Fact-checking municipal campaigns: Jay Aissa

Check out our Mythbusting the Election  series for more fact-checking and mythbusting of candidates like Jay Aissa.

Find our election survey for Waterloo Region, Cambridge, Kitchener, and Waterloo candidates at tritag.ca/election2014

In 2011, when light rail was being debated and ultimately decided upon, there was a great deal of misinformation being spread about light rail and its suitability to Waterloo Region. During that time, TriTAG debunked many of these myths so that an informed public debate could occur.

As the 2014 municipal election period builds momentum, false information about light rail is once again emerging. As democracy depends on an informed electorate, we’ve decided to fact-check egregious statements candidates make regarding light rail and other issues for which we advocate. We begin with Jay Aissa, who in his interview shortly after declaring his intent to run for Regional Chair, made several false claims concerning the light rail project.

Aissa: “One of the first things we’d like to change is to take that, allocate that money from LRT… and invest it in rapid buses.”

It’s not clear what Mr. Aissa means by “rapid buses,” but 2011 cost estimates showed that capital costs for bus rapid transit were $702 million. Considering that the Region has already signed a $593 million contract with the Grand Linq consortium, and has already spent or committed an additional $147 million as of April this year preparing for light rail, Mr. Aissa’s proposal would have less than one-fifth of the capital required to build a bus rapid transit line. What we’d likely end up with if he gets his way are a few more buses and busier roads, with no rapid transit to show for the hundreds of millions spent.

Update: $739 million has now been spent or committed, representing 90% of the $818 million capital budget.

Aissa: “Wasting 30 million dollars every year to maintain the train , that is going to continue to cost more every year to run it.”

It’s true that the operating costs will increase with time, but so does virtually every other expense a government, business, or individual encounters, due to inflation. This is an everyday reality of doing business. However, operating and maintaining ION is only $19 million per year, not $30 million. The remaining $11 million is for financing of capital costs, and structuring the of payment of these costs in this way helps to ensure that the consortium builds and maintains the system to an acceptable level of quality.

Aissa: “And they keep telling us LRT, rapid transit, I’m going to say it’s actually streetcar, it’s not even rapid, it’s travelling at 17 km/h, it’s not rapid transit.”

The 17 km/h claim is false.  The light rail vehicles Waterloo Region has purchased can travel up to 80 km/h, though they will  obey posted limits. In the heaviest pedestrian areas, this shouldn’t be less than 20-25 km/h. Average speeds for travelling the corridor end-to-end (including time for stops) is estimated at 29 km/h – this is almost as fast as Toronto’s subways, and substantially faster than their mixed-traffic streetcars.

While both streetcars and light rail exist on the same spectrum of rail systems, there are key distinctions between them. Conventional streetcars are like conventional buses in that they (mostly) operate in mixed-traffic. Light rail is rapid transit because it operates within its own right of way and is given signal priority at intersections, meaning it is not affected by traffic. Other features that will enhance the speed of ION include all-door level boarding and pre-payment, allowing the trains to be delayed less at stops. Light rail vehicles are also several times larger than streetcars and can easily be extended to carry more passengers with multiple train cars.

Aissa: “Take the track off the middle of the street to make it better traffic and travelling instead of a chaos.”

There will be no chaos. Separating transit vehicles from the road ensures less traffic and delay, not more. Operating transit in mixed-traffic means that buses or trams are delayed by congestion, and private vehicles are held up by stopping transit vehicles. While the ION right of way will take away two lanes from midtown King Street, Weber Street is gaining two lanes along the same length.

Aissa: “… down in Scarborough and Mississauga, everybody having the same issue we’re dealing [with] here, nobody wants an LRT.”

To say “nobody” wants LRT is patently false, but even to say a majority do not want it is incorrect. A poll in February showed 56% of Scarborough residents preferred LRT to subways. One of the leading candidates for Mayor of Toronto is advocating for light rail in Scarborough.  In Mississauga and Brampton, feedback at public consultations reveal support for an LRT line, and a citizen-led group exists to advocate for it.

Aissa: “You can see the one they have on the St. Clair. It is, you can drive down there and see the chaos on there. You don’t have to be, you know to go through it, you just travel to St. Clair and find out what LRT did to the city, to the businesses. Most of the businesses out there, they’re hurting. They don’t have a chance to stay in the business for too long because, I travelled and I talked to lots of businesses along the St. Clair and they’re all having the same problem, it’s the traffic, it’s the chaos of the traffic. And it, why we want to do what other city did and they’re not successful on it?”

While the St. Clair tram is similar to the ION in that it has a dedicated right-of-way, based on stop spacing, vehicle size, and boarding method, it is classified as a streetcar, not light rail. Regardless of these differences, the biggest challenge caused by the St. Clair streetcar was the disruption due to poorly managed construction, which was further drawn out and delayed by a lawsuit trying to put a stop to the project. (That last part sound familiar?) These delays caused businesses to suffer, but now that the line is up and running business is improving, pedestrians are safer, and the mood on the street is “it’s great!” Traffic is also flowing well along most of the corridor.

Aissa: “The Region is not growing as fast as everybody’s saying. Last year we lost 13,000, the year before we lost 13,000, the population, and that’s telling me the number’s not going to come to that 750,000 in 30 years.”

Mr. Aissa’s numbers aren’t grounded in any reality. Using census data as a baseline (updated every 5 years), the Region uses building permits, vacancy, and school enrolment rates to carefully estimate annual  population growth. In 2012, the Region grew by 4,500 people, in 2013 by 6,600, and in 2014 it’s projected to grow by another 6,000. Long term projections of Regional population growth, performed by the province, were recently increased from 729,000 to 742,000 by 2031.

Aissa: “If we have the properties, and the properties is there, if in the future, next 30 years, if we need any kind of transportation, or a subway, we’ve got the land to put those things into place to make it travel differently.”

Rapid transit is needed today, not 30 years from now. Buses on the iXpress 200 and 7 mainline routes are already experiencing overcrowding and bus-bunching. Light rail is also needed to help the Region meet its intensification goals – something that needs to begin now, not at some indefinite date. And waiting until roads are even further congested in a decade or two would mean construction of a light rail system would be extremely disruptive.

Aissa: [On alternatives to light rail:] “The technology’s changing. Our cars [are going to] be electrical cars in another 5-10 years.”

This is not a viable rapid transit alternative. Electric cars contribute to traffic congestion just as much as gas-powered cars. They also cannot help the Region meet its intensification goals.

Aissa: “And having that track in the middle of the road is not going to do any good to anybody.”

Having tracks run up the middle rather than the sides means that the tracks will not block access to driveways and side streets for right-turning vehicles. Additionally, space will be saved by having shared train platforms for both directions.

Aissa: “And with the cables and the freezing rain, and all the stuff that comes with it… the Region did not go and explain all these problems that [we’re going to] have. What happen when we have a blackout of hydro? All these trains [are going to stop]. “

Light rail exists in many North American cities without being hindered by such issues. Both Calgary and Edmonton, which also have plenty of snow and ice to deal with in the winter, are looking to expand their light rail networks. A backup power system will be used in the event of hydro outages.

Aissa: “So to me, I look at all these things and say the Region did not do a good job on consult[ing], on doing their jobs.”

A decade of planning and research was conducted, and hundreds of public consultations have been held on light rail in Waterloo Region. In 2009, an expert review panel for the light rail project wrote that “The Region should be commended for the significant amount of solid technical review and work to date.” And consultation continues – in the first half of 2014, staff attended or presented at 54 different community events.