The fate of LRT in the Region of Waterloo is now in the hands of the remaining members of Regional Council who can still cast a vote. For years this debate has been going on, not quite as public as it has over the last few weeks or months, but none the less, it has been a radar topic for some time now. I recall being invited to a meeting on the subject in 2003 to discuss the possibilities of light rail coming to the Region, yes that is correct 2003 not a typo. In that meeting it was clear to me that Regional Staff were pushing for a street level rail system embedded into the existing road network. It came my time to comment, and I reached on my hip for my blackberry (still in its infancy), held it up and asked the question, “if we knew 10 years ago we would have this amazing bit of technology, how would that have changed the way we would have invested in our technology?”. I went on to say that rail technology for public transportation had been around for years, in fact started out drawn by horse and evolved into what is today called LRT, but in Toronto they still call it street cars. In 2003 I was hoping to have those transportation experts in the Region, look a bit outside the box, like our businesses in the region do, and come up with a real exciting alternative to public transportation. I was hoping for a system that, wouldn’t just be acceptable in the future, but one that would be more and more relevant as time went on. An innovative solution to the problem, that would set us apart, that would highlight our region and would reflect the innovative abilities of our people, something that would universally appeal to those of us who have to pay for this and maybe even, a system that would excite us to use, even if it doesn’t always fit with our lifestyles, but because we just want to try it.
While absolutely this will be an improvement, if you use public transit, it is not even close to being innovative, it doesn’t reflect the brilliance of the community we live in, it in no way sends a global signal that we are different, exciting and eager to welcome the world, it handcuffs us to a system that in essence is the same old, same old. I look at my 9-year-old daughter, who in her own right is a proponent of all things convenient. “Mom, can you grab the orange juice in the fridge?”, when in fact she is sitting next to the fridge, and my wife is on the other side of the table. Where she grabs either my wife’s or my Blackberry Torch and proceeds to send messages to her Aunt, or Sister, or she grabs my Blackberry Playbook, changes the settings to suit her use, then messes me up for hours trying to figure out how to get it working properly again. Will my 9-year-old look at LRT as a tangible solution to transportation, when in her lifetime she will probably witness solar-powered personal vehicles, and GPS vehicular control? As the generations fly by, convenience is a primary factor in life. I recall the day that I was my Father’s remote control for the television, when camping was the preferred summer vacation, when we made popcorn on the stove or when movies were only shown in a theatre. Now, those are far too inconvenient, too much effort and everyone in the house has their own TV so there is no one to change the channel, we had to move on. Do we really think that the future generations will give up so easily on the conveniences of life? It certainly isn’t apparent in my household or anyone else’s household I know of. There is always the few, and that is precisely what this new system is being built for, the few.
In the Region’s own document they say that the optimum objective is to get 15% of the population riding LRT, and that LRT needs to achieve that goal to be a success. Today, maybe 4% of the population rides public transit, I say maybe, because I’m not sure how many duplicates the count may have produced. The problem is not in providing public transportation to those who need it, after all we are our brother’s keeper, but in the minds of Regional Staff, it comes at any cost at all. You see, the example that staff are using is the example of the average residential tax bill throughout the Region. Take into consideration that the Townships are far less taxed than we are in the cities, probably makes the figure of $225,000 for the average priced home, a little low. Also not built into the numbers, is the property tax of businesses. So if you were to combine everything, businesses as well, then we may find the average tax bill in the Region significantly higher. So beginning in 2012, I believe, we will each be contributing a fixed rate increase of 1.5% on our tax bill for 7 consecutive years, for the Chamber that represents an additional $300.00 per year, JUST for LRT, for each of the next 7 years, totaling $2,100. That may not seem like much, but considering that the $2,100 does NOT come off the tax bill after 7 years, it means that the Chamber’s taxes will increase by $2,100 forever, just for LRT. That still may not seem like a big deal, but the Region of Waterloo has never had a 0% tax increase that I can recall, even through the difficult recession, they claimed the need to increase revenue when business was seeing major declines in revenue. So that means that we will likely, in the very best case scenario see another 1.5% increase from our Regional Government just for other items such as policing, public works, social services and so on. Now look at the picture from the Chamber’s point of view. Over the next seven years, our taxes will likely increase a minimum of $4,200 per year, every year, forever. That folks is a 20% increase in the Regional Tax base and doesn’t include what our friends at the lower tier (City) are going to do to us. And this, fellow taxpayers of the Waterloo Region, is just the tip of the iceberg.
