A resident holds up a sign against the proposed BRT Richmond Row tunnel at a public meeting at Budweiser Gardens, May 3, 2017. (Photo by Miranda Chant, Blackburn News)

Council Gets Earful On BRT

Londoners were given their chance to weigh in on the city’s bus rapid transit plan (BRT), and the overwhelming majority are not on board.

At the peak of a six hour public participation meeting held by city council on Wednesday, roughly 900 people packed Budweiser Gardens. Of them, 86 spoke with only a handful in favour of BRT as it stands now. Signs reading “BRT doesn’t make sense,” “listen to the people, “no BRT,” “BRT will ruin my business,” and “BRT will cost jobs” were on full display.

“Our politicians are no longer listening to a democratic society. I honestly believe that if this council votes for this BRT system, it is going to be political suicide,” said Wayne Loucks, who kicked off his five-minute long remarks by holding up a long piece of receipt paper he referred to as his “list of complaints.”

Loucks was quick to question the $560-million the city has said it will cost to get BRT up and running.

“There are a lot of questions, a lot of ifs, a lot of guesses, and a lot of maybes,” said Loucks. “I really do not understand how someone can set a price to the largest venture this city will ever take on with all those unanswered questions. It’s pathetic. I’m blown away.”

His comments were shared by downtown resident Gayle Harrison, who believes council is merely producing figures and plans to fit its own agenda.

“There is a difference between data which you can find to support any position and solid research that looks at all of the issues and the concerns that you make your decisions on,” said Harrison. “Hearing the same questions, the same concerns and people not getting answers (from city officials) saying ‘we’re not at that stage yet, I don’t know.’ That should be evidence that this is not a great plan for the City of London. It doesn’t solve the major issues of the LTC.”

Wednesday’s meeting began with a detailed presentation on the BRT project by consultant Brian Hollingworth. He detailed how the 24km system with 34 stations would “transform London.” At the heart of the majority of concerns is a section running on King St. and the controversial north corridor which would see a tunnel placed beneath Richmond Row.

A retired engineer warned soil under Richmond St. is like “beach sand” that would cause nearby buildings to crumble once construction began.

Developer Shmuel Farhi of Farhi Holdings Corp., who owns many commercial properties in the downtown, alluded to legal action that would be taken by Richmond Row merchants, should the city move forward with the tunnel.

“Out of 94 tenants we have on Richmond St., 87 told me they are going to do a combined lawsuit. Do you really want to throw mom and pop shops out on the street?” asked Farhi. “These are people who pooled life savings to have a little shop on Richmond St.”

Downtown merchants against the current BRT plan, many of which are part of the group DownShift, worry their businesses will suffer and potentially close during the long construction period. Several of those merchants attended the public meeting, one making an emotional plea for councillors to reconsider.

Several times throughout the meeting individuals called for the controversial matter to be put to a referendum during next year’s municipal election.

But not all of those at the meeting were opponents of the current BRT plan.

“People say that there aren’t enough users on the transit we have now. I’ll tell you the problem, I can ride my bike right now to any place in this city faster than I can take the LTC. That’s because we don’t have dedicated lanes for our buses… you get stuck in traffic, you have to wait for trains, but if we had BRT, people would use public transit,” said Helen Reardon, who held one of the few signs in support of rapid transit at the meeting.

She suggested there are steps that could be taken to keep core businesses afloat during the construction.

“Let’s be innovative. We could have event sales, construction sales, the city could help these merchants. There will be some pain but there will be long term gain,” said Reardon.

Also on the side of BRT was downtown resident Rod Morley.

“It’s time for this. Now is the time we need to move London, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century,” said Morley, who stressed he has long studied local transit.

While it was hoped the public meeting would help council gauge where residents stand on the transit transformation, the passionate pleas from both sides left at least one councillor no closer to a decision.

“The community is seriously split on this particular plan,” said Councillor Phil Squire. “That’s going to present me with a lot of difficulties as I move forward.”

Mayor Matt Brown said he was happy with the level of feedback the city received at the meeting, but did not seem swayed by any of the comments made.

“I think we need to continue to engage. I think we need to continue to do a better job of communicating. Bus rapid transit is the cornerstone of the London Plan and we need to move forward with it. We need to move forward with it while bringing the public along with us as well,” said Brown.

Early last month, council agreed to explore alternative routes that would see the north corridor moved to Wharncliffe Rd. and the east-west corridor option through the downtown changed to a King St. and Queens Ave. couplet.

Councillors will debate whether to proceed with the original routes or the alternative ones on May 15 and 16.