GRT expansion could be scaled back as Region of Waterloo looks to trim costs
Critics say the recommendation contradicts the region's climate emergency declaration
Regional staff are recommending council scale back plans to expand the Grand River Transit network to save the Region of Waterloo $1.2 million.
If approved, the move would curtail plans for more frequent service in areas where travel patterns have changed with the start of the Ion LRT. It would also cut planned weekend improvements in southeast Galt, an area that has seen significant population growth.
The expanded service was outlined in the region's Transportation Master Plan, which sets the roadmap through to 2023. Each year, the region takes a look at the financial implications of that plan.
In the 2020 budget, staff recommended council proceed with what it calls "priority bundle 1," which focuses on service to southeast Galt, but delay two other "priority bundles," which would add 20,000 more service hours, including:
- Buses every 15 minutes on routes 8 and 12.
- More trips on route 19.
- Buses every 15 minutes during peak service year round — adding summer service — on routes 1 and 16
- Buses every 15 minutes year round — adding summer service — on iXpress routes 201, 202, 204 and 205.
- Saturday and Sunday evening service every 30 minutes in southeast Galt.
"It's all financial," planning and works chair Tom Galloway, said. "It's all trying to balance all the needs that the region has."
Costs are growing, and the region is trying to make sure it does the best it can with taxpayer dollars, said Galloway.
"We have police coming in at a high rate, we have paramedic services, we have roads, we have childcare and social services all asking for more money," said Galloway, adding the $1.2 million saved by putting off the expansion would go a long way.
Bus riders 'waiting patiently'
Better service to southeast Galt is a long time coming, says Sheri Penny.
"I've been taking buses pretty much my whole life," said Penny, who is 58. "I've been waiting patiently for an expansion."
Penny said she isn't comfortable driving and doesn't have a license, so Grand River Transit is her lifeline.
"If they changed it, and made it more regular I think they would have a lot more people using the service — and you would be able to get out and do the things you want to do, and need to do."
For Sheri, that would be Sunday supper, with her sister.
"If I'm relying on the bus to get back home, I have to leave her house, basically at suppertime," said Penny. "If I stay longer, then I have no bus service at all to get home."
Connie Cody, who also lives in southeast Galt, says it's the seniors in her neighbourhood who need the service expansion most.
"A lot of time, these seniors won't ask for help, and they'll endure it, and suffer it in silence — which is a shame."
So she's started her own ad-hoc shuttle service, to help when she can.
"I'm going out and picking people up and driving them to where they need to go. They would be very happy to take public transport," said Cody, whose own father spent hours on the bus to get from Cambridge to Kitchener for dialysis in his final year of life.
Cody said he would leave the house at 10 or 11 a.m., and it would take three buses to get to Grand River Hospital.
"Sometimes he would not get home until 11 at night. So that's 12 hours away for a senior who has medical conditions — and they have to do that three or four times a week," he said.
Region should capitalize on momentum: TriTAG
Scrapping the expansion would take the region in the entirely wrong direction, said Mike Boos, with the Tri-cities Transportation Action Group.
He thinks the Region of Waterloo should capitalize on the momentum of the Ion and be looking to convert transit tourists into regular users.
"Right now, people are discovering transit for the first time," said Boos. "If somebody wants to explore the Ion for the first time, perhaps they'll need to catch another bus to get there. And if that bus service, or Ion service isn't as reliable as they're expecting, they might try it once and never try it again."
On top of which, said Boos, it directly contradicts the climate emergency the Region of Waterloo declared in October.
"We're making plans, and commitments we're not keeping. In declaring a climate emergency we're saying that what's being done now isn't enough. And yet, what's being proposed right now is less than what we project we'll need to meet our very modest targets," he said."
Galloway commits to full plan funding
This is not the first time the Region of Waterloo has looked to downsize the goals of the Transportation Master Plan to cut costs.
In the original draft, in 2017, the business plan recommended adding 50,000 service hours each year for five years. Council voted instead to add 35,000 service hours each year for seven years.
Galloway agrees that public transit is an important tool to get people out of their cars and reduce carbon emissions. But, he says, suggesting the region isn't invested in transit is just wrong.
"We have been been improving transit every year," said Galloway. "I think people probably have noticed the Ion at a $43-million a year cost to the local taxpayers. It's pretty hard to suggest we're cutting back."
Galloway said he will "find a way" to get the expansion fully funded "somehow or another."
Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic and Karl Kiefer, both Region of Waterloo councillors, told CBC News they hadn't decided how they would vote on the matter.
However both said they were leaning toward going against the staff recommendation and moving ahead with the full expansion outlined in the original Transportation Master Plan.
The next public input meeting on the 2020 regional budget is Dec. 11 at 6 p.m. at council chambers in downtown Kitchener.