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Canada's Waterloo Region Plans for Light Rail by 2014

Waterloo Light Rail Transit MapRegion would be smallest in North America to build a modern electric light rail system.

After a commitment by the Regional Council, Canada’s Waterloo Region will begin the planning and construction of a new light rail line connecting two of the area’s major cities, Waterloo and Kitchener. The project will be staged in association with a new bus rapid transit line heading south to Cambridge. The region, with a population of less than 500,000, will become North America’s smallest metropolitan area to benefit from a modern electric light rail system and leads the way for smaller municipalities around the continent to consider investments in dramatically improved public transportation.

The Waterloo Region is inland, southwest of Toronto. It has become one of Canada’s fastest-growing metro areas, and is expected to expand to 725,000 citizens over the next 25 years. Kitchener, the region’s largest city, has a population of 200,000. In order to handle the additional people, the region has developed a land use plan that will concentrate development along the area’s central corridor, which mostly follows King Street through downtown Waterloo and Kitchener. The region plans to use land protection measures to prevent much of the sprawl that affects most growing regions.

The light rail system, which was approved for regional funding last week, will roughly follow King Street in its central segment, though it will diverge from that route in the north, where it will terminate at Conestoga Mall, and in the south, where it will end at Fairview Park Mall. The construction of this initial corridor, to begin in 2012 and open by 2014, will cost a total of C$790 million. Funds are likely to come from regional, provincial, and federal governments; Ottawa pledged C$160 million for project last week, and it is expected to offer more as the project advances.

Cambridge, which sits at the southeastern corner of the region and has a population of 120,000, will not get light rail as part of this project. Instead, a bus rapid transit line will connect the Fairview Park Mall light rail station to the Ainslie Street Terminal in downtown. The BRT offering will be operating by 2011.

Cambridge’s mayor is frustrated that a light rail connection to his city won’t be included in the first phase, as he rightfully sees it as a more permanent and substantial investment than a good bus line. But the rail extension, which is planned for eventual completion, would add another C$583 million to the project, a sum that the region claims it simply won’t be able to find. The success of the first link would inspire the completion of this extension; a less promising start for rail service in the region would not bode well for Cambridge’s transit hopes.

Most intriguing about Waterloo Region’s project is the fact that it’s occurring at all. Edmonton is currently the smallest Canadian metro area with modern, electric light rail, and it has more than one million inhabitants; in the U.S., that honor goes to Salt Lake, which has 1.1 million citizens. North American cities, distinguished from their generally smaller European counterparts by their sprawling nature, must be sufficiently sized to support a modern transit system, and Waterloo is certainly taking a risk in investing so much in the project. That said, the region’s affiliated land use plan — if implemented correctly — could ensure that the light rail system plays a prominent role for the area’s newest citizens, and that future development is dense enough to support the transit links. Strong ridership on this line may imply that small regions in the U.S. and Canada are able to support better transit than currently assumed.

Image above: Waterloo light rail plans, from Region of Waterloo

16 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Size matters less than density. San Francisco, pop 800,000, would still have a crush-loaded Muni Metro system even if the rest of the Bay Area fell into the sea, as its ridership is almost all within the city.

    If the Waterloo project is a serious attempt to jumpstart densification, well above the scale usually achieved in towns that size, then it sounds like a great project. But that would be a remarkable commitment for a place that size with no evident shortage of sprawlable land.

  • smably

    Here in the Waterloo Region, we have a couple of things working in our favour.

    One, we are fairly linear region. Of our trip generators are fairly clase to that green line. In particular, we have the University of Waterloo (with around 30,000 faculty, staff, and students) and both downtown cores.

    Our regional government is also very serious about stopping sprawl. This is being pitched as a reurbanization project as much as a people-mover. Ontario has its Places to Grow legislation, which forces a certain proportion of development to occur in built-up areas, so we were already looking for ways to concentrate development near our core areas.

