Rail re­set puts bet­ter op­tions in play

The London Free Press - - READER TO READER - Ken West­car

The wait, it seems, is over. High-speed rail (HSR) is now only one of sev­eral op­tions to be con­sid­ered in what was a po­lit­i­cally driven, highly con­strained en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ment (EA) launched by the pro­vin­cial Lib­er­als in 2016 for faster travel be­tween Toronto, Lon­don and even­tu­ally Wind­sor.

Mur­murs of dis­ap­point­ment will be heard in Lon­don city hall from those who ig­nored the co­pi­ous neg­a­tive ev­i­dence and con­tin­ued to be­lieve HSR was the panacea for the city’s rel­a­tive iso­la­tion in South­west­ern On­tario.

Not so the agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity be­tween Kitch­ener and Lon­don. The re­cur­ring night­mare of prop­erty ex­pro­pri­a­tion, frozen in­vest­ment plans, trun­cated con­ces­sion roads and the loss of 400 hectares of some of the best arable land in On­tario is, for now, an oc­ca­sional bad dream. Un­der the ex­panded EA, the gag — in­ten­tional or other­wise — in plead­ing their case against a green­field rail pro­ject will be lifted.

As the ex­panded EA goes through its var­i­ous stages dur­ing the next four years, the Min­istry of Trans­port will be bur­dened with an ex­plo­sion of stud­ies re­quired to iden­tify the best op­tion for im­proved mo­bil­ity in the re­gion. The min­istry will need to deal with CN, CP, Via Rail, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and oth­ers that have a stake in the out­come.

If the HSR pro­ject was a sim­ple game of domi­noes, the ex­panded EA is a Ru­bik’s Cube.

But we should not un­der­es­ti­mate its im­por­tance. Ac­cord­ing to the pro­vin­cial fi­nance min­istry, the pop­u­la­tion on the Toronto-to-Lon­don axis will grow by 30 per cent or more be­tween 2017 and 2041. It is a sit­u­a­tion for which we are to­tally un­pre­pared. No amount of tin­ker­ing with High­way 401 will keep peo­ple and freight mov­ing.

That said, the even­tual so­lu­tion must be prac­ti­cal and af­ford­able.

Ox­ford County, glob­ally rec­og­nized for its sus­tain­abil­ity ini­tia­tives, have been very proac­tive on the is­sue of re­gional mo­bil­ity. Its re­cent re­port, “South­west­L­ynx: In­te­grated High-Per­for­mance Trans­porta­tion for South­west­ern On­tario” is avail­able on the county web­site and ex­tols the virtue of bet­ter uti­liza­tion of ex­ist­ing trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture.

It’s short on po­lit­i­cal photo-ops but long on prac­ti­cal­ity and af­ford­abil­ity. It will need com­mu­nity sup­port, three lev­els of co-or­di­nated gov­ern­ment ac­tion and the co-op­er­a­tion of CN and CP.

The first step is to en­sure all the coun­ties be­tween Toronto and Wind­sor are in lock­step sup­port, which re­quires the 250 km/h HSR fan­tasy rel­e­gated to last place. They must res­o­lutely sup­port 175 km/h that will do al­most the same job at a quar­ter of the cost and a tenth of the dis­rup­tion.

Afi­ciona­dos of the trans­porta­tion in­dus­try are wary of the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives’ mes­sag­ing on pub­lic tran­sit and in­ter­city trans­porta­tion. We have yet to see if the pro­vin­cial axe will ar­bi­trar­ily fall on TTC and Metrolinx projects planned or un­der­way in and the around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area. The pre­vi­ous Liberal gov­ern­ment launched these on the premise that a 50-year hia­tus in pub­lic trans­port in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment was mak­ing the re­gion glob­ally un­com­pet­i­tive and in­creas­ingly pol­luted, which it is.

Premier Doug Ford’s so­lu­tion fol­lows his late brother’s by trum­pet­ing, “sub­ways, sub­ways, sub­ways!” It seems he has no time for pesky light rail sys­tems and ded­i­cated busways that get in the way of cars and trucks. He’s also men­tioned that a sub­way all the way to Pick­er­ing from down­town Toronto would be a good idea.

The schism here is that the Ford gov­ern­ment seems com­mit­ted to clean­ing up On­tario’s fi­nances while press­ing for the most ex­pen­sive method of pub­lic tran­sit known to man. Tun­nelling costs ap­prox­i­mately $350 mil­lion a kilo­me­tre plus the cost of track, sig­nalling and trains. It could suck the pro­vin­cial pub­lic trans­port bud­get dry.

It re­mains to be seen whether Trans­porta­tion Minister Jeff Yurek can in­tro­duce some so­bri­ety by press­ing for ev­i­dence-based, less-costly solutions, in­clud­ing those Metrolinx and TTC al­ready have un­der­way which Ford might er­ro­neously select as to­ken po­lit­i­cal sac­ri­fices.

So, when it comes to the EA for trans­porta­tion op­tions in South­west­ern On­tario and as­sum­ing the PCs are still in power, what will they choose? Will it be a South­west­Linx-based so­lu­tion or the tail-chas­ing and pol­lut­ing op­tion of yet more con­gested high­ways? In other words, will it be a best-prac­tice or fol­low-the-money de­ci­sion?

If Lon­don and ad­ja­cent com­mu­ni­ties want to cope with pop­u­la­tion growth, re­main at­trac­tive to tal­ent and in­ward in­vest­ment, they must unite to present an ir­refutable case to the minister for high-per­for­mance rail and con­nec­tor bus ser­vices. Part of that re­spon­si­bil­ity is to con­sider that PC cli­mate-change de­nial will soon be re­placed by the need for af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion on green­house gas emis­sions. Sorry, PCs, its not go­ing away.

As Mark Twain once said; “One should al­ways try to do the right thing, be­cause it will grat­ify some peo­ple and as­ton­ish the rest.” Sage ad­vice for the pol­icy grandees in Queen’s Park and Ot­tawa. Ken West­car is a Wood­stock writer with an in­ter­est in trans­porta­tion.

One should al­ways try to do the right thing, be­cause it will grat­ify some peo­ple and as­ton­ish the rest.” Mark Twain

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