What happens when the project runs over budget, and watch the regions employee count rise, and then see when some Regional Council down the road in 6 or 7 years has to take a 5 or 7% increase in addition to what is already etched in stone, because of overruns, increases in staff needed to manage LRT and the new integrated GRT system. If you think for a moment what you’ve heard is the worst case scenario, you’re sadly mistaken, it is actually the best case scenario otherwise they couldn’t sell us on it. It is interesting how the Region has begged and pleaded for feedback, but listened not to anyone, except those who favoured LRT. When asked why they dismissed the aerorail concept at a third of the cost of LRT, the regions response was, “there isn’t another example of it operating successfully in North America”. I’m sure glad that Research In Motion’s original investors didn’t say no, because there wasn’t another example of it operating successfully in North America. The real truth is, and I send you back to the beginning of my diatribe, in 2003 the region had already decided LRT was what it was going to be, no matter what. Since that time they have done little listening, they have gotten angry when challenges have come forward, they have demonstrated clearly that the people aren’t in charge. They will tell you that they investigated other alternative solutions, but it was like going to the ice cream parlor and considering Vanilla when it’s sitting beside the triple chocolate chunk. There was never any intent on the region’s part to have anything but LRT, there was every intent to push as hard as needed, no matter what, to get what they wanted, not what we wanted.
So, I guess they won, Councillor’s talking like they are transportation experts now, making some nice gestures, but not really caring about how much it costs you, why, because we just let them tax us and do whatever it is they want. Many of the current members of Regional Council were reported as saying, during the last election that they had numerous complaints when campaigning and Council absolutely needs to take another look at this, and look at other options. Neither took place after the October municipal election. I believe in the two IPOS polls that were done, one leaned one way, the other leaned the other way. Odd isn’t it when you have the same pollster achieve different results? It has now been proven, the old saying of “it depends who’s paying for the question,” is sadly true. So given those reports, the numerous talk shows with disgruntled callers, letters to the Editor and the fact that at best, support or opposition is probably 50/50, a referendum would have made perfect sense. However, Regional Staff would may have found out that their idea of 9 years ago, wasn’t what we, the taxpayer wanted. And then there is Council, claim to be there as our representatives, elected by us, to represent us. I know all too well how the system works. Staff has ultimate and limitless access to the politicians, they can provide unending reports, documentation and opinion on a subject, fill the political minds full of what is right (for them), yet, you and I have 5 minutes at a Council meeting, maybe a quick 5 or 10 minute phone call, we can send emails, but we don’t have the limitless access staff do. And so the story goes, it’s not the politicians, they get unduly caught up in the scenario’s because of Staff who take their liberties on access. The reason we elect folks from our community to make decisions is so they can be our voice, our vote and our watchful eyes, the most unfortunate thing about the political system is the politicians become the bureaucrat’s voice, their vote and only see what the bureaucrat wants them to see.
The public transportation system in the Region is about to become the largest ticket item on our tax bill. It will have the most people attached to it, it will be the largest cost we endure each and every year. I’m not opposed to a better system, I’m not opposed to investing in a system that encourages less vehicular traffic, I’m not opposed to a sizable enhancement to moving of people. I’m opposed to the fact that we are not innovative enough, we have a clean slate to work with, nothing obstructing us from thinking outside the box and being even a bit radical in addressing this issue, except a political mindset stuck in the 1900’s. I said it in 2003, look outside the box, way outside and make sure we implement something that will not just be acceptable in 50 years, but creative and innovative as well. It is so tragic, politically we can be the same as we are innovatively throughout the Region. Not only the most expensive, single project in the Region’s history, but probably the biggest mistake as well.
It, as I’ve concluded is a virtual given that the LRT will be approved by Regional Council. Just before the next municipal election, the tender should come out, let’s see if it is still 819 million at that point, if the tender is not released before the next municipal election, you can be guaranteed it is well over budget. That’s the way the game is played, make sure it doesn’t affect any re-elections, make sure the same group who supported it gets back in, so that they can stand tall and approve the extension of millions more of our tax dollars. Unfortunately this saga isn’t over on June 15th with Regional Council’s vote, it’s only just begun.