Light Rail Waterloo

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