• Sean M. O'Connell

Transit Woes

Updated: Apr 13, 2019

It's been quite a week. I was at the Centennial Hall for the public participation meeting on transit (March 25th), then the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee and Council meetings at city hall. Finally on Friday all the expense reports have been filed from the 2018 election campaign. I will do a analysis on those expenses when ready as there are many things to unpack.

So for those of you who haven't heard. City Council opted to separate the Bus Rapid Transit plan into nineteen individual components. These sections were voted on individually during the SPPC meeting and as a result the city now has half of a transit system. The downtown, east and south ends will receive BRT. The north and west ends will not. It is mind-numbing that a city could do this to itself despite the evidence. Some councillors let their personal beliefs override their judgement. I know all too well that there are times when an elected official has to do what is good for everyone despite the backlash from your constituents. London councillors failed in that duty. How else can one explain the inexplicable result of leaving $94 million in funding on the 'table' while the two fastest growing sections of London are left out of the plan. It is not only a complete lack of vision but of empathy and inclusion.

For instance, Councillor Lehman was allowed to vote on a crucial vote despite a clear conflict of interest. The integrity commissioner stated he could because he rents property for his businesses in the downtown. Councillor Turner was told he could not vote because he owned property. This is where the concept of having an integrity commissioner utterly failed. Greg Stewart, is the integrity commissioner and he services more than one municipality. When council was envisioning this position in 2014, it was to have a commissioner dedicated solely to London. In addition, Council insisted on a lawyer holding the position. A person with a compliance background would be far more useful.

I digress, Lehman would stand to make a lot of money from having three businesses located on Richmond Row on a major transit line, yet Turner would have to sell his own home in order to profit from it. Not a quick or easy task. I find this type of fuzzy logic with the commissioner problematic. Anyone who owns property near a transit hub or route would conceivably make money on their property. Yet Lehman was given the OK? Lehman tried to back petal somewhat on the issue saying how 'future profits' aren't certain. Bullshit. Everyone would want a business near a transit line due to high frequency foot traffic. Moreover, this was one of my campaign points to reinvigorating London.

Councillor Lehman, in particular, doesn't understand his new job role. I recounted my story of being late to a mayoral debate at the Hyde Park business association due to taking a bus (despite leaving two hours ahead of time) at the PPM. His take from that comment in council session was that people arrive late when taking a bus. That completely misses the point I was making. It is not about the system arriving continuously late but of the inadequacies and ineffectiveness of the existing system. The fact that BRT offered a better reality for average people.

Mayor Holder made it very clear that he comes out on the side of cars over residents who use transit. This is unfortunate and another example how the status quo is alive and well in London. His statement and the resulting vote demonstrated to everyone that there is an active class (wealth) divide in London. The affluent areas of West and North London have cars and big homes and supposedly don't need transit yet he completely ignored the fact that other people live in those areas too.

The residents who came to the Centennial Hall PPM were mainly in favour of keeping the transit system together in order to complete a process that has been ongoing for the last 10 years. The proponents to BRT are a vocal minority. They wouldn't have you believe that though. According to Walter Lonc, a one-time city councillor, stated at the PPM -“The last election was a referendum on the BRT project. The result was clear. The majority of Londoners are not in favour of BRT.” Chip Martin, later did an opinion piece and tried desperately to paint the piecemeal process as BRT by stealth. These comments demonstrate how narrow minded, elitist and inept they are at understanding the larger picture.

The last election was not a referendum on BRT. Transit became a wedge issue because the vocal minority made it into one. Other candidates piled on in the hopes that adopting such a position would get them elected. Stephen Orser being a prime example. He came out saying "I wanted to stop the BRT from day one!". To anyone who didn't pay attention, Orser was lying.

