. That effectively takes the RTMP Reserve Fund allocation down to 1.15% this year, or $3.73 million.

Unfortunately, Mayor Doug Craig and Councillor Geoff Lorentz spoke out against this level of transit increase. Mayor Craig proposed reducing it by 60% or postponing it altogether, claiming that he’s not heard anyone in Cambridge asking for better transit. Astonishingly, Councillor Jane Mitchell (from Waterloo) was able to talk about the very real transit needs in Cambridge while its mayor pontificated on austerity and seemed unaware of or uninterested in such needs. Councillor Lorentz appeared unaware of the massive GRT overcrowding issue and complained about empty buses and how bad transit service is, apparently viewing this as a justification for not investing in transit at all. On the other hand, the rest of Council seems on board with the need to change our transportation system, and to follow the RTMP recommendations of investing in transit now to build up, essentially, a transit culture — one able to get people out of their cars and prevent some of the need for road expansion.

The $3.73 million should still be enough to fund most of the proposed service improvements this year. Among them are: a new Fischer-Hallman express route, iXpress headways down to 10 minutes (from 15) and increased evening service, a new Fountain Street branch of Route 52 for a reduction in overall headways to 15 minutes (from 30). The RTMP Reserve Fund may also be a mechanism for funding portions of the Rapid Transit project.

Public consultation centres on GRT improvements for this year are scheduled for March 29th through the 31st, one day each in Waterloo, Kitchener, and Cambridge.

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