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Transportation planning leaves a lot to be desired

Tuesday's column appears in yesterday's on-line edition, so here goes. It's an expession of my annoyance that we have become so obsessed with a downtown railway station for outbound Guelph commuters that we will now risk entering GO service in two years without having one single parking space for those commuters in the entire city. Somehow, tying up our remaining already overcrowded city lots with commuters' cars is considered good for our downtown businesses. The lack of clarity in our vision for how to build our infrastructure if it isn't a simple road is truly mind-boggling.

Anyway, here it is...

Stimulus opportunity fails to hit the rails

Transportation planning leaves a lot to be desired

With two years to go before leaving the hatchery, our chickens are already on their way home to roost.

The proposed Wilson Street civic parkade, Guelph's answer to a proper commuter rail station, will be deferred years past the arrival of the trains it was meant to serve, and, for the second time in as many decades, GO trains will visit Guelph without providing a realistic option for its passengers to park and ride.

The decision to defer the lot may be the right one, if made for the wrong reason. Its main purpose, by design or otherwise, would have been to service the train station, drawing more cars into downtown outside of business hours and contributing only parking fare to the local economy. But by requesting only a single station in our downtown, and by settling with a particular set of developers whose vast, vacant land lies between two railway lines and three highways, Guelph has effectively cut off its nose to spite its face. When GO trains arrive two years from now, we will have neither a proper station downtown, nor an alternative location conducive to getting drivers out of their cars.

Once again, we will be encouraging our commuters to use the ever-expanding highway network while pondering why our GO trains are leaving Guelph with almost only Waterloo region passengers aboard.

The 401 is among the busiest highways on earth. Stretching 16 lanes across at its widest, it is also among the slowest. With all that, you would think that the GTA is one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. But it only makes the top 50 if you stretch it to include Hamilton.

Our solution to our never-ending congestion problems is inevitably to pass up golden transit opportunities, build another highway, and enlarge the freeways we have until there remains no room to grow.

We have an extensive network of buses and trains of various descriptions, speeds, and routes. And if you don't mind going through downtown Toronto, you can get pretty well anywhere in under a day. Guelph to Hamilton, with the end of direct CoachCanada service, is a mere four hours by bus, and we can even make Brantford on overnight service.

Among the many studies taking place in the area is one called "GTA West." It looks at transportation problems from the Hanlon in the west to the 400 in the east, from the 401 in the south to a fuzzy line north of the GTA. Every few months, the GTA West study's Community Advisory Group meets to hear about the latest developments and offer input to the planning team. The fifth such meeting will take place in Mississauga on Thursday.

GO has already run an environmental assessment from inception to completion, albeit largely based on city parking plans that won't come to fruition, since the GTA West study got under way for much of the same territory. GTA West, delimited by highway rather than developed boundaries, remains focused on all modes of transportation, with a likely outcome of a new super-corridor stemming off the interchange of the Hanlon and the as-yet unbuilt new Highway 7 to an unclear easterly terminus.

Coupled with the grade separation of the Hanlon and the pending expansion of the four-lane Highway 6 south from the 401 toward Freelton, such a highway would make a clear means of coming up from the Niagara Peninsula and bypassing Toronto to get straight onto the 400, via Guelph. However the planners have acknowledged the loud and clear message from the community advisory group is that a new highway, at least on its own, is not an acceptable solution to our transportation woes.

For the past year, we have been in recession. In an attempt to jump-start the economy, roads across the country are being rebuilt at a frenetic pace. And while our governments at all levels are borrowing heavily to pay for it, one has to ask what we are actually achieving.

There is no better time than a deep recession to rapidly and comprehensively rethink national infrastructure. Labour is cheaper and more abundant than during a boom, and the work can create jobs. We have figured it out to an extent, with the largest pothole-filling project in history, but what we are lacking is the vision required to turn this economic bust into a true infrastructure boon.

Now is the time we should be mapping our country and drawing a new transportation infrastructure on it that does not focus around our insatiable demand for highways. We need to be building new railway lines and stations and improving existing ones. We need to make our different means of transportation interconnect. And we need to provide a place for people to put their cars to ride into the future. Projects such as GTA West provide us an opportunity, at least in our little corner of the country, to push for transportation strategies that offer meaningful alternatives where only another highway and a parkingless commuter station are envisioned.

Posted at 06:24 on November 01, 2009

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