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Keeping Track - Bus system overhaul coming to Guelph while GO station might go to Lafarge after all

There are quite a few new developments on transit in the Guelph area. This month's 'Keeping Track' addresses the Transit Growth Strategy's report on new bus routes for the city. I served on the community advisory committee for that project and am largely pleased with the results, provided they actually come to fruition. But there is more going on than just a redrawing of our bus route maps.

In a twist of irony, the plan to tear down a historically significant factory next to the train station in Guelph may prevent GO from stopping at the transit hub, with the station instead likely winding up at the Lafarge property. The Lafarge property is a large plot of vacant industrial land at the junction of highways 6, 7, 24, and two railway lines. I have advocated for a station to go there all along. As that has not been the plan, the City and the Ontario Municipal Board have cleared the way for a commercial development to go there instead, which will negatively affect our ability to usefully stop passenger trains there. Losing the downtown location would be tragic, as I believe both downtown and Lafarge are needed in spite of their proximity to eachother. If we want rail service from Guelph to be successful, it will need adequate parking that does not interfere with businesses. The downtown station cannot accommodate that for a variety of reasons.

The Lafarge/downtown station issue remains one to watch, but this month's column is limited to the bus system improvements outlined in the Transit Growth Stategy Public Information Centre report.

Guelph's transit strategy moving in the right direction

Public transit in Guelph is on the cusp of making a major leap forward - right into the early 20th century. Local bus routes that make sense and useful inter-urban mass transit connections are on the table and may well be in our future.

Anyone who has ever taken bus route Number 52 University/Kortright knows the true definition of the word meander. From its outer extremity along Ironwood Road south of the intersection of Scottsdale Drive and Kortright, it travels most of the way to the university, all the way back to Scottsdale, around behind Stone Road Mall, and only then back to the university, before finally making a beeline up Gordon Street toward downtown. Although it tries, it is an excellent example of that adage, "You can't be all things to all people." The route map generated by Guelph's transit growth strategy study, to be implemented with the arrival of the Carden Street transit hub in June 2011, shows huge improvement, and it cannot be implemented soon enough.

The message that Guelph Transit's route map needed to be wiped clean and started fresh got through, and residents throughout the city should soon be able to cross town in just 45 minutes in a worst-case scenario, down considerably from the more than an hour for the current trajectory.

The 10 linear and three loop routes introduced at the March 30 public information centre will almost all provide some measure of bi-directional service. This means that, for most of us, going from home to work will take the same time as going from work to home. For people who are used to a 10-minute trip one way and a 40-minute trip the other, this is indeed something to get excited about. Additional routes are being planned, according to the study, to provide practical service to the city's vast industrial parks whose current transit routes are, at best, painful, as anyone who has ever taken Number 51 around Southgate Drive, or Number 24 over the entire northwest corner of Guelph can attest.

Transit is apparently discussing the idea of bulk-rate passes, similar to the university passes, to be sold through large employers throughout the city. While many of us cannot benefit from such deals for the moment, one can hope that their success in moving more people further, faster, in fewer vehicles, will ultimately result in less expensive transit fares for all users. Making transit the most affordable way for people to get around can only serve to encourage its use and reduce other pressures on our infrastructure.

Most of the routes proposed are direct. There is minimal overlap except at defined transfer points. The loops at the ends of the routes to turn the buses around and provide service on the same routes in the opposite direction are mostly small and sensible. Instead of Number 52's vast 20-minute U-turn, proposed bus route Number 6 will travel from the university, along Gordon, across Kortright and Downey Road by the YMCA, and use Niska Road, Ptarmigan Drive, and Downey to turn around, then go straight back across Kortright and Gordon to the university. How novel is that?

The best news is that Guelph's transit growth strategy is the third serious study in seven years to look at how to connect Guelph to our neighbours without relying solely on the construction of new freeways. The others were the North Mainline Municipal Alliance and GO Transit Kitchener expansion studies. While the focus of Guelph's study is on bus rapid transit of various descriptions, the use of self-propelled passenger rail equipment to connect Guelph to Kitchener, Cambridge, and Brampton is proposed, with use of the same equipment to provide service between Guelph and Hamilton or Milton viewed as a longer-term prospect.

Demand for such a service on any one of these inter-regional corridors not only exists now, but has for a considerable period of time and must be properly run and marketed. More importantly, mass transit service on any one of these corridors would serve to reduce pressure on the many expensive highway expansion projects on the table for all of these same connections.

Guelph has been here once before. Up until the Great Depression, streetcars provided direct, frequent, affordable bi-directional service radiating out from Carden Street, where they connected with north-south service on the Guelph Junction Railway, east-west service on what we now call the North Mainline, and even streetcar service into Toronto, the only remnant of which is the Halton County Radial Railway Museum.

After 80 years of building our community around an ever-expanding automobile network, the past is once again proving to be the best example for the future, and Guelph's transit and inter-regional infrastructure may soon be up to the standards our great-grandparents enjoyed.

Posted at 18:35 on April 14, 2010

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