Martin: Go-slow Squire on right track for top job

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London’s $440-million bus rapid transit (BRT) plan will be back in the news late this month when city council considers the business case to take to Ottawa and Queen’s Park in a pitch for financial support.

But there will be no agreement with Western University across whose verdant campus the system must run. And it won’t come until late this year.

So Coun. Phil Squire, head of council’s rapid transit implementation working group, says he opposes seeking money from senior levels of government until an agreement with Western is signed, sealed and delivered. He fears the details in it may produce unforeseen additional costs for the city beyond its self-imposed $130-million cap.

If the deal calls for extra spending, he says, the city would have to increase its ask from the senior governments, or saddle Londoners with higher property taxes and development levies.

“Everybody has been in a big rush (on BRT),” Squire complains. He is troubled by arguments from some members of council that “we have to get it in right now or we won’t get the money.” He’s been assured money will be there.

Squire notes the rapid transit project is the biggest undertaking in city history, insisting: “We need to have this deal with Western.” So he’s determined to take the time necessary to get it right – and to avoid surprises. (Did someone say projected tunnel costs?)

The BRT will rely heavily on student ridership with nodes along its 24-kilometre route at Western and Fanshawe College.

Peter White, executive director of government relations and strategic partnerships at Western, says talks with the city have been ongoing for two years. Consultation has been extensive and it could be late this year before the university’s board of governors ratifies a deal with the city.

Western would have three stops on the route with a fourth at University Hospital. “We don’t expect surprises about what is required,” White says.

In January the university, which wants to eliminate vehicles to make its campus more pedestrian-friendly, agreed to a route along University and Lambton drives.

But it listed 15 non-negotiable conditions. Among them: a limit of eight rapid transit buses per hour, with low noise and air emissions; a widening of Philip Aziz Drive at city expense; and operating costs borne by London Transit, including snow removal and road repair. At the time, the university declared it will never support light rail on campus, although the city’s BRT system has been specifically designed to accommodate light rail in future.

Western understands what is involved in being part of the system, White says, while the city is well aware of the university’s needs and concerns. “I don’t think there are a lot of unknowns,” he says.

But Squire is wary. He’d prefer to have the city get its ducks in a row and he will argue at council July 25 that an agreement with Western must be reached before the city seeks $310 million from the federal and provincial governments.

Squire says little can be gained from haste and a project of this scope deserves careful and deliberate steps to ensure no nasty — or costly — surprises arise.

Jennie Ramsay, city hall’s project director for rapid transit, says once approved by council, the transit master plan and business case will be sent to the province.

Then, while talks continue with Western about route design and station locations, to the federal government. She says a formal agreement with Western is not required first.

Squire’s go-slow approach is not without wisdom. DownShift London pushed for more dialogue with the public, effectively slowing the locomotive-like push for BRT a few months back. Had the “rabid transit,” cost-be-damned faction on council that included Mayor Matt Brown not been reined in, shovels would be set to tackle the quicksand of Richmond Street digging a tricky tunnel with financial alarm bells ringing.

Squire’s deliberate and careful approach will likely put a target on his back for some go-fast members of council, but he says he is up for it. His concern is for taxpayers and getting transit right.

Sounds like the potential candidate for mayor is on the right track.

So to speak.

Chip Martin is a retired London Free Press reporter and author of books on crime and baseball.

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