In the 2014 municipal elections, a candidate emerged to challenge long-time Waterloo Region Chair Ken Seiling, and his issue of choice was putting an end, full stop, to the light rail transit system that would eventually be called the Ion.
The Ion is now the jewel of Waterloo Region, a symbol of progress and connectivity and a selling point for those looking to boost the King Street corridor as a hub for tech innovation. But eight years ago it was a money pit, and no one tried to leverage that more than Jay Aissa who had a business at the time along the proposed route.
Aissa would repeatedly delegate to the regional council about how the light rail project violated the Planning Act, as well as the expense, the effect on area businesses, and how he “wasn’t against” the LRT so much as he was against the route that took it past his fencing business.
Yes, he actually said that. This was in March 2014.
Now Aissa was hardly alone in de-evaluating the light rail project, and he was hardly alone in that election making a last-ditch attempt to stop it. Former CKCO weatherman Dave MacDonald ran for Waterloo mayor on what was essentially an anti-LRT platform. He came in third place, and the markedly pro-LRT candidate Dave Jaworsky got more than three-times as many votes.
For the record, Seiling also won that election beating Aissa 59 per cent to 23.7 per cent.
Also for the record, this election, which was ostensibly about whether or not the LRT should proceed or not, took place over a year after the region approved the $92.4 million purchase of 14 vehicles from Bombardier. In other words, the deal was done. Ground was broken in August of 2014 after over 12 years of planning and debate.
I offer this brief trip through the history of another municipality’s major infrastructure project to be illustrative of our current election discourse. It hasn’t exactly been quiet, and it hasn’t been front page news either, but there seems to be a lot of candidates out there not running against the incumbent so much as running against the new library.
Like the Ion, the main library has been the subject of years of debate, constant planning, paralyzing doubt, and once we get things settled, we go back to square one and start all over again. And like the LRT project in 2014, we’re at this same point with library development now where contracts have been signed, and millions of dollars in pre-construction work has been completed.
The focus is this number $62 million, the cost of the new library building. Is it daunting? Yes, of course, and I think we in the media take some of the blame for that focus. We’re very good at naming the price of things, but we’re often not that great at talking about the value.
But let’s talk about the cost. Actually, let’s have Mayor Cam Guthrie talk about the cost:
“Anybody that says, ‘Ooh, we should just cancel the library’ is actually putting the city at risk, the taxpayers at risk, our reputation at risk. Trust me, I've looked into this,” Guthrie said in a video posted on Twitter.
“My concern is that in the new year, when the bids to build this library are going to be coming in, and, more than likely, they’re probably going to come in at more than $62 million. So you have my commitment that if that happens, we need to stop, pause, take a breath and have a real conversation about what we need to do to move forward.”
What does that mean though? Are there provisions in our contract with Windmill, the private developer who is partnering with the City of Guelph to remake the Baker District, to “take a breath”? I’m concerned Mayor Guthrie’s riding this very fine line, teasing out the anti-library forces to his camp while acknowledging that a full-on cancellation will make Urbicon look like a convenience store hold-up.
Here’s what I do know: The current library building is falling apart. The elevators break if you sneeze in them, the boiler’s a ticking timebomb, there’s no room for archives and the inter-library loan system anymore, and by AODA standards the building is practically medieval.
I also know that 20 years ago, the project would have cost less than a third of what it costs now, and at the time that price tag was still too expensive for many populists, and they used many of the same excuses to scuttle the project. They said, “who’s going to be using a library in 20 years?” Well, there were nearly two million items checked out last year, and over 13,000 people went to virtual events.
Finally, the construction of a library has never bankrupted a city, and anyone that’s playing the affordability card should at least be that honest. The space program didn’t create homelessness and cancelling (or “pausing”) a library project is not going to magically bring taxes down. If it did, we should be hitting pause on all big-ticket projects, and I don’t see anyone proposing that.
And for the record, if you want to help with affordability, a library is a pretty good place to start. It offers access to computers, the internet, periodicals, books, media, and gadgets that people with limited means wouldn’t normally have access to. Libraries support affordability, they’re not a cause of unaffordability.
Going back to Waterloo, I remember the day the Ion opened. There was no talk of cost, or delay, or Not-In-My-BackYard, just the excitement of “Mission: Accomplished” and perhaps the relief of a grateful community that the bulldozers were finally going home. Here’s hoping our future council has the perseverance to get us there.