• Sean M. O'Connell

Civic Works Acrimony

Updated: Mar 17, 2019

Civic Works Committee March 14th, 2019

I attended the Civic Works Committee (CWC) to hear a presentation about the Bus Rapid Transit project history and update. I was curious about how well the committee would function based on the fact that its members (5 out of 6) are anti-BRT. For those of you who aren't familiar with the committee its members are Phil Squire (Chair), Steve Lehman, Michael Van Holst, Mayor Ed Holder, Elizabeth Peloza, and Shawn Lewis.

The presentation was straightforward and explained the various steps the project has undergone over the past 15 years. It laid out the five main areas BRT covers, which have been renamed Wellington Gateway, East London Link, North and West connections and the Downtown Couplet. The routes are the same, as are the designs with dedicated lanes etc. Jenny Ramsey, the project director, specified that BRT could be separated into these five areas to work on individually. I am not keen on that as it opens the door to not implement the plan in full.

The presentation stated that the priorities of BRT system are quality, safety and accessibility. The project cost overall is a billion dollars over a span of 20 years. The plan would effectively revitalise neighbourhoods and obviously provide rapid transportation across the city. The plan connects London's three hospitals, Western University and Fanshawe College as well as over 60% of the jobs in London. It was noted by staff that the city would save millions in life-cycle renewal of underground infrastructure maintenance as BRT is covering the costs and in some cases replacing infrastructure.

After the presentation the councillors began asking questions. It is clear from listening to the committee members (except Peloza) that they have not read any material with regards to BRT nor bother to understand the basics of how a city functions. If any of them had bothered to attend the presentations or public participation meetings over the past couple of years they would have a firm grasp of what the project is. Why bother right? It is far easier for them to be ignorant and rail against something that is clear and straightforward.

PVM began about who would pay for road widening and wants the province or federal government funding to pay for it. PVM clearly didn't read the communication from Holder and Helmer last week expressly stating that the federal rules over transit project funding do not allow for road widening as a reason to secure funding. I do not understand his obsession with road widening. He brings up this matter at council continuously. He also used the term "lunch bag letdowns" to describe the BRT project. Seriously? For someone who has been a part of council on multiple terms in dealing with infrastructure his wilful ignorance is astounding. PVM has zero credibility and demonstrates his continued incompetence on council.

There was a question about using bus bays instead of dedicated lanes (Cheng's debunked policy at work). It was pointed out that bus bays are an operational feature of a transit system when there is only one lane, in multi-lane use it is not efficient as it causes more congestion when a bus goes to leave the bay and rejoin traffic. It is a costly feature to add when not necessary. Another important point is that mix traffic is far more costly than a dedicated lane and effectively neuters the function of rapid transit.

Mayor Holder began his line of questions but clearly he seemed more interested in trying to find a fault with the system while trying to sound like he was concerned. For example, Holder did not know how many buses would be ordered, cost nor what type they are. (Answer: 28 buses at a million dollars each, bendy type at 60ft long) These details were given at the previous BRT presentation last year. This type of wilful ignorance is unacceptable.

He asked about the park and ride feature and whether that would impact people's ability to park at White Oaks mall and if there will be other areas with this feature. Park and ride refers to someone parking their car at a location and using transit to get around the city while visiting. The Wellington gateway would have this feature as it is near the 401 highway exit. Local service buses would still operate in the area and services can be extended if desired. Other transit areas can also be incorporated with park and ride areas. His tone with regards to this question was antagonistic. His question was trying to create a wedge between transit users and shoppers who he thinks wouldn't be considered or able to park at the mall because of the transit hub.

He moved onto how deliveries would be made for businesses downtown. This point has already been spoken about numerous times at council. Business deliveries would occur in off peak hours when BRT isn't running. The project management team has already assessed the intersections around businesses and the impacts. Again, another topical wedge issue. He asked about safety features for (bus) drivers and was told that the new buses would meet current safety standards. If Holder ever rode on a bus or spoke to LTC he would know that they are currently trying out a new safety feature with a door between the bus driver and the riders.

Van Holst asked about the coloured concrete. What he was referring to was using coloured concrete or asphalt instead of paint for denoting a dedicated or cycling lane. Coloured asphalt would be cheaper in the long term but costs models versus paint are ongoing. Van Holst then went off the rails and began asking why BRT uses centre lanes and the main route going down Richmond street and not another street. These two questions were asked as if he had never been sitting on council for the past four years nor at BRT related council meetings. It was explained to him that centre lanes make it easier to maintain and for people to turn onto the road. This includes making it easier for snow removal so that it is not placed onto the side of the roads. The point of these questions was to poke holes in the plan that has already been long established.

Shawn Lewis asked about accessibility with London's airport. He was told that depends on how the city chooses to connect it, with local buses or extending BRT to the airport. He complained about how Argyle mall was not being serviced with the BRT system. Jesse Helmer specifically pointed out that there are new express buses (91 and 94) to service the mall starting this year.

For the most part, Squire behaved appropriately until Maureen Cassidy asked a few questions. Cassidy was asking for an opinion regarding ridership numbers and whether Richmond street has three times the ridership than Western/Wharncliffe road. At that point he became condescending by saying how he is the chair of the committee and didn't want her question to influence/promote a particular point of view. She asked to rephrase her question and he said "I'm sure you're going to try". Two things to discuss here. One, regardless of her obvious question, his condescension towards her is unwarranted and rude. (Side note: Richmond does have three times the volume in ridership as I have rode that part of the journey every day for over 15 years)

The second thing is the "particular point of view". Transit (BRT) isn't up for debate or a particular point of view. It is necessary and appropriate. I have stated on numerous occasions that the plan is well thought out. The staff the city hired have done an amazing job and deserve some credit for their hard work and diligence to detail with BRT. We are the only city in Canada still lacking in a rapid transit system. If city council scuttles this plan, residents will continue to suffer as a result.

There is one other thing I would like to discuss. Steve Hillier wrote a letter to council (which was voted to be received) requesting a recommendation that the civic administration forward a more detailed funding request of BRT to the provincial and federal governments that clarify what components are being brought to consideration and provide greater transparency. Breaking down BRT as he requested 'to make it into manageable components for transparency and clarity in decision making process'. His letter speaks about synchronised traffic lights, incorporating bus bays and transit villages, wants further discussion on servicing Western campus, roadway and bridge maintenance, improved bus shelters and increased service in the industrial areas. All of these points have been discussed at length at council and implemented.

This letter is a prime example of obfuscation. To separate the components of the project is another way to kill it. The project has been abundantly clear and transparent from the beginning. In terms of decision making process, every councillor can read the details of the project for themselves and has access to more information than the public. If anything, by asking for a detailed funding breakdown he is implying there are hidden costs and tries to raise the spectre of rising costs associated with BRT. Mayoral candidate Paolatto, during the campaign, used the exact same tactic. There are no hidden costs with the project and in terms of a detailed funding request, the project has estimates. This is how every project is conducted. I grow tired of the charades people use to not do the research required.

Note: it is from last year (2018)

How and why would we, as a city, allow councillors's ignorance to influence key decisions? Clearly the committee is more interested in finding fault where there is none. London needs this transit plan. Ask anyone who uses the transit system. That expectation hasn't changed. I expect more obfuscation and acrimony in the next two weeks when the funding deadline for BRT looms.