    Finally, I’d like to mention that both Calgary and Edmonton built light rail when they had similar populations. Now Calgary, a city with around twice our region’s population, has a daily ridership of almost 300,000 (though it is certainly not a model to follow in terms of sprawl).

  • Cameron Monagle

    Not familiar with the area–but for an area so focused on reducing sprawl, doesn’t it seem counterproductive to build a line with malls as both terminuses (termini?).

  • Cameron: Not at all. In the short run you have to work with the existing trip generators, and malls are important ones. Then, over time, you redevelop the malls into more urban town centers, with street networks etc.

  • I believe the malls in Canada are typically enclosed, like Penn Station’s retail or the ubiquitous malls of downtown Toronto; these are easier to serve by transit than open-air strip malls. I don’t know if the malls on this planned LRT are enclosed, though.

    The Waterloo region’s fast growth suggests to me that it’s becoming an exurb of Greater Toronto. This is the pattern in other fast-growing cities in Ontario, such as Barrie and Oshawa. If so, then light rail is a good way to ensure this exurbanization is transit-oriented.

  • smably

    Yes, the malls are enclosed, and they are already major transit destinations.

    I don’t think our growth has anything to do with Toronto. The Waterloo Region is definitely not a bedroom community of Toronto, and we have little in common with Barrie, Oshawa, or Milton. According to the 2006 census, we had only 10,665 GTA commuters in a population of almost 500,000.

  • The Japanese definition of a suburb is a city with at least 1.5% of its over-15 population commuting to the central city or cities. The Western world draws its metro area boundaries somewhat more tightly, though. My guess is that if Canada had US-style combined statistical areas then Waterloo would probably be joined with Toronto (and Hamilton, and Barrie, and Oshawa, and Guelph). But I’m not sure.

  • jon

    whats the health of the downtown? assuming they have a “downtown”

    i always think this is a critical component of transit success

  • Downtown Kitchener and Uptown Waterloo are decently healthy and growing — particularly Uptown. LRT will certainly make both stronger.

  • Andrew

    Do people move to places like Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge to live in dense urban settings? I’m skeptical.

  • j

    Yes, Andrew. In fact, a number of high-profile residential projects have just been completed in downtown Kitchener and Uptown Waterloo, much of them being converted warehouses or factory buildings.

    In addition, a factor in the region’s growth has been the high-tech sector. Waterloo is home to RIM, maker of the BlackBerry, and numerous smaller companies feeding off the expertise at the University of Waterloo. Add to that very little congestion, and relatively undervalued real estate, and you have a recipe for growth and intensification.

  • Andrew Dawson

    Why not just revive the Grand River Railway?

  • Tessa

    I would also like to assuage those skeptical that a community of just 500,000 can support LRT. As was mentioned, Calgary and Edmonton started their networks when they were similar sizes, and K-W is unusual, in that all the major trip generators follow a single line with strong anchors at either side, that there is a high university population (U of Waterloo, Wilfred Laurier), and Kitchener and Waterloo both have strong centres (downtown Kitchener and uptown Waterloo). I think it will work very well, especially when thought of in the long run.

  • Nathanael

    Looks like the LRT will connect properly to the VIA rail station. Good choice. A fair number of people may be able to go completely car-free, taking the LRT locally and the train for long-distance travel.

  • David Arthur

    In addition to the densification goals that this project is explicitly designed to serve, it’s also worth noting that the Region of Waterloo is already the fourth densest census area in Canada, after the three biggest cities but denser than Calgary or Edmonton.

    The mall termini are the most common reason that people give to ridicule the plan, but they are indeed enclosed and easy to serve. Apart from being destinations in their own right, and located in areas ripe for revitalisation, they’re also both already major bus exchanges, and so will be important for people wanting to travel beyond the tramway’s reach.

  • Jane

    There is a lot of opposition to this including from the mayor of Waterloo who wanted a referendum. It seems like a crazy amount of money for future commuters who aren’t here yet and who are going to live in currently unbiult buildings. Does anyone remember rim park?

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