REPORT #1,138: The multi-year budget London tabled last week is blank on how we plan to pay for the proposed rapid transit system. Footnotes suggest you ask the federal and provincial governments how much they intend to contribute. Hint: We’d like them to cover a whopping 86 per cent of the cost.
Monday, Jan. 18, 2016 – LondonOntario
Given the ballyhoo about rapid transit recently – Biggest Civic Investment in London’s History! we keep being told – you’d think you would find that front and centre in the city’s four-year budget.
As recently as last week, according to news reports, Mayor Matt Brown was up at Western University extolling the virtues of the hybrid model he and the administration are touting, and promising construction would begin within two years.
And yet, on page 10 of the Multi-Year Budget Book, tabled along with several kilograms of other financial documents last week, the line for the rapid transit implementation strategy is blank. The curious are directed to a footnote at the bottom of that page and further to page 280 for more information.
The footnote first. It says funding for the rapid transit initiative is included in the base growth capital budget – $268 million in 2016-19 and $87 million in the growth capital forecast for 2020-25 for a total $355 million.
On page 192 of the Multi-Year Budget Book is a single line about the rapid transit investment of $355 million over the next 10 years, with this added detail – that the sum also includes road widening and buses. Of that, London has pledged to pay only $125 million.
Somewhat surprisingly, that sum corresponds almost to the penny earlier estimates for the BRT – bus rapid transit – which the city-owned public transportation company has been urging since 2008. More recently, of course, the big hats at City Hall have been pushing their own rapid transit plan which also includes light rail and a price tag of almost $900 million.
So what gives?
There is more detail starting on page 280, under the so-called businesses cases for strategic investments. On the first page, however, is the somewhat startling revelation that the total amount requested beyond the $355 million already in the budget is zero. The total investment requested is listed as TBD*.
That little asterisk takes you to the bottom of the page and this explanation: “Additional funding is based on the assumption that both and provincial and federal levels of government will fund the additional amount required over and above what is in the existing plan.”
And there begins what we may soon be calling The Biggest Civic Fairy Tale in London’s History.
In actual fact, city council has committed only $125 million to rapid transit over the next 20 years, most of which will be raised from development charges on new residential and commercial construction. We need rapid transit, the city argues, because we will grow by 77,000 people in the next 20 years, creating a 25 per cent increase in auto trips.
That said, our rapid transit hopes currently seem to rest entirely on the willingness of Queen’s Park and Ottawa to pony up $775 million between them – or 86 per cent of the total cost.
This would allow us to build a system that includes light rail – glorified streetcars in effect – between Masonville and Fanshawe College through the downtown; a BRT route between Oakridge and White Oaks through the downtown; a tunnel for streetcars only under the CPR tracks on Richmond; and new bridges over the Thames River.
But wait, there’s more. To make the entire rapid transit system light rail – and there is a plan for that – would cost almost $1.2 billion.
In September, Mayor Brown wrote to Brad Duguid, provincial minister of economic development, employment, and infrastructure, asking for $1.1 billion in government funding for rapid transit. (You’ll find the letter at the very end of this long report on our proposed rapid transit system).
“This investment is in line with the commitment which has been made to other communities,” wrote the mayor, apparently with a straight face. (The $1.1 billion ask was described later as a place holder while we refine details of our proposed system).
At any rate, no money is yet forthcoming, nor even pledged. The federal government’s new Liberal leaders have a rapid transit initiative, as yet not fully formed, and a rapidly growing deficit. The provincial government has a rapid transit policy with vague promises of major donations to Ontario cities outside the Greater Toronto Area. So far only Waterloo Region has seen any money.
Waterloo Region, with a current population of 550,000, expects 200,000 more people in the next two decades. Their light rail system, which will join the cities of Kitchener and Waterloo, will cost $881 million, of which the region will pay $253 million. The province has committed $300 million, the feds $265 million – a combined senior government contribution of 69 per cent of the total cost.
Twenty years after it launched its BRT system, Ottawa (population 1.2 million) is building LRT lines. The federal government paid one-third of the cost of the first line, and has promised to pay one-third the cost of the second, a $1 billion share. The province was in for a third for the first line, hasn’t yet committed to the second.
Last year, Winnipeg (2014 population 709,300) announced plans for a $587.3 million transit expansion – a bus rapid transit system with a total cost of $587.3 million. City taxpayers will pay $225 million of the cost through a 0.5 per cent levy. The province of Manitoba will contribute $225 million and the federal government $137.3 million – a combined senior government contribution of 62 per cent.
From that it’s hard to see how London can justify an argument that senior governments should pay 86 per cent of our system, or even 76 per cent of full BRT network which would include the tunnel and bridges.
Of course, there is a Fairy God Mother – Premier Kathleen Wynne has announced the province would completely fund the $1.6-billion Hurontario-Main LRT line in Mississauga and Brampton and the $1-billion LRT project in Hamilton.
London does need rapid transit, integrated into the existing London Transit system. But it needs one built on honesty, reality and transparency, not on false hopes and wishful thinking.
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