Here is the problem with referendums. On a basic level, one asks uninformed individuals to make a choice that affects everyone usually in the absence of actual facts. Brexit being the foremost example. Conservatives, in Canada, love using soundbites and one-liners to whip people up into a frenzy over an issue so that people will vote the way conservatives want them to; against their better interest. This was precisely the tactic used by the downshift group last year in their misinformation propaganda campaign.

Let me move onto the political stunt from Phil Squire. Prior to the SPPC meeting on Monday, March 25th, Squire held a hasty news conference where he declared he had solved the dedicated lane issue with BRT, with wait for it, high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes. If you are scratching your head in confusion I don't blame you. He wrote to Jeff Yurek, the provincial minister of transportation, on the day of the public participation meeting to find out if London could still access provincial funding with a change to dedicated lanes. It amazes me, that he has the temerity to write to the transportation minister on the day of the PPM. The whole point of the PPM was to listen to Londoners to make an educated decision based on feedback, not to circumvent everyone by writing to his buddies at Queen's Park. The SPPC meeting was to be about voting on elements of BRT, not rewriting the entire plan for HOV lanes. Clearly, our words were falling on deaf ears.

Let's make something clear. The city, when submitting a business case for funding, is required to have the case outlined in the master plan. There are different criterion for different levels of government. Council, however, ran a muck on Monday when the suggestion was made to throw these transport projects back to staff to develop business cases for each. In my professional life, I have worked on such documents and it goes to show how inept certain councillors are at understanding the basics of what they are asking the administration to do. Business cases depending on their complexity can take months or years to develop and put into action. Not to mention, some councillors wanted to throw away the money that had already been spent on this process. For 'fiscally minded' councillors they sure love to throw money away. Conversely, it is that very ideology, fiscal conservatism, that is a constant poison on council. London has had a triple AAA credit rating for over 40 years. Why do councillors constantly question about costs when the administration clearly knows how to manage its finances? It is because, it feeds into their narrative that only they know how to manage prudently the city's finances. It is another falsehood. Half of the elected council doesn't know much about running a city, even less about its finances. Honestly, sit down and watch them in council session and one can see who reads the reports and does the research from those who do not.

Finally, I will give you one example of how inadequate the current LTC system is. Let's start with a renewal of an electronic bus pass. (They will no longer be issuing the paper passes as of April.) Most private vendors who had bus passes for sale no longer have them because they are not willing to buy the equipment necessary for the electronic bus passes. One can purchase a pass online. However, they say to allow for 48 hours before the transaction will clear and have the pass added to your account. They only accept credit cards online, not debit. Furthermore, they assume that low income individuals will have money before the end of the month to purchase in advance and possess a credit card. Nor does the low income bus pass reach most of the individuals in town because after city council passed that initiative they didn't bother to work with Ontario Works to ensure low income individuals received them. They put in place a form and a reference to speak to a caseworker. Adoption of new technology is no substitute for short sighted policy.

The transit offices downtown are closed on Sundays with exception of the main office on Highbury street which isn't built or located appropriately to handle customers. If anything, the Dundas street office should be upgraded to the main office and expanded to handle the volume of customers. This demonstrates how poorly equipped the system is when the process to purchase an electronic bus pass cannot work seamlessly or conveniently. To make a system great requires planning, foresight and appropriate funding.

When I travelled Europe, most cities that had rapid transit had areas for ticket booths or machines to purchase from. When you purchased a monthly pass it was from the date of purchase. Not the physical month. Yet, here we have elected councillors telling us and voting that they don't believe in that system or that it is too costly. Complaining about ridership numbers and not possessing the operational funding to support the system. Ridership is a red herring. It is to detract from the fact that the city has undercut transit for decades and not supported it. BRT was to rectify that situation. All this phoney anti-BRT rhetoric is populism at its worse. The status quo won the election and with it London's future. The price Londoners are paying for these decisions is high.

With some hindsight, I am certain the west and north ends will come around once they realise what they opted out of. Those councillors who voted against the plan will undoubtedly be tossed in the next election. Already people are talking about such things after three months into their term.