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This is no way to run a railroad
Published: March 1, 2008
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The federal government's decision to fund a new train service from Toronto to Peterborough while ignoring far more urgent transit needs in Waterloo Region stinks.

For years, this region has built and argued a convincing case for federal help for better passenger and commuter trains to Toronto, as well as for light rail transit to connect its cities -- all to no avail. There was nothing, nada, not a flipping red cent for any of these essential projects in this week's federal budget.

But then, out of nowhere, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty pledged to put a rail service through to Peterborough that will just happen to pass through his own federal riding of Whitby-Oshawa.

What gives? Flaherty denies that politics played any role in the project, which benefits not only his constituents but those in three other Conservative ridings as well as those in the Conservative provincial riding held by his wife, Christine Elliott. Flaherty may be right. But if he is, how else can his justify his bizarre decision?

It can't be sheer need. While Waterloo Region's population has topped half a million, Peterborough's is only 80,000. The federal census of seven years ago estimated that 10,000 commuters leave Waterloo Region each day -- most of them heading down the increasingly clogged 401. Surely at least some of those people would leap at the chance to go by rail. In comparison, the estimate -- and it is not necessarily a reliable estimate -- of the number of passengers who would use the Peterborough line daily is 900.

Flaherty can't have based his call on a business case either, because there really isn't one for the Peterborough line outside of a document cobbled together by Peterborough's Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro. In fact, a study by GO Transit, the provincial agency that serves Toronto-area regional commuters, declared two years ago it wasn't even worthwhile to extend a GO bus service to Peterborough. There just weren't enough riders and 70 per cent of the route's costs would have to be subsidized. Moreover, the area isn't growing that fast. So why is Flaherty willing to pay for rail upgrades, which Del Mastro estimated could cost $150 million?

So weak is the case for the Peterborough line that Flaherty's own department this week was unable to say how many passesngers would use it, what it would cost, or even who would run it.

In contrast, there is a documented business case for better passenger service on the north mainline that passes through Waterloo Region on the way to Toronto. Likewise, the case for some kind of rapid transit system within the region is so strong that the Ontario government has committed to covering two-thirds of its cost. And a GO commuter service to Waterloo Region would be far more feasible with federal help. But this need, too, is ignored.

As oil prices and environmental concerns rise, Canada needs better rail service. In theory, restoring the train links that Peterborough lost in 1990 is a good thing. However, governments need to set priorities and those priorities should be based on the needs of the people, not the politicians. Not long ago, Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig observed that transit funding went to the places that lobbied hardest for it because, "It's all about politics.'' Sadly, Craig may be right. But it is no way to run a railroad.


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