Expect plenty of passionate debate at City Hall Thursday afternoon, as a final public input session is held on rapid transit.
A final public input session is being held before city politicians vote on whether to pursue funding to build full bus rapid transit in London or a hybrid model that includes light rail.
Confident that either system could be good for London, Councillor Phil Squire hopes they can make a final decision soon but admits he was frustrated by a lack of information from city staff.
“They recommended very strongly in November of last year that we should go to a hybrid system, and we voted unanimously in favour of that relying on their recommendation,” Squire said. “Then, less than half a year later, they come back and say, ‘well, we’ve sort of tweaked things a little bit and we have a whole new recommendation.’ And I tried really hard to get an answer on why things changed, and I’ll be honest with you, nothing has changed.”
The staff-endorsed BRT proposal comes with price tag of roughly $500 million, much less than the original $880 million of a combined BRT/LRT plan. The City has committed $129 million to the project and is 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, which 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 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.
Officials say they still plan to eventually incorporate Light Rail Transit, but the new business case envisions it possibly rolling out in 25 years.
The about-face from staff came as a surprise to many, including Councillor Jesse Helmer, an avid light rail supporter. He felt residents should have a chance to weigh in on the new preferred option before it’s finalized.
“The public really ask great questions, and the public participation meeting is a good opportunity to do that,” Helmer said. “Poke at the business case, ask questions about, you know, are these buses going to be diesel or electric, what’s going to be the construction difference between LRT and BRT, what are the impacts of that.”
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.
The London Transit Commission voted 3-2 on Wednesday in favour of endorsing the hybrid model, suggesting it would address overcrowding in the northeast and has lower operating costs, but the ultimate decision rests with Council.
After Thursday’s public input session which starts at 4p.m., city politicians meeting as the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee could vote on which system to support ahead of a final Council vote expected next week.
But Helmer thinks they might want to hold off on making a final decision for another few weeks.
“I do think the fact that this report from the transit commission around the future networks not going to be available until June should give my colleagues a bit of time to think about that and I certainly would prefer to have that report and know what it says before making a final decision but I understand that there are other folks who feel they have the information they need to make a decision, they want to move forward so that we don’t slow things down in terms of getting the business case to the province and federal government.”