London’s “unbundled” BRT sees partial approval at committee level
One of the city’s longest running debates is nearing its end and a multi-million dollar compromise is on the horizon for London’s rapid transit future.
On Monday, city councillors gathered as the strategic priorities and policy committee for a more than seven-hour debate on London’s transit priorities.
Councillors were presented with 19 potential transit projects, all recommended by city staff of becoming eligible for $370 million in provincial and federal funding.
Most of the meeting’s attention was drawn towards the first five projects, which represented an “unbundling” of the city’s contentious $500-million bus rapid transit (BRT) plan.
The North Connection, linking downtown to Masonville mall, failed to garner support. Meanwhile, the West Connection, providing a route from downtown to west of Wonderland Road, fell one vote shy of making the cut.
Approved was the south-stretching Wellington Road Gateway, the Downtown Loop and the East London Link.
Mayor Ed Holder credited council’s decision to a focus on jobs, adding that London’s northern and western quadrants will still be serviced by buses.
“There’s no question that we have transit that goes throughout this city,” Holder said.
“The question was, ‘were we going to put some emphasis on areas where we could get people to work on time and back home again?’ I think that was certainly the focus I had.”
The transit-focused vote was almost put on hold, when Ward 10 Coun. Paul Van Meerbergen motioned to have all 19 projects referred back to staff, in order for business cases to be presented to council.
“About two weeks ago, we saw this list of 19 projects. Less than a week ago we had a public participation meeting,” Van Meerbergen said.
“Now here we are… having to make a half-billion dollar decision in this very short time frame.”
The motion came amid a recently published letter from Ontario Minister of Transportation Jeff Yurek that suggested the city had longer than March 31 to submit its transit projects for provincial funding – a deadline that Holder imposed earlier this year.
Holder defended his deadline citing a looming federal election, and was backed by Ward 2 Coun. Shawn Lewis who called on his experience as as a federal aide to NDP MP Irene Mathyssen.
“Very early in June sometime, the MPs are all going to go home for the summer and they’re not coming back. They’re going into an election,” Lewis said.
The motion failed 3-12 with it’s only support coming from Van Meerbergen, along with Ward 1 Coun. Michael Van Holst and Ward 14 Coun. Steve Hillier.
Seven transit projects also garnered approval from council: intelligent traffic signals, expansion buses, bus stop amenities, active transport connections for an upcoming Adelaide Street underpass, active transport connections between Dundas Place and the Thames Valley Parkway, streetscape improvements to Old East Village and improvements to Oxford Street and Wharncliffe Road.
The approved projects combine for a price tag of just over $380 million, but city treasurer Anna Lisa Barbon informed council that this still leaves about $94 million in untapped senior government funds.
Ward 11 Coun. Stephen Turner expressed concern at the remaining federal and provincial funding, adding that London will have to pay more if it wants access to more senior government cash.
“The funds from the federal and provincial are based on a ratio… if there’s about $100 million from the federal and provincial government, it’s contingent upon us putting about $25 million forward in order to match those funds.”
A long-time supporter of BRT, Turner was disappointed with the result of Monday night’s vote.
He told 980 CFPL that those in the north and west will miss out on a lot of what rapid transit has to offer.
“One of the biggest things that rapid transit did for us was help to direct where our development would occur in the city… by helping to increase the density within certain corridors, that allowed us to decrease the amount we would need to tax people in the future,” Turner said.
“So, this is going to cost a lot more.”
Holder had a more optimistic tone, adding that provincial and federal governments left a “door open” to consider future transit projects outside of the approved 10. As for the $380 million rapid transit plan that will be mostly funded through senior government money, Holder considered it a “great win for London.”
Council voted to have six remaining transit projects referred to a future meeting. These projects include cycling initiatives and new sidewalks.
While the transit votes have been tallied at the committee level, a council meeting will make a final decision on Tuesday afternoon.
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