Councillor blames Western for failed north connection

Artist rendering of rapid transit north connection on Western Rd. at Lambton Dr. Rendering courtesy of the City of London.

A London city councillor is placing some of the blame for the decision to axe the controversial north leg of the now defunct bus rapid transit (BRT) system on an unreasonable list of demands from Western University.

Ward 2 Councillor Shawn Lewis, one of eight councillors to vote against the route at Monday night’s Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee meeting, said the outcome was inevitable and dismissed suggestions the city shortchanged Western students.

“If anyone is doing Western students a disservice, it is Western University,” said Lewis. “The list of demands that they put on the table for city hall, for me, meant supporting this route was never going to be a possibility.”

According to the first-term councillor, Western would only grant permission to allow the northern connection on its campus if the city would dish out $19 million for a private bridge, additional cash for private road upgrades, with the city assuming responsibility for road maintenance and snow removal.

“That would have been an ongoing operating cost on top of the operating cost for the BRT plan,” added Lewis.

Lynn Logan, the VP of resources and operations at Western, called Lewis’ comments an “unfortunate characterization” and said Western supported having the BRT system run through the university’s campus.

“I certainly would not characterize it in the same way. In fact, I would characterize everything we’ve done with the city as really being collaborative and cooperative,” said Logan.

Other factors that played into Lewis’ decision to vote against what would have been the busiest route with a projected six million riders, included the loss of car lanes on Richmond Street and an unwillingness to reroute to Wharncliffe Road.

“It’s all of those pieces adding up. The loss of traffic lanes, the level train crossing, Western’s list of demands. This route was just unworkable from day one,” said Lewis. “For some reason, the past council was determined to somehow make this route work instead of looking at alternative routes that would service Western. Really the only responsible choice was to say no.”

Logan denied the claim that Western made “demands” for those particular amenities,┬ábut said the university made it clear that if there were improvements required to have the BRT system run through the campus, the cost would have to be included in the city’s capital plan.

“It was part of getting Western to the table to say ‘Will you run rapid transit through campus?'” said Logan. “Because we own, develop and maintain all of the infrastructure on our campus, what we didn’t want was any incremental costs to Western for the BRT to come through the campus.”

Monday’s seven-hour committee meeting also saw the west route down Oxford Street scrapped, while three other segments were granted approval to be put forward for senior government funding. Moving ahead is the Wellington Gateway in the south, the East London Link, and the downtown loop. The decision to only fund three of the five legs of the old BRT system leaves $94 million in funding from the provincial and federal government on the table.

“It’s not ideal that we didn’t take full advantage of the senior levels of government’s funding, but I don’t want to take money just for the sake of spending money in, frankly, what would have been an irresponsible way in the north leg in particular,” stressed Lewis. “If we are taking money from senior levels of government it still needs to be for good projects.”

Transit supportive projects to get the nod from politicians included adding more buses and bus shelters, synchronized traffic signals, and bike and pedestrian connections at the Adelaide Underpass.

Reaction to the pared-down BRT system has been swift with many taking to social media to voice their concerns. Dozens tweeted their disappointment that London was stuck in yesteryears, while other theorized the decision to nix the west and north routes was due to a class system.

Logan echoed the disappointment of many Londoners.

“I want to say how unfortunate I think it is that our students… will not be directly served by the approved transit options that will be presented to council,” she said.

Marcus Plowright, the leader of the pro-BRT lobby group Build this City, simply stated he was filled with regret over the missed opportunity to not fund all five routes.

“We have completely neglected everyone north of Central all the way to Masonville and all of the feeder routes that were designed into the BRT system for the entire north-end and west-end, where the bulk of the population growth – 84,000 more people – is going to be positioned in the next 20 years,” said Plowright.

Council will finalize the mix-and-matched list of transit projects to submit for senior government funding Tuesday night.