LRT debate finally over

In a momentous and visionary decision for Waterloo Region, years of deliberation and disjunction came to a close on June 15 with a 9-2 verdict by regional councillors in support of moving forward with a Light Rail Transit (LRT) system.

The decision has been a long time coming. The process began officially in 2003, when regional council adopted the Regional Growth Management Strategy (RGMS) to evaluate different transit options. A landmark came in 2009, when LRT was selected as the preferential option to consider over Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or improving road infrastructure. Kitchener Mayor Carl Zehr commented during the monumental council meeting, “the preferred and recommended proposal may not be perfect, but if we wait until we think we have the perfect plan, we will never start the project.”

Proponents of LRT believe it is a more environmentally friendly system than BRT and will aid in greater development of the cities’ cores, in order to avoid further sprawl. Regional population is expected to increase by a massive 200,000 by 2031.

The original rail line proposal has been set to run from Fairway Road in Kitchener up to Conestoga Mall in Waterloo, making 18 stops along the way. A rapid bus route will extend to the Ainslie Terminal in Cambridge, with plans to extend the light rail line at an unspecified date. However, a motion raised and passed by regional councillor Sean Strickland and passed at the June 15 meeting will have the region “explore the feasibility of changing the route … ” along Caroline St. and also in Uptown Waterloo.

Waterloo mayor Brenda Halloran was vehemently opposed to any review of the proposed routing, claiming that the potential reevaluation “came as a complete surprise.” Halloran feared that were the line to be moved, it might interfere with the newly constructed public square.

Although most councillors claimed they heard mainly positive feedback from citizens, the process has not been without its controversy. Many opposed the $818-million project due to the annual property tax increases that will accompany it, beginning next year.

Halloran, who voted in opposition to LRT, was greatly impacted by the financial concerns voiced by her constituents throughout the process.

“I hear many of my citizens saying I don’t know how we’re going to afford to live in Waterloo anymore if our taxes go up,” she said. “I’m very proud that I stood firm for my campaign promise to tens of thousands of citizens who counted on me to be their voice, and I did it, and I didn’t back down.”

Community support has certainly not been unanimous for the project. Eric, a University of Waterloo student who declined to declare his last name, admitted, “The cost does have me a little worried, because I don’t know, it doesn’t seem as if we need it.”

Explaining further, Eric said, “I feel as if we needed a better bus system, like the GRT [Grand River Transit] needed to get better.”

This was in contrast with the viewpoint presented by Wilfrid Laurier student Gareth D’Costa, who voiced his opinion that it “makes more sense to do it now rather than later on.”

D’Costa felt that the faster speed of the LRT as well as the reduced impact of sprawl to the Region’s outlying farmland would be beneficial, but conceded that he is “… not really concerned right now because it’s going to take awhile to implement.”

Students attending Wilfrid Laurier in the fall can anticipate construction to begin in 2014, with the anticipated conclusion of the project scheduled for 2017.