If there are three letters that stand to have an outsized impact on Brampton businesses and family budgets over the next decade, they are “L-R-T”. It is an acronym for Light Rail Transit, a form of higher- order transit City Council is proposing will extend from Steeles, along Main Street, to the Brampton GO station. Many remember that in 2015 Metrolinx offered a fully-funded extension of the Hurontario LRT built to downtown Brampton on Main Street– an offer that was rejected by City Council at the time. This week the LRT debate is back – and the stakes are so high that you will want to pay attention.
The core question is whether a future Main LRT would be built at street-level (surface) the entire route or go below ground (a tunnel at Nanwood and through Brampton’s downtown core). Having turned down the project and full funding for it 6 years ago, the current term of Council is re-visiting the issue and is hopeful that they can find a design option that will get not only majority support on Council but also a willing dance partner in one (or both) of the two higher orders of government that write the cheques for projects of this scale. The next step in the search for a funding partner was taken at Wednesday’s Council meeting. Council approved a staff recommendation to take two alignments (one surface, one tunnel) to a 30% design process by next March.
Council Declares Alignment Preference
In a surprising move, yesterday, without full information, a very weak business case, and a price tag that threatens to overspend by a billion dollars, Council also declared that the tunnel was its preferred alignment to advance funding advocacy with the current provincial and federal governments.
Aside from the huge price differential, both alignments allow more life to be brought to Brampton’s beleaguered downtown. A tunnel LRT in the downtown is less visible, leaving the streetscape above it able to accommodate wider sidewalks, bike lanes and other hallmarks of a vibrant city life planned for the future. These amenities are also available with the surface level LRT. Added benefits for the surface route include an additional stop at Wellington Street, a shorter construction duration (2 years vs 4.5-5 years) and it offers better brand exposure for our Main St businesses to be seen by potential customers.
A surface LRT will cost a fraction of one built in a tunnel. Recent estimates put the surface option at around $325 to $400 million, while a tunnel will range from $1.5 billion to $1.7 billion. Expect costs to increase as time passes. These are expensive projects.
Council’s Preference Is A Big Gamble
Governing is about choices, and the COVID-19 pandemic has limited the capacity of governments and taxpayers to do more. We know that other areas of social infrastructure – notably hospitals – have come under great strain and are a priority for investment in the years ahead. At face value, it seems hard to justify asking a provincial or federal government consumed with other priorities, to pay in excess of $1 billion for a project that could be built for around $400 million.
Beyond that, there’s a more practical question. No government has said ‘yes’ to paying for a Main LRT yet – not since the fully funded option was turned down 6 years ago. It’s not a given that the provincial or federal government will agree to fund the most expensive option. In other words, pushing for a tunnel LRT is a big gamble. It runs the risk of getting no LRT and extending this difficult debate several more election cycles into the future.
That said, while not a guarantee, there’s ample reason to hope that a cost-efficient proposal will be funded. As much as healthcare and education are perennial priorities, the provincial government has a keen interest in higher order transit and the federal government is spending historic sums of money on infrastructure across the country. A recent funding announcement for the Hamilton LRT offers a hopeful example – there, the feds and province opted to split the cost 50/50. However, funding models for similar projects in the City of Ottawa and the Kitchener-Waterloo region represent flashing warning lights. To get those projects built the municipalities were required to kick in 30% of the project cost – through property tax. If that’s the only way to fund the Main LRT extension, will Brampton businesses and taxpayers want to be responsible for 30% of $324 million, or 30% of upwards of $1.5 billion?
Impact on Your Business
To put this in terms that relate to your business, here are some things to think about. If you own your property, can you afford for your property taxes to help cover $1 billion in cost differential? If you rent, would you like to help your landlord make up the difference on the property tax increase they will face? And under either scenario, do you want to negotiate your employees’ next wage increase shortly after they receive a property tax bill at home reflecting a policy choice $1 billion more expensive than the alternative?
There are reasons beyond cost to prefer a surface option. One of the main advantages that LRT systems offer is the potential for connecting riders to other modes of transit and by extension, other regions of the province. A surface-level LRT would be much easier to extend northward to Mayfield Road, or to be integrated with future higher order transit along Queen Street. A tunnel LRT obligates taxpayers to more costs. It would require further expensive tunneling to extend northward, and it is unknown how it conveniently it would integrate with buses (bus rapid transit, or BRT) on Queen Street or future options, such as a Queen LRT.
The Brampton Board of Trade has a longstanding position supporting LRT on Main Street. Business members expect that it will one day extend to Mayfield and be built in the most affordable and least disruptive way. Given there are options on the table, Council must choose responsibly, with a focus on value, the best net community benefit, and thinking of the future. That said, the LRT is a critical piece of infrastructure that is central to the future progress of the city. Businesses, taxpayers and voters alike deserve to know the facts upfront.