London City Councillors voted to defer a decision on the city’s rapid transit debate.
At Thursday’s Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee, Councillors voted 15-0 in favour of a motion that will do two things: Allow Council more time to consider the now-staff endorsed bus rapid transit plan and give politicians a chance to reconsider Tuesday night’s decision to avoid a public participation meeting on the issue.
To have the public participation meeting, Council will need a reconsideration vote. That requires a two-thirds majority. The vote on Tuesday was 7-7 and Councillor Anna Hopkins has already said she’ll switch sides and vote in favour of the PPM. Councillor Jared Zaifman, who missed Tuesday’s meeting while recovering from a concussion, has also indicated he’ll also vote in favour of holding the public meeting.
There’s no date on when the next discussion might be, but Helmer’s motion suggested the public participation meeting and the next portion of the committee debate on the issue could both happen on the same day – however, no date has been determined.
“I’m happy we’re getting what the city needs which is an opportunity for the public to weigh in on the options in front of us, and more time for Council to debate the issue and ask questions about the business case for either the full BRT or the BRT/LRT hybrid,” said Helmer.
The new model comes with a price tag of an estimated $500 million, much less than the original $880 million of a combined BRT/LRT plan. The City has already committed $129 million to the project and are depending on the federal and provincial governments to pick up the rest of the tab.
Last year, staff outlined four options for rapid transit in London but pointed to a hybrid model as the preferred option. It was endorsed by Council last November.
However, a newly released business case showed staff changed their minds and will now promote full BRT when requesting funding from upper levels of government.
The debate on Thursday was an intense one.
The new staff-endorsed option would scrap a rail line that was set to run from Masonville Mall into the downtown core and then east to Fanshawe College and replace it with bus rapid transit.
While some Councillors and Mayor Matt Brown were supportive of the new staff direction, others wondered what had changed since the rail version of the plan was approved 15-0 back in November.
“We have the evidence by way of staff report, but we need to have a pretty good argument counter to that evidence if we were to reach for hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars more in spending for a system that provides very similar benefits,” said Brown.
Staff insisted the decision came down to London’s low ridership numbers, and denied upper levels of government demanded they alter the request to cover all but $129 million of the total cost.
But Deputy Mayor Maureen Cassidy admitted there’s been some resistance to the hybrid option.
“When I received push back from members of upper levels of government on our preliminary preferred option,” said Cassidy. “I did not weaken our case, I pitched our case to the best of my ability. I did explain, Mr. Chair, that it was a preliminary preferred option, and there were other options on the table.”
That was of great concern to Councillor Phil Squire, who felt he was left with more questions than answers on whether the provincial and federal governments were willing to find the light rail plan.
“I really pushed on that to get a very specific answer from Ms. Graham as to whether there had been anything said by any of the governments about the ask, she was clear there wasn’t,” he said. “I did hear Deputy Mayor Cassidy in her comments say very clearly that there was push back from some members of government when they heard about the total ask, and that Ms. Graham was being polite by not saying that, so I imagine there was some push back on that number. That’s at least what I’m thinking today.”
Councillor Zaifman sided with Squire, and said he did not understand why staff had a change of heart.
“While I can definitely appreciate that our staff is confident that they’re recommending it to us, we’ve been working extremely hard, diligently, with confidence, with the preliminary preferred option for a number of months, pitching this to multiple levels of government, I personally pitched this to a minister, had very positive response around it, and to be honest, looking from the summary we had in November to what we have now, I really don’t see much difference,” said Zaifman.