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GTA West study public information night

Last night I attended a public meeting for the GTA West proposal in Guelph. There will be another Thursday night in Brampton. I have only a few comments to add to my discussion of the first CAG session for the same project a few weeks ago.

The build team swear up and down that they are considering all options, not just a highway, and bristle at any suggestion otherwise. I am deeply cynical of this assertion. The new Kitchener-to-Guelph Highway 7 project also pretended to study other options.

Asked again why the study area's western limits go through Guelph rather than Waterloo region, the build team were unambiguous. Kitchener-Waterloo is getting a new highway 7 and so there is no need to consider anything further for them. They hastened to add rather dubiously that the GTA West study limits could be expanded if the team feels it necessary. While the project team also suggested that highways were part of a larger, more integrated solution, if that were the case, then we would be including Waterloo region in the study area to look at how to expand non-highway service alongside the new highway.

GO Transit has announced a Class EA to bring service to Kitchener, through GTA West's limits and out the other end. GTA West's build team say that the logical progression is to figure out what should be done, then either continue with building a highway or issue recommendations to other groups such as GO Transit. Clearly GO Transit has no particular desire to wait for GTA West's recommendations, and are acting on their own accord to get on with providing service to this study area.

The GTA West study area is a pie-slice shaped section of land to the west of Toronto, one of several corridor study areas. All of them share one feature: they are looking at ways to connect regions to Toronto, and not so much to each-other. Existing underutilised rail links between Guelph and Hamilton, for example, span the Niagara-GTA and GTA West study areas. Within each study area, the links are completely useless -- not that many people need to get to the Flamborough/Puslinch border -- but looked at holistically, non-highway transportation solutions can be found on these routes.

The study area has an arrow on it showing what they have in mind, of course. It goes from the junction of the Hanlon and the new Highway 7 across to a point in Brampton near where the 407 swings eastward, parallel to a rail line the entire way, but not near any (useful) highways.

A lot of fuss was made about the designers' computer modelling systems, and mode-of-travel assumptions. There are a few obvious points to be made here. Software is only as good as the people who design and write it. If we are modelling a transportation scenario around cars, it will do a very good job of modelling cars. But to model people's behaviours in different scenarios is less boolean. A part of their modelling and assumptions is trying to predict what mode of transport people will use. If we predict that people will use cars and build highways to accommodate this assumption, then it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. With no improved alternative modes of transportation, people will indeed use cars on the nice, pretty, brand new highway. The modelling will be right because that was what was modelled.

In the same vein, their discussion included some numbers: 3.7 million new residents requiring 1.8 million new jobs in southern Ontario over the next couple of decades. Some of those 1.8 million jobs will come from industry, and if we build new highways, new industry will be built around trucks. But if we stop subsidising trucks by building highways, then new industry will use means that are actually economical, and not only economical because of how much the taxpayer kicks in, to move their goods. Their modelling seems to assume trucks will be used, and that highways must be built to accommodate them to keep them off secondary roads. This would also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Subsidising rail, or ceasing to subsidise trucks would begin to address the modal share of truck vs rail.

Taken all together, the probability that the GTA West study group is serious about considering alternatives to highways is fairly minimal, though not nil, even if they are paying rail and transit lip service today. One member of the build team commented to me that transit can run on highways. He also noted that if the GTA West study group concludes that rail is the way to go, then they don't have a lot of work to do.

And that raises my next, and for this post, final point. The study group is a consortium of consultants and the MTO. Rail is handled by other organisations and different consultants. It is in their interest for a highway to be the conclusion that they come to. No highway means no highway to study, no highway to plan, and no highway to build. Offering GO Transit a recommendation to do what they are already doing does not lend well to getting future work and contracts from the provincial government, nor to keeping themselves employed for the next several years.

I should note also that several of the planning staff acknowledged reading this blog. I wonder if they see this as an adversarial process and me as "the other side" as the Hanlon improvement folks do? No doubt I have a thick dossier somewhere in MTO's offices. So, knowing that they are reading this, I challenge the GTA West study build team to show in a meaningful way that rail transit solutions are truly on the table, that it is not, as they swear, lip service. The information night made little mention of the challenges facing rail in this area. Even the local rail choke-point of the single-track Credit river bridge in Georgetown was brought up by an audience member rather than the build team. The fact that railway tracks stretch the entire length of the study area, and from Bramalea to the 400 without any passenger service whatsoever, was never so much as mentioned. To allay my fears, and those of others present, that there is nothing but lip service being paid to rail, I would ask them to show us that they know the rail network and what it has to offer, where it can be expanded and improved, and what the real costs are for rail as compared to for road, both economical and environmental.

We need to fix our thinking to not rely on ever greater swaths of pavement to solve all our problems. It will probably take us 30 years of concerted effort to shift our economy back to a majority modal share of rail, but we have to start that 30 year clock. We haven't, and the GTA West study looks like we won't take this opportunity to either.

Posted at 08:23 on June 24, 2008

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