Three Years of Thinking Small at GRT

Tomorrow from 4:30pm to 7:30pm Grand River Transit is holding public consultation centres in Kitchener (150 Frederick St) and Cambridge (Cambridge Centre) on its 2011-2014 business plan. See the GRT site for details and for an outline of the current proposal and an online feedback survey. (Some more information, including maps, is in the report on page 19 of this month’s Planning & Works Committee agenda.) If you can, please attend a session in person — but in any case, please send your comments in.

To me, the outline strongly suggests that GRT (and by extension, Waterloo Region) is already giving up on the Regional Transportation Master Plan (RTMP). It’s giving up on making major changes to the bus network, and limiting itself to tweaks here and there, hoping for LRT to come along and make everything better. GRT leaves changes of substance to beyond a three-year horizon. The RTMP aims to increase the transit mode share from 4% of peak hour trips to 15% by 2031. If that happens, it will be no thanks to GRT’s current plans.

Before the criticism, I should acknowledge that they are planning for another iXpress line — in 2013, along Erb-University-Bridge in Waterloo. Otherwise they are planning an extension of the 201 iXpress, a realignment of Route 12 of dubious value, slight increases to service hours, and even slighter increases to frequency. Technology-wise, GRT promises “advanced information” on iXpress routes, real-time information, transit priority for the aBRT portion of the rapid transit corridor in Cambridge, and a smart card system. There are also some plans for expanding service to the townships. But the business plan outline suggests little of the initiative seen in this year’s realignment and improved west side Waterloo service.

The plan calls for choosing one of three different options (5, 7, or 9%) for raising fares annually — but all aim to massively increase farebox recovery rates for GRT, to 50%. Where is this number coming from? This is an issue of paramount importance to transportation in the Region, and here it is being slipped in as a target so obviously worth reaching that it doesn’t deserve public discussion. Last time I checked, there were no usage fees for any roads in Waterloo Region, and parking was some of the cheapest in the country. Road operation is and will continue to be paid through general property taxes, but it goes without saying that transit users should be paying for 33% more of the costs? This certainly casts doubt on whether the Region really wants to increase the number of people who choose transit instead of driving. Not to mention the impact on low-income households.

Here’s what I didn’t find in the current proposed business plan to 2014:

  • A redesign of Route 7
  • Express routes in Cambridge
  • Redesign of routes in Cambridge, particularly connecting Hespeler to the rest of the city and network
  • Realigning existing routes to straighten them out along major corridors, instead of milk runs and a focus on terminals
  • Moving to headway-based frequent service on some major routes, and abandoning time-based transfers such routes
  • Changes to service standards, including acceptable loading standards and the definition for the minimum level of service provided Region-wide
  • Potential changes to buses ordered and the criteria which go into the choice of bus and layout
  • A new (longer) standard for stop distances
  • Serious signal priority for regular buses, or at least all iXpress buses
  • Bus lanes, and other transit priority measures
  • Getting rid of mid-route layovers
  • A concrete plan to make real-time bus locations publicly available as part of Waterloo Region’s new open data initiative

To be fair, based on the current Regional Transportation Master Plan and Rapid Transit funding plans, GRT only has 25% more budget to work with by 2018. (Not that this is set in stone.) But many of the above points don’t require more operating hours. Rather, they require some vision for transit in Waterloo Region, and a will to get it done. It seems that the will to substantially improve transit is not coming from GRT, so it’s up to all of us to push for a GRT that will be worth taking.

5 thoughts on “Three Years of Thinking Small at GRT”

  1. I wish GRT would start a quality improvement initiative. I’d like to see them tracking the percentage of buses that do not arrive within a tolerance of schedule and submitting plans to reduce that percentage.

    That’s a shame about the plan to increase farebox recovery rates.

  2. Road operation is and will continue to be paid through general property taxes…

    Is this true? I’ve heard claims (particularly about the US) that roads are paid for from taxes on gasoline, which implies that people who drive cars really do pay for road usage.

    If true, this discrepancy is an incredibly persuasive testament to the efficiency of transit vs. personal vehicles. A TriTAG blog post dedicated to the topic might turn some heads… Just sayin’.

  3. Generally, here: roads are built using a combination of development charges, general property taxes, and assorted stimulus funding. Maintenance and operations — including rebuilding at the end of the road’s life — comes mainly from property taxes.

    Gas taxes here are both provincial and federal. Part of Ontario’s gas tax currently goes into funding transit. Part of the Federal gas tax is given to municipalities for various infrastructure uses. Waterloo Region currently devotes all of its $14 million share to road reconstruction. As far as I know, Gas taxes in Canada were not designed as highway user fees, so it is not directly comparable to the US. However I don’t believe the gas taxes generated here are anywhere near the level of road expenditures.

    The costs of roads are not limited to the direct ones, though. There are public health impacts of crashes, of air pollution, of not having a reason to walk. There are the costs to have more emergency services as these are based not on population but on service area and distance. There’s the cost of school buses.

    Transit isn’t cheap, either, so it’s not an easy comparison. But that’s in large part a consequence of the land use patterns and the social-service aims inherent in current transit planning.

    Thanks for the topic suggestion — I agree it’s an important one, and one that would be good to discuss with some facts on hand.

  4. I’ll be frank– I’m surprised how much you’re unhappy about this plan. TriTAG is an advocacy group for transit, among other things, so I would expect you to push GRT and the Region to deliver more. But from a pragmatic standpoint, there’s a lot to this plan. Given the cut-back funding for implementing the RTMP to try and make the LRT tax impact more palatable, I have a hard time imagining how GRT would fit more in. Route changes and policy changes that may not affect operational hours still require months of time, coordination and consultation to work out.

    I do question the wisdom of increasing fares to recoup a higher proportion of operating costs (rather than for funding more service expansion, or as a response to higher operating costs.) This does fly in the face of growing ridership. I have a suspicion that someone wants GRT to show a higher-than-average cost recovery to defend against future attacks on “the cost of our transit system”. Not that I believe this is a valid reason.

    Still, that said– keep the pressure on, but don’t be unreasonable about it. Organizations can’t turn on a dime.

  5. Chris – that’s a fair comment. I believe three years is plenty of time to design and implement changes such as a redesign of route 7, elimination of mid-route layovers, removal of Hespeler Terminal and route redesign, etc. Frankly, many of the changes we suggest are efficiencies, which should translate into more resources for new routes or expanded service hours.

    The amount of budget they have to work with could be flexible – but it would take advocacy within GRT / the Region for a better bus system, perhaps at the expense of other priorities. I’m not really seeing it at the moment.

Comments are closed.