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A train to nowhere or a bus to somewhere?

This week's Market Squared asks why council is so eager to save a train that goes no where, and not make improvements to actual transit.
locomotive 6167
Locomotive 6167. Guelph Museums photo

Compared to last Tuesday’s planning meeting, the passage of the 2020 Capital Budget and 10-year Capital Forecast was an elegant affair. Still, it’s not a meeting of Guelph City Council without, at least, a couple of frustrations.

Did you guess that they’re transit related?

Back in August, I predicted in this space that the budget crunch of so many capital projects and downloading from higher levels of government would prompt council to find efficiencies through service cuts. And because people get upset about cuts, the axe would inevitably fall on transit as the low hanging fruit.

Now, this did not come to pass. Thankfully. But there hangs in the air some doubt that council will proceed with expanded service as outlined by staff. For example, coun. Dan Gibson has proposed to have staff look at expanding an existing route to cover the Hanlon Creek Business Park in lieu of a new route.

Fair enough, council is there to reach consensus on matters of importance and direct staff to implement policy, however, it’s supposed to be one of council’s priorities to expand transit and encourage more people to use. The Strategic Plan wants 15 out of every 100 trips on Guelph roads to be on transit in the years to come.

That’s why it’s so frustrating that while not one word was said about one councillor’s plan not to move forward with recommended transit expansion, almost everyone got shirty when another councillor proposed to get rid of a train that takes no one no where.

Let me start by acknowledging that I see the heritage value of Locomotive 6167 parked at Guelph Central Station. I like old trains too, and in a perfect world, the some $600,000 to move it down to John Galt Park would be worth every penny.

But council is looking for savings, and though it’s not an either/or scenario, what’s the better use of money: spend $600,000 to move a train half-a-kilometre, or spend $1.7 million on new bus routes that will travel thousands of kilometres a year?

I acknowledge the long history of the locomotive, but you know what else has heritage value? A big stack of old newspapers!

The thing is that we’ve become a city of hoarders, we hold on to things for the sake of holding on to things. Though we have no idea what we want to do with all these abandoned buildings and other things, we have no money to make them usable, and the budget is tight with other priorities, but we know that we’ve got to have them.

Again, none of this is to mitigate the importance of heritage, and there are plenty of examples in town of heritage preservation that’s bene done right, where under-performing assets have become productive again. The Petrie Building is a good example, so is the Guelph Museums' reclamation of the Loretto Convent.

Still, I propose the idea that Guelph is at the point where we’re letting our addiction to nostalgia stifle actual progress, even when in comes to transit.

I remember after the realignment of routes in 2011 when the buses moved to their new homebase in Guelph Central Station, and the uproar from riders and businesses in St. George’s Square about how the mass of buses didn’t stop there anymore. It was only a few months later that most of the buses were re-routed back through the square again, adding precious minutes to run times and done in spite of the time and expense of building a transit hub.

This was a double insult since GCS was completed without some of amenities promised like the renovated train station, public bathrooms, and enclosed, heated shelters. At lease one of those things has since been accomplished in the last 10 years; the other two maybe in the next five.

When it comes to changing routes, some buses have been running the same streets for decades, which creates problems when Transit wants to make adjustments. Protests will wail if it’s proposed that a route would be better serviced by moving it a few streets over, even if transit data shows that it means a difference of picking up 50 riders instead of five.

Not that anyone really listens to the data because I often hear an argument that goes something like, “That bus goes past my house 10 times a day, and I never see anyone on it!” Using this logic, I’ve never seen a deer in the wild, so they must not be any.

So fine, the train will be saved, and the new bus routes are in doubt. This is not unexpected. In fact, as I said, it was very much expected.

So, to every councillor that fell over each other to save a six tonne paper weight: when it gets to John Galt Park sometime in 2020, I want to see you there, for 30 minutes a day, looking at that locomotive and enjoying the hell out of it. The rest of us will keep struggling with our substandard transit system you claim to care about but do nothing to fix.