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Why Waterloo Must Embrace Light Rail Transit To Survive

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When Carol Leaman was considering where to move Axonify, her multimillion-dollar corporate learning business, proximity to the highway never played a role in the decision. Neither did access to enormous parking lots. The one thing that was crucial, though, was how close her 30-employee business would be situated to Waterloo Region's future light rail transit corridor.

"We have people here who take transit to work, they don't drive, and I just think we're going to increasingly see that kind of thing," says the serial entrepreneur. "So it was important for me, from a business point of view, to see that we're close to mass transit and the LRT station is one piece of that."

When the company moves to the corner of Phillip and Albert streets in Waterloo in a few months time, it's all about forward motion. Yet, in a region that's renowned for helping to shape the future, a growing anti-LRT contingent is advancing the idea of, well, not advancing.

Three years ago, after eight years of study and public consultation, Waterloo Region approved an $818-million transit investment, which will see 19 kilometres of light rail sunk into the corridor between Conestoga Mall and Kitchener's Fairview Park Mall, and improved bus links to Cambridge. ($565 million of the tab will be picked up by the feds and the province, leaving residents on the hook for $253 million.) It not only set the city on a course for growth while staking out a business corridor connecting Kitchener and Waterloo, it also provided the local transit connection that's needed to facilitate major upgrades to intercity rail service between the region and Toronto's tech communities.

Until there's a strong transit link, like the LRT, in place, the idea of running two-way, all-day train service between Toronto and K-W will remain just that: an idea. Then again, that's just what one of the country's foremost transit experts from the University of Waterloo told me.

In an election year, anything goes: While Waterloo Region council convenes on March 4 to vote on a $550-million contract for the work and materials for the project (which has technically already started), the first candidate to file his nomination papers for October's Waterloo mayoral contest has decided to run on an anti-LRT platform...and he's finding supporters.

"There is a complete lack of understanding of the bigger picture across a lot of the population about the ultimate cost down the road of not having this," Carol Leaman says of LRT. "There are so many other communities that had the longer-term vision and did take the steps and spent the money, thinking, '20 years from now, your children are going to appreciate the fact that we don't end up in a situation like London, Ontario where there's absolutely nothing going through the main artery and getting around is a nightmare.' "

That notion of a long-term vision isn't lost on Alex Kinsella. A former BlackBerry employee who recently joined Thalmic Labs, a wearable-tech company, Kinsella's heard the anti-LRT arguments, from people who claim they'll never ride it to those who complain that the fixed rail doesn't offer the flexibility a bus might if you ever needed to change the route. He's not buying in.

"The whole purpose of the LRT and rail is that this is where we're making our mark. We're saying this is the core of our community -- the downtown/uptown core here in Waterloo Region. And we want to ensure that businesses know, whether they're commercial or startups or whatever, that this is where we're investing. We want you to open up around this area. We want restaurants. We want new stores. We want business."

An avid bus commuter who lives near the proposed LRT route, Kinsella moved to Kitchener-Waterloo's downtown area eight years ago, before the Kaufman and Seagram lofts filled up, before the mass of startups conglomerated around the city's downtown hub at King and Victoria streets (where the GO train plugs into region's local transit system). Now, he says, intensification in the core has made for a stronger business community of all stripes, with tech entrepreneurs rubbing shoulders with restaurateurs and politicians and transportation providers, all of whom can be found walking around the downtown streets.

That's a big part of the area's appeal to 25-year-old Tobiasz Dankiewicz, CEO of
reebee, a tech company that's developed an app delivering local retailers' flyers to your mobile device. Dankiewicz lives in the Arrow Lofts, a five-minute walk from his office in the University of Waterloo's Velocity Garage.

"I like the convenience of being able to wake up in the morning and just walk to the office," he tells me. "It's easier for me than it is to use my parking space, actually."

Dankiewicz, like many of his peers -- from Thalmic's CEO Stephen Lake to Google product manager Mike McCauley -- is part of that ongoing intensification fostered downtown by a generation of forward-thinking entrepreneurs with an interest in a more urban way of living. The LRT is part of that vision -- acknowledging the changing demographic of the downtown area and putting a real-world stake in its future.

The bigger picture, that of creating a tech supercluster between Waterloo Region and Toronto that rivals Silicon Valley and boosts the local economy, depends on the LRT.

"If we want to be part of the supercluster," says Kinsella, "to move from the level of city that we are now to that next level, we need to invest in public transit that strengthens the core of our community."

Three years ago, the region made that investment. Now it simply needs to stick to the plan.

"I actually think, once [the LRT's] built and rolling, it'll be a case where people take a big sigh and go, 'Wow, thank god we have this,'" says Leaman. "I just really, really want to get past this election, frankly. And get the right results to make sure that we get beyond the point that anybody can kind of knock it off."

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