Saskatoon mayoral candidates clash on bus rapid transit plans

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Saskatoon mayoral candidates clash on bus rapid transit plans
WATCH: The city estimates the project will cost between $150 million and $200 million – Oct 2, 2020

Saskatoon’s incumbent mayor is pushing back as two candidates hoping to replace him call on the city to pump the brakes on plans to build a bus rapid transit system.

Former mayor and candidate Don Atchison has repeatedly called BRT “a 20th Century solution for the 21st Century.”

The city estimates the project will cost between $150 million and $200 million. At a news conference on Friday, Atchison said he thinks it could cost as much as $500 million, pointing to the price tag of BRT systems in other cities.

“I would rather us put the whole thing on hold,” he said.

BRT will give city buses priority, with a dedicated transit lane on 1st Avenue downtown and the use of “transit signal priority” on Broadway Avenue, which can extend green lights for oncoming buses.

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Atchison said the city should simply improve its current transit system by increasing the frequency of buses on busy routes.

“It would be far more beneficial for the citizens of Saskatoon at this time than investing hundreds of millions of dollars into a bus rapid transit system.”

Candidate Cary Tarasoff proposed a similar idea, saying “predictive modelling” could be used on busy routes, with buses being sent out more frequently on an as-needed basis.

He said it doesn’t make sense to go ahead with the plan when the city hasn’t determined where it will build a new downtown arena.

Like Atchison, he said the price tag on the project seems like a low-ball estimate. Tarasoff said it should consider the cost of the city’s proposed “transit villages.”

The city describes the villages — proposed for five sites across Saskatoon — as commercial areas “where transit, home, work and entertainment intersect.” The BRT will service those sites.

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“I would rather see the improvements done on a small scale with what we’ve got now before we blow hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars and deflect a bunch of businesses away from the existing locations,” Tarasoff said in an interview.

‘Are we going to act like a small town?’

Current mayor and candidate Charlie Clark said some public funding will be required to make some infrastructure changes, but the transit villages on private land will be largely privately financed.

It’s surprising some mayoral candidates are “inflating numbers,” Clark said

“We have to deal with facts in this campaign,” Clark told Global News.

Axing the plan would require the city to turn its back on $162 million in federal funding dedicated specifically to transit, he said.

“If we don’t leverage these funds and do this now, the opportunity will be lost and we will also not see that money invested in our community,” Clark said.

“Are we going to act like a small town or are we going to act like a city that is growing into becoming a bigger city that moves people more efficiently?”

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Candidate Zubair Sheikh said he’s on board with BRT, saying it’s necessary to decrease traffic congestion as Saskatoon grows.

“Having a rapid transit system in a growing city is necessary for increased growth,” Sheikh said in a statement to Global News.

Candidate Rob Norris did not respond to requests for comment, though Norris has previously said he’d like to put the project on hold.

The city says construction is slated to begin in 2022.

Saskatoon’s civic election is on Nov. 9.

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