Philip Mcleod

The McLeod Report - London, Ontario

A regular commentary on civic affairs in London, Canada by journalist Philip McLeod.

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Hard to stop the light rail train

LATEST REPORT #1,131: It’s merely a placeholder, council was assured this week, that decision to make London’s rapid transit plan a hybrid system of light rail and fast buses. However, experience tells us, right or wrong, that decision will be a difficult one to stop now.

Friday, Nov. 13, 2015 – London Ontario

There’s so much that’s worrisome about the rapid transit decision city council made this week it’s difficult to know where to start. But for starters, let’s just consider what it was council said it decided Monday night.

Meeting as its strategic priorities and policy committee, council by a 15-0 vote affirmed the rapid transit solution for London would a hybrid system – half light rail and half fast buses. However, the unanimous decision belies what at least some councillors actually believe our city of 381,000 citizens needs.

They were swayed by what Mayor Matt Brown said, what people presenting the report said, which was that Monday’s decision wasn’t binding on them or anyone else. It was, we were told, a placeholder so to speak designed to convince other orders of government – i.e. in Toronto and Ottawa – that London is serious about stepping up into a rapid transit world.

 Today’s forecast price tag for a hybrid system is $900 million against a full system of fast buses of $525 million. Whatever the cost, London is committed to contributing only $125 million to its construction and has hopes the provincial and federal governments will pony up the rest. 

And so the plan to push the ‘ask’ as high as credulity will support. Or as Tanya Park, councillor for the downtown Ward 13, which will be one of the main beneficiaries of a faster public transportation system, put it: “You don’t get if you don’t ask.”

Council was assured, however, that should it turn out later there is less money than expected, or that construction costs are too high, or that operating costs are well above current estimates, or that estimates about intangible benefits prove ill-founded, or (perish the thought) public support dwindles, our hands are not tied. We can change our mind.

Or so they said.

The motion passed Monday night says this: “The civic administration be directed to utilize the hybrid network, which uses a combination of bus and light rail vehicles, as the preliminary preferred alternative and the basis for the next round of community engagement and public input for the rapid transit environmental assessment.”

Hmm, which is the operative word there – preliminary or preferred?

In other words, as city officials now ramp up to sell rapid transit to the people who will pay for it – out of one taxable pocket or the other – they will be offered only one solution. Oh yes, we have others but they are way back there in the warehouse and could take months to dig up. You want fries with that?

Anyone want to bet what the decision will be at the end of the environmental assessment process?

It’s a sneaky way for the proponents of light rail to get at least half of what they want – twin lines of steel they insist will raise London’s profile into world-class territory. And from here on in, the way the process is now set up, it will be difficult to stop the train.

Indeed, there are at least four members of council – Mo Salih (Ward 3), Jesse Helmer (Ward 4), Josh Morgan (Ward 7) and Stephen Turner (Ward 10) – who think London should go whole hog for a complete light rail system, price tag for which is about $1.2 billion based on current estimates. At the very least, according to a staff report presented to council this week, such a system would require a $1 million annual subsidy over what taxpayers currently provide London Transit.

Now a couple of things about whole hog.

The first is that among all public transit systems in Ontario cities London provides the lowest taxpayer subsidy. In other words, when it comes to supporting public transit London’s record is the worst. At that, we still have the most efficient system in the province.

As the need for public funding escalates with the rapid transit system – and it will grow incrementally more acute with light rail – is council prepared to step up with the cash or will the burden fall on riders?

The second is that the way the routing for the hybrid system is devised it’s hard to see where substantial passenger growth will occur, without which this huge expense is unjustified.

There will be two rapid transit routes – by rail between Masonville Place, Western University and Fanshawe College; by fast buses between White Oaks Mall and the Oxford-Wonderland area. The light rail route was chosen because that’s where 50 per cent of London Transit’s ridership currently resides – by virtue of discounted yearly passes students are required to purchase. 

As it begins, therefore, the light rail line will already have almost all its passengers, the same passengers London Transit already serves. Where is the gain? And since those 50 per cent of the passengers provide only 30 per cent of the revenue base, it’s not much a leap to suggest the LRT line will require a subsidy from the get-go.

London Transit first made the case for a bus rapid transit system (BRT) in 2008. If council hadn’t dithered those lines would be running now and we’d have a significant body of local experience. The case London Transit made was strictly about moving people around the city, and it was based on the knowledge the way its system currently is organized will soon self-destruct. 

Somewhere along the line what was a straight-forward transportation issue morphed into a city-building opportunity. Bad pun perhaps, but that’s where it started to come off the rails. More on this next week.