As Hamilton’s rapid transit debate bounces between LRT and BRT, there may be lessons from a sister municipality that has agreed to implement both systems and committed to cover one–third of the costs. Waterloo region’s transit ridership has also swept past Hamilton’s with a growth rate nearly five times that of the HSR.
The region that encompasses Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge and surrounding rural areas is contributing 31 percent of a combined LRT and BRT line linking the three cities – with the province and federal government splitting the rest of the $818 million budget. In mid–March Waterloo regional council approved the contractor and construction initiation this year in an 11–4 decision that was supported by all the rural councillors but opposed by the mayors of Waterloo and Cambridge.
The latter was upset that extension of the rail connection to his city will not happen until stage two of the project although a bus rapid transit system will be put in place this year to connect Cambridge to Kitchener’s Fairview Mall LRT terminal. Stage one also includes a 19 km LRT in K–W with a future extension to Cambridge to make it 36 km route with 22 stations.
The context has included an aggressive transit expansion laid out in a 1999 transportation master plan that has taken Grand River Transit from 9.4 million passengers a year to over 22 million last year in a period in which the HSR grew by less than 4 million. Waterloo’s plans call for adding another 35 million in the next twenty years to reach the goal of capturing nearly 15 percent of peak pm traffic. Over the last decade Waterloo has had the third fastest transit growth rate in Canada.
Express services have played a major role in the successes so far since the first was established in 2005. That was long after the HSR put its B–Line into place in 1986, but unlike Hamilton, Waterloo’s first route now operates seven days a week and has been joined by two more with five additional express services scheduled for implementation by 2021 when the initial LRT will be operational.
Waterloo’s sales pitch for LRT that rapid transit will protect rural areas, tackle climate change, improve transportation options and help manage expected growth.
“Rapid transit will help protect our countryside by promoting intensification in existing urban areas. This will help preserve the region’s precious agricultural lands, natural beauty, heritage resources, and cultural characteristics,” argues the project website. “[It] also supports reurbanization and the efficient use of land, which will reduce our carbon footprint, promote active transportation choices, and protect our important agricultural and natural resources [and] will make better use of our land, existing infrastructure and services.”
It has not emphasized enhanced economic development – the main argument advanced in Hamilton – but that seems to already be happening including a $70–80 million downtown Waterloo investment where “the company stated their decision to develop at this site was specifically linked to its proximity to the LRT stop at King and Victoria.”
Waterloo region’s population was about 12,000 less than Hamilton’s in the 2011 census but is forecast to jump to 730,000 by 2031 versus the 660,000 expected for Hamilton in that year. Waterloo has decided it can accommodate its nearly 50 percent growth through the addition of just 80 hectares to the urban boundary.
That contrasts with Hamilton where a 695 hectare expansion has already been approved for the aerotropolis and a similar size conversion of rural land at Elfrida has been deemed necessary early next decade to accommodate more residential development, along with the already approved Stoney Creek Urban Boundary Expansion. V