“A Tale of Two Transit Plans – Part 2”

Yesterday I wrote at length about the potential consequences for London’s economy should the next provincial government choose to defer the commissioning of High Speed Rail (HSR) in SW Ontario.

In today’s post, I would like to focus on the merits and completeness of the Ontario Government’s proposed HSR plan, and contrast it to the plan promoted by the City of London to justify its own investment in Rapid Transit (RT).  I draw this comparison in the hopes that the City will use the provincial plan as a template in the next iteration of its business case, so that Londoners in general and Council in particular, can better evaluate the plan’s merits and effectively decide on the city’s transit future.

To begin, both plans do an effective job of articulating the problems with each of their respective systems. In the case of HSR, the Province appropriately details the issues associated with growing highway and conventional rail system congestion, extensive travel times, and limited alternative travel options. Similarly, the City nicely summarized its primary transit issues, including; lengthy transit travel times, street congestion, and service infrequencies. However, the City oddly went further in its plan by also including its desire to use transit as a means to achieve greater land use density, population growth management and urban rejuvenation.  Personally, I believe that these latter issues are less important than the immediate need to effectively move people in and around the city, but I’ll accept their inclusion for now.

Next, both plans do a pretty good job outlining the benefits of HSR and RT. The Ontario Government’s plan focused on mobility, economic development, and regional integration. In fact, their vision statement could not have been clearer: “To transform mobility in Southwestern Ontario in order to connect communities, integrate centres of innovation, and foster regional and economic growth and development.”

Similarly, the City’s plan was pretty clear in its intent.  While I could not find a specific vision statement, the City did open its plan with this rather strong statement: “Shift is a bold and important transportation and city-building initiative for London. It focuses on developing Rapid Transit as a core mobility option in a multi-modal transportation system that will help London continue to grow towards a prosperous and sustainable future”.  The City’s plan goes on to list a number of benefits, including: improved connectivity both regionally and economically, addressing system capacity shortfalls, city-building and an improved environment.

However, from this point on, the respective plans differ greatly in substance and quality.  For example, the HSR plan really focuses on system cost, both capital and operating.  The HSR team also does a good job applying appropriate contingency levels to the project, testing those cost estimates through a peer review process, and comparing its cost assumptions with similar projects in other jurisdictions to confirm their reasonableness.  This approach lends credibility to the assumptions and provides the government (and the public) with a clearer understanding of the investment.  The HSR plan also does not try to force favourable benefit/cost outcome, recognizing that many of the benefits associated with this initiative are difficult to quantify.

The HSR plan also outlines its planning and consultation approach, including what the team has accomplished to-date and what remains to be done.  For example, the HSR plan details the need to continue to engage and consult with a range of key stakeholders; including; Indigenous people, corridor communities, other rail services, and Ontario Hydro, all of whom it deems as critical to the project’s success. The plan acknowledges the sensitive issues that remain and lays out an approach to ensure that nothing and no one is missed.

The HSR plan next considers governance, the role of the private sector, and the best method of managing the service throughout the design, construction and operating phases. The plan also considers innovative financing approaches, giving the government and the public its best advice on how to creatively finance the project and cost effectively manage implementation.

While the plan is not perfect, it does provide the government with enough evidence and supporting arguments to continue the process.  Most importantly, it gives the public some level of confidence that the plan has considerable merit and can be implemented in a responsible and cost-effective manner.

Unfortunately, the City’s RT plan in its current form does the exact opposite.  It fails to capture the full cost of the project, putting both the project and the local taxpayer at considerable risk for any cost overruns once the construction process is underway.  This lack of complete cost data (e.g. Western link, Transit Villages and parking, expropriation expenses, transaction systems, core system improvements, accessibility improvements, etc.) also discredits the plan’s current benefit/cost ratio.

The RT plan’s consultation process also remains in question as several constituents are still unaware of the plan’s impact on their property and neighbourhood.  It has failed to undergo any kind of peer review, a process that would lend further credibility to the assumptions and confidence to the plan as a whole.  The plan does not consider any project governance or experienced management structure beyond the hiring of inside team members. Finally, the plan considers no alternative financing option beyond seeking funds from the Feds and Province, and covering the local portion through development charges; an approach that is once again fraught with risk.

As such I believe that Council should neither seek nor accept an updated Shift business plan without all of the relevant cost data included and the full project properly priced.  The community has repeated stated that it is better to get this project done right than quickly.  Let’s hope that this time the plan is complete and Council is listening.

One Last Thought

In a future post, I hope to offer up some of my own ideas for Rapid Transit in London, ideas that are focused much more on ‘people movement’ and less on ‘city-building’.  However, before concluding this post, I did want to make one suggestion regarding HSR and London’s role in the project.  As part of its multi-mode HSR/RT station analysis, I would encourage the City to consider the possibility of moving the whole system next to our airport.  While a downtown location has a certain appeal, it would be worth exploring the possibility of leveraging SW Ontario’s largest airport in a manner that improves functionality (e.g. expanded air connections, abundant parking), system efficiency, and accommodation of all modes of transportation.  My guess is that such a link will have the benefit of creating numerous transportation opportunities for everyone, expand local land and asset utilization and draw investment and jobs to the area.  Just a thought.