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Region moves forward with plan to extend LRT to Cambridge

Despite objections from councillors Liggett and Craig, region will continue business case for extending LRT on preferred route
The ION makes a stop at Grand River Hospital on King Street in Kitchener.

The Region of Waterloo will move ahead with a business case to extend the ION's tracks to Cambridge after council spent Wednesday afternoon debating the merits of taking the next steps to make Stage 2 a reality now that cost estimates for the project have pegged the final price tag at $4.5 billion.

The latest update on building the full 18 km route from Fairway Station to downtown Galt came as a shock to many around the council horseshoe last month, prompting the planning committee to ask staff to reconsider the feasibility of moving forward. 

The business case, which is integral to securing funding from upper levels of government once all design work is completed, will now include three options, two of which shorten the route at reduced costs.

It will also include consideration and costs for a bus rapid transit option, and investigate the feasibility of changing the final leg of the route down Dundas Street to serve the city's growing southeast end. 

Council learned the $4.5 billion price tag is a projection based on the idea that by 2033 inflation will add $1 billion to the cost. If the region was to build it today, the full route would cost about $2.72 billion.

The cost is also inflated by a $744 million in contingency funding because of the complexity of the route.

Stage 1 was budgeted at $818 million, including at $12 million contingency based on 2014 dollars. The budget later ballooned to $868 million.

Coun. Doug Craig is skeptical funding from upper levels of government will ever come through at the $4.5 billion price tag, adding he doesn't agree with the idea of an LRT and hasn't agreed to it from the beginning. 

"My major concern is the $4.5 billion and whether that will hold true in seven years," he said. "I think we need to give the people of Cambridge a transit route that is affordable and I don't think by any stretch of the imagination this is affordable."

"The price matters and I'm not prepared to give my okay with this. I think we're misleading people to think in the future we're going to be getting our fair share."

But Regional Chair Karen Redman said she thinks the region needs to follow through on its promise to Cambridge residents, "get on with this system" and build the full route without any further delays.

"We're the 10th largest metropolitan area and we have to start acting like it. We have half of an LRT right now. We should not accept anything less than our fair share. I realize there is sticker shock, but it's not going to get any cheaper."

The significant cost difference between Stage 1 and Stage 2 becomes obvious when considering the geography between Kitchener and Cambridge.

Stage 2 requires several major structures to maintain the track grade at a minimum slope.

They include a flyover of the Fairview Park Mall parking lot, Fairway Road and a CP rail line, an elevated bridge over the Grand River, flood plain and Highway 8 off ramp, a flyover structure over Shantz Hill Road, Fountain Street and the Speed River, and another structure to traverse the CP rail line on Eagle Street.

Annualized operations, maintenance and rehabilitation along the full route from Fairway Station to the Ainslie Street terminus comes in around $22.6 million, also estimated in 2022 dollars.

The full route requires 40 full property buyouts and 210 partial acquisitions for an estimated price tag of $200 million, a cost that has to be borne solely by the region since it is ineligible for provincial or federal funding.

Not included in the capital breakdown is the cost of financing the project, increases to local bus service, cost escalation beyond a 2030 start date, and the cost of transfer risk. 

But the difference between current public transit technology is in daily ridership.

The number of passengers a bus route can move ranges between 3,000 and 15,000 daily. The same BRT route accommodates between 7,000 and 64,000 daily passengers based on a two-minute frequency and bi-articulated buses. 

The LRT has the capacity to move between 17,000 and 170,000 passengers daily.

It also has the greatest benefits in supporting the region’s growth management strategy, which encourages intensification around major transit stations along the corridor.

Offering some idea of the demand that exists for a rapid transit link between the cities, commissioner of transportation services Mathieu Goetzke said that based on 2016 census data, about 11,000 people commute between Kitchener and Cambridge daily, about 10 times the number that commute between Kitchener and Toronto.

Those numbers will be updated this summer, giving the region a better handle on the 30-year outlook for rapid transit ridership.

Cambridge Mayor Jan Liggett wants the region to consider the terminus to be further east along Dundas Street, where planned growth is in Cambridge, but she was cautioned by staff that departing from the selected alignment would require significantly more work that would delay the business case a further two years.

"If we stick with something that was already done, that doesn't make it a good planning decision," she urged, adding the region didn't know about development in the city's southeast end when the route was decided.

The plan to run the ION into the core of Galt for the terminus, represents an error made in determining the major growth area for the city, Liggett said.

"This is supposed to be what's best for the individual community. It doesn't look like we're looking at any time soon anyway," Liggett said.

Matthew O’Neil, manager of rapid transit coordination with the region, then offered to "short cut the conversation," telling council that idea would not fare well in a business case. 

"From an engineering perspective, from a transit planning perspective, land use perspective" it would "fare quite poorly" in being identified as preferred.

He called Galt's core the best spot for the LRT terminus because of planned and potential mixed use development and density, likening Liggett's idea to early consideration for a Maple Grove Road route to support growth in north Cambridge.

It doesn't have the right density for a business case and would take too long to develop, he said. 

In addition to a two year delay to revisit the technical and environmental impacts, financial implications are also a factor in looking at other route alternatives, O'Neil said.

But Liggett said she took exception to O'Neil's assessment, believing density along the south end of Dundas would fit into a business case.

She said she can't support looking at the business case with anything less than an open mind "because I don't believe it's in the best interests of the community that I'm mayor of."

Liggett said she also looked at the daily ridership capacity of the LRT and the BRT and believes the BRT is a better fit based on projected ridership numbers and the population of Cambridge.

"I wonder why we're even looking at the LRT with all of the problems it's going to bring into our downtown," she said, worried about what it will do to Hespeler Road when lanes are removed to accommodate it.

But O'Neil said the vision for Hespeler Road, as envisioned in the city's new secondary plan, is nothing like what's there now. 

It will transform it to allow mixed-use, high density developments along a road allowance that is pedestrian friendly and encourages active transportation with a landscaped median and separated cycle tracks on both sides.

O'Neill said the region and the city are aligned in wanting to see the areas along the entire route developed and intensified.

"There is a lot of momentum in seeing intense development along Hespeler Road" where "there is a fundamental trade off," O'Neil said.

"If we want intense development, if we want mixed uses, if we want people to live on Hespeler Road, it needs to be pedestrian friendly, it needs to be transit supportive, it needs to have good active transportation facilities and it needs to feel welcoming."

Coun. Pam Wolf, who asked staff to consider building the project starting from the Cambridge end, since most of the major and most expensive structures in the project are on the north end of the route, is optimistic funding will come through for the full project.

"I do believe we will ge the $4.6 billion," Wolf said, adding council was being too pessimistic in their belief the province and the feds won't fund a project with that high a price tag.  

"I agree with Chair Redman that we are a major player in Ontario and in Canada and we deserve this public transit for the provincial and federal governments to meet their environmental goals," she said. "We shouldn't hesitate to put forward the business case and to complete the plan."