Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thoughts on priorities

Once upon a time, most of the employment lands were located downtown and most of the residential lands were located uptown. It was fairly easy to plan the transportation network, because travel would always be downtown in the morning and uptown in the afternoon. Whichever line was the most crowded deserved an upgrade. Today, we live in a very complex region with travel patterns that resemble a spider web. There are plenty of jobs downtown, but a large number of office parks and factories are now located in the 905. There are plenty of houses in the suburbs, but more and more people are now living downtown. This has made prioritizing the lines much more difficult.

Under the old paradigm, the people in Markham would benefit from more GO Transit service because they would be going downtown. In today's world, however, is it better to invest in more GO service towards Toronto, or to invest in better VIVA service within the town?

This blog post isn't about which transit line should be our top priority - I don't think we will ever receive consensus on that topic. This is, however, a post about where small projects should fit in the capital budgets of the various transit providers.

Recently, GO announced that construction would begin on a project to extend rail service from Georgetown to Kitchener. By the end of 2011, two daily round trips will make stops in Kitchener, Breslau, Guelph and Acton. The travel times will be around two hours. The cost of this expansion is $18 million, which is a bargain, but the daily ridership pales in comparison to other unfunded transit proposals like the Downtown Core Line or the Hurontario LRT.

Obviously we need to build the higher-priority lines, but should lower priority lines be able to queue-jump higher priority lines? From my perspective it's a matter of how much of a delay it will cause in the delivery of the larger projects. From my perspective, the planners and engineers devoted to designing the Kitchener extension aren't slowing down the design of other high-priority lines. Also, the Kitchener extension doesn't introduce any piece of infrastructure that prevents a priority project from being built. In essence, we aren't locking ourselves into any particular solution by building it. When it comes to money, we have to look a bit more closely. If we've set a firm budget of $500 million for capital projects and the Hurontario line will cost $490 million then we should stick to the priority list. However, if the Hurontario line will cost $600 million and is viewed as being too expensive then it would be foolish not to fill the budget with a bunch of lower-cost, lower-priority projects. If we cannot afford our flagship project at the moment, building nothing at all is not a viable option in a world of ever-increasing traffic congestion.

Going forward, we will need to spend the big bucks on the priority projects if we really want to make a dent in congestion. However, having (insert your favourite corridor here) as the number one priority does not mean all progress on the grand vision has to stop until it's done.

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