Opponents mobilize against London’s half-billion-dollar rapid bus plan

Some municipal election candidates are lining up against proposed bus rapid transit system (not light rail, as many had hoped)
By Mary Baxter - Published on March 15, 2018
London, Ontario transit bus
London, Ontario has almost 400,000 residents and no rapid transit. (wyliepoon/Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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text box containing an interview with a London, Ontario MP

LONDON — When building a rapid transit system for London became a municipal election issue in 2014, voters responded enthusiastically to the idea. Many of the candidates they elected to council — including the city’s new mayor, Matt Brown — had pledged support to the project as part and parcel of a new 20-year municipal plan to foster growth.

Fast forward four years: another municipal election is approaching on Oct. 22, and rapid transit once again occupies centre stage in the public debate — only not in a way its supporters might have hoped. Public transit boosters’ visions of light rail transit throughout the city’s core has morphed into a less glamorous 24-kilometre system of dedicated bus lanes that will reduce the number of regular traffic lanes to one in each direction along a main corridor. The plan faces criticism for the routes chosen, the disruption to local business during construction and its estimated $500 million cost.

Meanwhile, the province’s commitment of $170-million remains uncertain, with an election coming in June.

London also needs to secure a contribution from Ottawa to move ahead. Yesterday the federal government announced a fund of $11.8 billion for Ontario infrastructure projects, of which it has earmarked $8.34 billion for public transit projects throughout the province. Commitments to projects in Toronto and Ottawa have already been announced. A staff member for Peter Fragiskatos, the Liberal MP for London North Centre, tells TVO that an announcement on transit funding for London will occur tomorrow morning.

Even if the funding challenge can be surmounted, it’s unclear whether a majority of London voters are in favour of the plan as it stands. 

Officially speaking, the BRT project is now in the final stages of planning and city staff are preparing the paperwork for provincial approval. If the project goes ahead at all, some minor adjustments are slated to take place in 2019, and construction proceeds in full force in 2020. It will take eight years.

But the issue has become so contentious that two of this year’s mayoral candidates — retired management consultant Paul Cheng and Paul Paolatto, former budget chair of the London Police Service — have pledged to scrap the current plan, optimistically titled Shift. Cheng even suggested adding a question on the municipal election ballot to decide the fate of the plan (that won’t happen: the deadline has passed for submitting a referendum question). Brown, who announced intentions to run for re-election in 2016, has been a staunch supporter of the project, saying in his January state of the city address that anything less than the system proposed “is selling [Londoners] short.” He could not be reached to comment.

With close to 400,000 residents, London is at the size where debates over improving public transit are unavoidable, and Londoners have tossed around the idea of a rapid transit system for more than a decade before committing in earnest about four years ago, while London also authored its 20-year plan to tackle the city’s projected growth. By 2035, the city’s population is expected to grow 20 per cent, to more than 460,000. City documents said rapid transit would ease congestion in the city’s centre and help drive urban growth.

But observers of the project, whether for or against, say poor communication on the part of city staffers and politicians thwarted their efforts to achieve wide-scale buy-in from the public. “The communications has really been wanting,” says Shawn Adamsson, a London resident and digital marketing strategist who supports rapid transit development.

Martin Horak, a political scientist specializing in urban government at Western University, says the project started to go awry soon after the 2014 municipal election. After the election to council of so many supporters of the new proposed municipal plan that had included rapid transit, “many in the city [government] got the false impression that everybody in the public was already on board,” Horak says, and council began making decisions accordingly, ahead of broad community consultation.

The next year, for instance, council unanimously approved a preliminary plan that called for a mixture of light rail and bus rapid transit on 24 kilometres’ worth of core streets. That initial plan proposed a 900-metre tunnel for the system under Richmond Street, one of London’s main thoroughfares.

But for anyone expecting blanket support, public reaction did not fall into line as expected. Downtown retailers loudly protested the route and the tunnel. Opponents expressed worries about negative impacts on businesses, the viability of tearing up some of the city’s busiest intersections, the price (estimated to be $880 million), and the potential for cost overruns. In 2017, the city abandoned the tunnel idea and proposed adjustments to the downtown portion of the east-west corridor, which had also come under fire by merchants.

Other concerns surfaced. During one public meeting in 2016, mortgage broker Mike Maguire was astonished to learn that the proposed route would run right over his south London business property. No one had approached him to discuss the possibility of expropriation.

Residents of Argyle, in the city’s east end, protested the decision to bypass their large working-class neighbourhood in favour of running the route to Fanshawe College. “Not that Fanshawe students aren’t an important part of the community, but the Fanshawe population, by and large, is here seven months of the year,” says Shawn Lewis, president of the Argyle community association.

Two rails good, four tires bad?

