March 26 2014

Can Waterloo’s LRT System’s $818 Million Price Tag be Justified in the Long Run?

Recently, Region of Waterloo councilors awarded a multi-million contract to construction consortium Grandlinq to build the region’s light rail transit (LRT) system, the Ion. And it was a tightly contested decision, with high profile opponents including the City of Waterloo’s mayor, and a threat of legal action.

A local businessman, Jay Aissa, has spearheaded a group to oppose the creation of a LRT system in the region. He is vehemently opposed to the LRT and has started a petition against it. He currently has 3, 000 signatures, and while that represents less than 1% of the region’s population, it is still worrying that many people do not see the value of investing in public transit infrastructure.

Many are opposed to the LRT due to the high costs associated with the planning and construction of the system. However, we must not be too early to judge the LRT based solely on monetary costs. In terms of public transit, we have to think about the system’s long term value. The LRT, slated to be completed in 2017, is not just part of a five or ten-year plan. We have to think thirty to fifty years, perhaps even further ahead. This is about laying the foundation to create a healthier, more sustainable region that can provide its people with various modes of active transportation.

LRT construction sign, Waterloo

When we buy a car, its value depreciates over time. The same applies to expressways. The more users are using it, the lesser its value, as the roads become more congested. Existing lanes would prove to be inadequate, and more lanes will need to be constructed, at a high cost to taxpayers. It is estimated that without the Ion LRT, the region would need to build almost 500 kilometers of new lanes to support its growing population, at a cost of 1.4 billion dollars. Conversely, investments in public transit creates more value over time. An increase in ridership will increase the value of the system as more income will be generated through ticket sales. This revenue can help to pay for maintenance and upkeep of the system.

LRT construction, Waterloo

Another issue is the social costs associated with the LRT. Opponents are also concerned about lower income families being pushed out of the areas around the rail lines, where property prices are expected to increase. It is predicted that residences located near a public transportation with a high-frequency service will experience a 42% increase in the performance of property values. This means that there is a real risk that lower income families will be priced out of their homes located on the transit line. This is a very pressing problem, and as planners, we need to plan for inclusive communities that allow for individuals and families of different income levels. Affordable housing schemes would need to be put in place to protect existing low-income families.

However, for families living further away from the downtown core, they will now have greater access to amenities and opportunities through the LRT. The LRT will allow for greater connectivity within the existing built-up areas of the region for individuals and familes who cannot afford a car. More people can now access job nodes, especially the downtown area. They can live anywhere they want along the transit line, further away from the downtown area where property prices are very high, but still be able to go to work and access services that are located closer to the downtown area.

Do you think the long-term benefits of the LRT justifies its high costs? Should current taxpayers have to bear the brunt for the sake of future generations?

Credits: Images by Becky Loi. Data linked to sources.

Becky Loi

Becky Loi is a recent graduate from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, with a Bachelors of Environmental Studies, Honours Planning. An extension of her childhood obsession for houses, her current passion lies in real-estate development, sustainable building construction, and public policies for affordable housing. Her interest in writing about local issues was ignited during her experience as staff reporter, as well as News Editor and Features Editor, for the university’s newspaper, Imprint. An avid explorer, Becky has travelled to many different places in Asia, Western Europe and the United States to satiate her love for cities and how they function.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 at 9:16 am and is filed under Becky Loi, Community/Economic Development, Environmental Design, Social/Demographics, Technology, Transportation, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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