London city hall preps revamped BRT financials

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London city hall isn’t at the funding finish line yet for bus rapid transit. But they can probably see it from here.

Next week, city council will be asked to give final approval to a revamped business case for what will be the biggest project in city history, a BRT system of high-frequency buses criss-crossing London, dubbed Shift.

While this step will likely reignite opponents of the plan, in reality it’s something of a formality: Council made some big changes in May — chiefly, axing a tunnel proposed to run beneath Richmond Row — and the revamped paperwork reflects that. If approved, it clears the way for city bureaucrats to formally request the huge sums of cash needed from Ottawa and Queen’s Park to build it.

“This is one more milestone as we move forward in implementing rapid transit in London,” Mayor Matt Brown said.

“The BRT system has received significant support and we’ve been waiting for this business case to be finalized. I’m looking forward to it going to committee next week so we can approve it and move forward with implementation.”

The question, of course, is, how much will BRT cost? The answer has changed, in a sense.

While it was long projected at $560 million, changes — including the death of the tunnel — dropped that down to $440 million. Now, city hall has reframed the price to reflect the “future dollar” value of the work that’ll take place over a decade.

That alters the price tag to $500 million, which is the figure bureaucrats say they’ll stick with.

“From this point forward, the City of London will reference the (future-dollar) value of $500 million and that will be referred to simply as the project cost, they note in a report going to politicians.

But Brown emphasized the price tag for London taxpayers will remain at $130 million. The updated figure, he said, will help the provincial and federal governments peg accurate dollar values for contributions over the next 10 years.

“We’ve scaled this out to 2028, and it accounts for any inflationary pressures that our funding partners might experience,” Brown said. 

What council has approved is a 24-kilometre system of high-frequency buses running largely on dedicated lanes along L- and 7-shaped corridors bisecting London. Downtown will be the fulcrum.

The project drew fury from many Londoners — mainly a group called Down Shift, made up of core merchants who opposed the project. The group, led by Joe Kool’s owner Mike Smith, drew criticism from many Londoners over what one rival called a “nasty” campaign.

Some of Down Shift’s tactics, coupled with city hall communication efforts some observers thought poor, turned BRT into something of a wedge driven through the community.

Next week’s final vote on the business case could revive their high-profile opposition, though it’s unlikely council’s majority will resist approving the BRT business case. So, who pays for what?

The federal government is now dipping into Phase 2 of its Investing In Canada Plan – which has $20 billion in transit funding over the next 10 years. They’ve set guidelines for projects like Shift: Ottawa is willing to fund up to 40 per cent of the construction cost, but also expects the province to kick in at least 33 per cent.

London’s contribution is fixed at $130 million.

In real money, a combined $370 million is needed from provincial and federal governments — around $200 million from Ottawa and $170 million from Queen’s Park — leaving $130 million to come from city hall. That’s the same stake London has been offering since Day One.

It could be several months before funding decisions are made, but both upper levels of government have the money and stated willingness to fund projects like BRT.

In May, The Free Press described London’s proposed BRT project as a “flawed system” and “a compromise that may please no one.” It is, however, a step forward with transportation, something London has a reputation for bobbling.   

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