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LRT plan sidetracks transit debate


Globe and Mail
Tuesday, December 17, 2002 — Print Edition, Page A27

Before he left town, eventually ending up at the helm of Amtrak, the U.S. passenger rail network, former Toronto Transit Commission chief David Gunn looked into the crystal ball and made one three-letter prediction on the future of public transit in this region: bus.

No matter how much more attractive train travel may be — and few deny its advantages — most transit planners seem to agree: Express buses are the better (i.e. cheaper) way of moving large numbers of people long distances through the sprawl zone of a modern “100-mile city.”

Even the people at GO Transit, who run double-decker commuter trains all over greater Toronto, acknowledge that. Their latest proposal for improving regional transit and alleviating road congestion is a system of express buses running in their own rights of way along existing superhighways.

GO’s Bus Rapid Transit plan, which is budgeted at $1-billion, is the most “prudent” and “pragmatic” solution to regional transit needs, according to Gordon Chong, the agency’s chairman.

The new plan was supposed to generate headlines when the GO board approved it last week, burnishing the agency’s claim to a major chunk of the $1.25-billion in regional transit spending the province has promised over the next decade.

But then a consortium of private interests crashed the party by offering to build their own regional light-rail transit (LRT) network, using souped-up streetcars running along existing heavy-rail corridors, a day before the GO board met.

“The modelling we have done, which is very extensive, shows that LRT will attract significantly more transit volumes than any other option,” claimed Mitch Patten, spokesman for the SmartRide LRT consortium and vice-president of Aecon Group Inc., one of its members.

“LRT stands the best chance of getting people out of their cars, and that is what all of this depends on,” he added.

Not so, according to Dr. Chong. “You cannot make a rational case for LRT,” he said, citing reams of data comparing light-rail and express- bus systems across North America. “There isn’t a single hands-on operator in the region who supports it.”

Light-rail systems typically cost 2 times as much to build, according to Dr. Chong, without offering any significant advantages over modern buses using their own lanes, ramps and stations.

“The minute you put money into something you don’t need simply because somebody is willing to finance it, you’re wasting your money,” he said.

TTC general manager Rick Ducharme concurs wholeheartedly.

The regional LRT system has been “flogged before,” he said, adding that he helped the province spend more than $50-million on studies for a similar system in the mid 1980s, only to see it cancelled as too expensive.

As long as light-rail dreams drove transit policy, Mr. Ducharme added, existing TTC and GO networks suffered neglect.

Reviving those dreams today will only “sidetrack us all once again,” he warned, adding that a proposal “to throw down light rail where GO rail already goes” doesn’t conform to any existing regional or local transit plans.

“I don’t know how you can justify it,” he concluded. “Bus seems to be the way to go.”

GO’s express-bus proposal is based on studies collated and conducted by the now defunct Greater Toronto Services Board, according to Dr. Chong, as well as similar systems that operate in the United States and, closer to home, Ottawa.

It will use “comfortable, modern buses, not like those old things rattling down Bay Street,” he said. The buses will not only have exclusive lanes; they will also have their own off and on ramps. “The idea is that you treat it like a rail system, except that you’re using buses.”

Dr. Chong derided the alternative — an actual, real live rail system — as “glitzy” and “a megaproject.”

The SmartRide promoters can’t be helped by the fact that the city’s last experiment in suburban light-rail transit, the Scarborough RT line, proved to be just that. And with so little money now available for any new transit infrastructure, even the cheapest solution would count as a major achievement.