If you have been following the LRT debate in Hamilton you might find Joell Ann Vanderwagen’s opinion piece in today’s Star of interest. She argues that we are being seduced by expensive mega projects when simpler transit solutions are available.
Avoid blowing transit funds on ill-conceived megaprojects
Before we raise new taxes for new transit services, we need to ask and answer some basic questions, beginning with: “What is our purpose?” Do we want to move people or build expensive projects? Do we want to relieve congestion or provide lucrative contracts for big consortiums?
This is not an idle inquiry, given that there have been no successful rapid transit infrastructure projects across Canada in many decades — “success” defined as providing appropriate service for the most people in the most cost-effective way. The only exceptions are the first two subway lines in both Montreal and Toronto and the Calgary C-Train.
A successful transit system takes the form of a complete network, each link in the web using technology that is appropriate for its geographical setting and current level of ridership. When ridership significantly increases on a given link, then a higher capacity technology can be installed, its higher operating expenses covered by the increased revenue from fares. The best example of this was the upgrade from streetcars to subway on the original Yonge Street line, which had 30,000 passengers per hour the first day it opened. In this situation, the subway technology was more than cost-effective.
The worst current example of wasted resources and opportunity is the Air-Rail-Link (ARL)Air-Rail-Link (ARL) from Union Station to Pearson airport, planned to open in time for the Pan-Am Games. This is designed as an “executive service” using diesel trains going almost directly from downtown to the airport, with fares costing $20 to $30.
This would have been (and still is) an opportunity to use electric trains that can stop and accelerate quickly, allowing them to service more stations along the way, thereby providing regional transit service across the west end of the city and beyond. Everyone in that region, including travellers and airport workers, could enjoy good access to the airport — and in the opposite direction good access to downtown. The higher revenue from a higher volume of riders would allow affordable fare levels, which in turn would attract more riders. Common sense, so why don’t we choose that alternative?
One only need look at the history of transit in Canada to find the answer: expensive transit infrastructure projects attract special interests like flies. Construction companies, land developers, manufacturers and consulting firms are all hungry for a piece of the pie, and politicians love showcases. All of these special interests distort the decision-making process. Can we call this corruption? Not in the strictly legal sense of money having been passed under the table. But the outcome is much the same: the wrong thing gets built in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reason.
Before we can justify new transit taxes, we need to prove that the money will be used in the most effective way to create a GTA-wide rapid transit network now — not 30 years down the road. To do that, we will need to utilize all possible low-cost surface opportunities, beginning with all-day, two-way service on the GO Transit rail network, including electrification of the lines.
We will need to use highway high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes for high-frequency express bus service integrated into local transit and pedestrian networks. It will need to be widely understood that taking lanes away from cars on certain key arterial roads to create rapid bus service (and eventually light rail) will actually create more road space, because each bus removes 50 cars and light rail many times that. In order for people to be willing to make the kind of massive shift to transit that will reduce congestion, they will need to see the whole network in place and have confidence that they can get where they need to go.
We will need to invest in the vehicles and drivers that make frequent and comprehensive service possible — rather than just expensive construction. We will need to make the Ontario’s Transit Supportive Guidelines mandatory to ensure the creation of good pedestrian environments everywhere and to ensure that all new land development is transit-oriented. The cost of the subway tunnel currently being constructed from York University to Highway 7 and Jane Street could probably have paid for all of these surface improvements.
Transit in Canada: A handbook for environmentalists