City politicians have failed to green light an additional public input session on rapid transit.
The idea didn’t get enough support ahead of Thursday’s meeting debating a new recommendation from staff that favours bus rapid transit over the hybrid model they initially proposed.
An avid supporter of light rail, Councillor Jesse Helmer is standing by staff’s first choice: a mix of BRT and LRT projected to cost around $880 million.
Council endorsed the hybrid model last November after staff outlined four possible options to roll out rapid transit in London, which remains Canada’s largest city without a rapid transit system.
When staff’s latest business case was unveiled to the public last week, we learned staff had a change of heart and now preferred full BRT.
“In as much as there were attributes that would be favourable for a hybrid, it became increasingly more clear to us that at this point in time, the best mode to recommend to Council for their consideration would be the full BRT, envisioning that the full BRT that we would put forward would be developed and planned with the eventual possibility to change into a hybrid system,” City chief administrator Art Zuidema said in a media briefing last Friday.
The new model will cost an estimated $500 million, much less than the price tag of a combined BRT/LRT plan. The updated business plan found that moving to a complete BRT system had the best cost-benefit ratio and the highest return on investment.
The BRT-only project would see a 24 km system with rapid bus routes running from White Oaks Mall in the south to Masonville Mall in the north. The lines would run from Fanshawe College in the east to Wonderland Rd. North and Oxford St. West in the western section of the city.
The routes would feature dedicated bus lanes and stations as well as a rapid transit tunnel under the CP rail tracks at Richmond St. and Oxford. Officials say that tunnel could also be used by emergency vehicles.
It’s estimated riders would only have to wait between five and 10 minutes between buses.
Staff argue their business case allows for a transition to light rail in 25 years.
The full BRT system now being proposed would create an estimated $1.3 billion in transportation, environmental and economic benefits over the next 20 years, according to staff. It would also create 4,400 jobs in direct and indirect employment years, paying out $275 million in wages.
“It’s a combination of ridership, ridership projections, city growth, and also the elements of a financial partnership because we appreciate that we’re partnering with the upper levels of government and we need to make reasonable, rational choices,” said Zuidema.
As for when construction would begin on the BRT system, staff say once the necessary Environmental Assessments are complete, construction on the White Oaks Mall to Wonderland corridor could begin in 2018 with service starting in 2022. The Fanshawe College to Masonville Mall stretch could be open in 2026.
Officials say the City of London has already committed $129 million to the rapid transit project and will continue to bring the business case into focus in order to make pitches for financial support from the provincial and federal levels of government.
Councillor Helmer made a passionate plea at Council Tuesday night for City Hall to delay any decision on rapid transit until a public input session is held on the new business case supporting full BRT.
The motion failed on a 7 – 7 tie, with those voting in favour of a public input session being Councillors Helmer, Mo Salih, Virginia Ridley, Josh Morgan, Stephen Turner, Bill Armstrong, and Phil Squire.
The rest voted against the motion, while Councillor Jared Zaifman was not present.
Mayor Matt Brown confirmed last week that he is siding with city staff’s new recommendation.
“We are talking about significant amounts of taxpayer dollars, whether it’s $500 million or $800 million–it all comes from the same tax payer,” Brown said. “We owe it to Londoners to ask those difficult questions and make decisions that are based on financially credible logic and backed up by business cases.”
The latest business case from staff will be debated during Thursday’s meeting of the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee, which starts at 4p.m.