Waterloo Region in southwestern Ontario is widely known for its vibrant high-tech sector, universities and think tanks. The Queen took a day trip to the area for a tour of Research in Motion, manufacturer of the BlackBerry, during her Canadian visit. Stephen Hawking was recently in residence at Waterloo's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.
This week it was Michael Ignatieff's turn to drop by. In an effort to court local favour, the federal Liberal Leader threw his support behind the region's $800-million light rail transit commuter proposal. "I am a passionate believer in light rail," he said, promising to "make this happen." For an area with such a reputation for intelligence and education, however, the region's train plan is a surprisingly poor idea. And an issue of national significance.
While Mr. Ignatieff's passion may be commendable in general, there's little to recommend this plan in particular. Light rail transit makes great sense for large urban centres with dense commuter traffic travelling to a downtown employment core or other significant destination. This is not the case in Waterloo Region, which lacks a recognizable downtown and has a population of just 500,000. As it stands now, the train would run from a shopping mall in Waterloo to a shopping mall in Kitchener. Most area jobs are distributed throughout the suburbs, and few commuters use existing bus services. Building a train track will not change this reality.
Waterloo Region's light rail transit proposal may not make any practical sense; however, it holds considerable attraction for municipal politicians. And while the area's four MPs are all Conservative, some won by rather slim margins in the last election. Hence Mr. Ignatieff's enthusiasm for local trains.
The regional government's plan requires that capital costs be shared fully between the province and Ottawa. Both have spoken in favour of the project, but Ontario recently offered just $300-million, due to budgetary concerns. This suggests the project will only survive with massive support from Ottawa. An announcement is expected shortly.
Given equivalent fiscal constraints at the federal level, the inappropriateness of Waterloo Region's $800-million rail project assumes national importance. That money would be better applied to other, more pressing transportation needs. And for those wishing to dream big, high-speed rail among major urban centres, such as Toronto-Montreal or Calgary-Edmonton makes more sense in the long run. The Waterloo LRT is one train Ottawa would be wise to miss.