The biggest change to the project came in 2016, when council abandoned the mixed light-rail-plus-buses approach to rapid transit in favour of establishing dedicated bus lanes — again making the decision without broader consultation, and despite having previously voted unanimously for mixed bus and rail. Cost was the reason given to justify the switch. At roughly $500 million, bus rapid transit would cost nearly $400 million less than the mixed option.

The decision caught the community by surprise. Many were disappointed to learn that light rail was no longer part of the plan. “We maybe jumped off of that ship a little too fast in a rush to move things forward; we didn’t have enough of a discussion,” says Lewis.

Bus rapid transit is sometimes seen as a poor cousin to light rail transit, and was depicted as such in London’s own materials. A 2015 city report described light rail as a premium service that would attract more new riders: “While BRT’s regular and reliable service will capture significantly more riders over time than conventional bus service, LRT stands to transform the image of transit in London in a more pronounced way, encouraging more discretionary riders to use transit over other modes of transportation.” Light rail, the report said, would cement London’s reputation as a “top-tier city in North America.”

Yet bus rapid transit — a system that uses dedicated lanes for buses and more frequent service — can provide similar benefits, according to supporters. York Region, a largely suburban upper-tier municipality north of Toronto, is about halfway through building a 36-kilometre BRT system to connect its four main population centres. Ridership has increased 26 per cent in a section already operating in the town of Newmarket. York Region is also enjoying other benefits of BRT: emergency services can use the corridor, for example, to avoid traffic congestion, and the project’s introduction of dedicated left-turn lanes (to keep regular traffic safe while crossing the dedicated bus lanes) halved the area’s collision rate.

Horak, the Western professor, believes London’s decision to shift from LRT to BRT looks good in theory. “I think from a technical perspective the decision-making was fairly solid,” he says. Buses might not provide the same capacity to move people as light rail, but the city doesn’t need that capacity right now. “London is also a slower growing city than many [in southern Ontario].”

He also notes the system would establish corridors of rapid transit that could be switched to light rail transit if needed in the future.

But BRT hasn’t won everyone over, despite its potential benefits.

Not everyone’s on board

From the outset, Paul Beechey, who lives in the city’s core, challenged the project’s route map, as well as the costs, which he describes as outrageous. He belongs to Up Shifts Creek, a grassroots group that he says has nearly 2,000 members and whose goal is to get information on the project out to other residents as it rolls out. The group plans to ask all candidates in the upcoming municipal election whether they are for or against bus rapid transit.

Among other misgivings, Beechey complains that the plan does not outline how it will serve industrial areas where workers cope with infrequent or no bus service. “I see guys cycling to work at 5:30 a.m. because there’s no bus service,” he says. “It’s ridiculous.”

He’d like to see a more comprehensive plan proposed to tackle both public and private transportation in the city, and says his group aims to present an alternative plan in coming weeks.

Adamsson, the London resident who supports rapid transit development, dismisses naysayers’ arguments as “misconceptions” rather than facts. “They were emotional arguments, and they stuck very well.”

Addressing concerns about expense, he points out that London’s share (capped at $130 million) would be spread out over the 10-year development of the project. Compared to the amount the city spends on its overall road maintenance and improvements over the same period of time, the budget is “a drop in the bucket.” He also points out that the vast majority of the route was slated for extensive roadwork that would have to take place regardless of whether rapid transit construction went ahead.

Last year, Adamsson and nine others mounted a campaign that included lawn signs and outreach to local media to support rapid transit development, and counter the counter-narrative. He concedes his group’s efforts have had little effect.

Adamsson says the city engineers who have been handling the project should have realized the details “had to be put in really really super-plain English, and [they should have recognized] the amount of work that had to be done on the ground — especially with retailers — to allay their fears before those fears were exploited by other people.”

Jennie Ramsay, who has served as rapid transit project director for London since last June, disputes suggestions that the project’s communications efforts have been lacking. “We have been making a very strong effort to communicate as much as we can,” she says, noting that over the past several months the city has hosted 30 public outreach events that have ranged from open houses and public meetings to ward meetings and presentations at community meetings.

A round of open houses held in early March saw strong attendance, Ramsay says. She  estimates nearly 200 people attended the first meeting. She characterizes the discussions as respectful and constructive. “I think people are asking the right questions because they want to understand how the system works [and] how it will benefit them.”

Horak cautions against leaping to conclusions about public reaction based on what special interest groups are saying. The fact is there hasn’t been any consistent public opinion polling about the issue. “It’s clearly a controversial issue and it’s one that prospective [mayoral] challengers are now starting to tap into.”

In the meantime, says Adamsson, “this anti-BRT thing has become so ingrained in some people that all the facts in the world will never talk them out of their position. So where does that leave us? That leaves us with camps punching each other in the face until the [municipal] election is over — and probably beyond that.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

Photo courtesy of wyliepoon, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0. (See the uncropped version.)

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