Three Ontario cities are considering investing more than a billion dollars in public transit over the next decade.

Ottawa, the Region of Waterloo and Toronto are examining building or upgrading light rail transit (LRT) lines, which use dedicated tracks for streetcars or similar vehicles.

In mid-April, the City of Ottawa issued a request for proposals on its project, which has an estimated cost of $725 million. The provincial and federal governments are each contributing $200 million toward the project, which will see one company chosen to head a public-private partnership to build the 27-kilometre LRT line from the south end of the city to the downtown.

Rejean Chartrand, Ottawa's director of economic development and strategic projects, says the proposal is "the largest infrastructure project the city will ever build as one tender."

Even the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) supports the idea, in principle.

"Automobile is our middle name, but we believe in a balanced perspective," says Doug Mayhew, public relations manager for the CAA's northern and eastern Ontario division. "Public transit in an urban centre such as Ottawa has to happen. This is why the CAA has been one of the partners in Ottawa's visioning projects."

In 2001, using diesel-powered cars and an old railroad serving Carleton University, Ottawa established an eight-km test line that draws 8,000 passengers daily. The line, says Chartrand, proved the merits of LRT to a city known for its rapid transit bus network.

"There are tradeoffs, but it is proven in other cities that people will take light rail before they take the bus," Chartrand says.

The proposal will extend the test line into downtown and across the Rideau River to Nepean. The new system also will use electricity rather than diesel and will expand to two tracks from one, allowing cars to move in both directions.

Chartrand says the contractor should be chosen by April 2006 and construction should begin in August of next year. The LRT would roll in the fall of 2009.

Chartrand says he hopes the system will alter the pattern of development in Ottawa, which has a population of 775,000 people. "It is important for the city to have high-quality public transit in place before a lot of the development takes place so that a community can be designed around public transit and not as a retrofit.

"We need the number of people on public transit to increase from 17 per cent to 30 per cent," Chartrand says.

Like Ottawa, the Region of Waterloo, which has a population of about 480,000, hopes to transform itself through transit, although the type of transit to be used has not yet been decided.

"What we did two years ago was adopt a policy which draws hard edges around three sides of our urban area and focuses on redirecting our growth internally," says Waterloo regional chairman Ken Seiling. "We look on rapid transit as a major planning tool."

The region recently set the terms of an environmental assessment, which will be funded by the municipality and the provincial government.

Although a concept to build a 14-km, $256-million LRT from north Waterloo to south Kitchener was considered by council, the assessment will review alternatives suggested by residents, including express buses and monorails.

Only the potential corridor, which runs along the north-south axis of Waterloo region, seems set.

"We have a linear pattern of growth in the region," Seiling says. "Trip generators such as downtown Kitchener, uptown Waterloo, Conestoga Mall and Fairview Mall line up, providing opportunities for a successful corridor that can be built upon and extended to include Cambridge."

Graham Vincent, Waterloo region's director of transportation planning, says the central transit corridor is more than a transportation solution because of the area's reurbanization potential. "We're looking at 50,000 to 60,000 more people and 50,000 new jobs in that corridor.

"We'd need six to eight lanes to accommodate the additional traffic," he says. "How do you do that with the built form that already exists? So we think mass transit is a good option to support mobility needs and encourage reurbanization."

The diversity of trip generators also bodes well, Vincent says. "Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto - they all have distinct downtown cores. They have transit systems that are full going in every morning, but empty heading back to the suburbs. Because we have nodes all the way along this corridor, we're able to use capacity in both directions."

Waterloo region also needs the line to serve as a catalyst for redevelopment, Vincent says. "We're about a half-million people today and we're going to grow by another quarter of a million over the next 25 to 35 years. We're considering this by 2041, but more recent data coming out from the provincial government suggests this could happen by 2031."

Seiling agrees. "We watched what happened in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) over the last 25 years where provincial planning virtually disappeared," he says. "They grew at top speed with inadequate infrastructure.

"We have an opportunity to get this in place and prevent a lot of that from happening. People say: 'Wait 10 years so you get more growth, then do it,' but if you don't put it in place, you're not going to get the intensification. You're too late," Seiling says, "Portland is a good example of what we're trying to do," Vincent says. "Portland implemented more than a transportation system, it was a package of land-use policies, parking policies, transportation policies mixed with good urban design."

"Portland in the 1960s was a sea of parking. Much of this parking has been replaced with development being serviced by light rail. Vehicles are prohibited from using LRT lanes, so the LRTs move along unimpeded, unlike the streetcars in Toronto. That's critical," he says.

Toronto led North America's LRT resurgence because it was one of the last cities to abandon its post-war streetcars. Although the vehicles are low-tech compared to new systems in the United States, Coun. Joe Mihevc hopes that will change.

In early April, Mihevc, who is vice-chair of the Toronto Transit Commission, proposed that 130 LRT vehicles be bought to replace 196 of the TTC's aging streetcars, known as CLRVs.

"The CLRVs are at the end of their life," Mihevc says. "You can rebuild them for $1.1 million apiece, so we can pay the $230 million and get an extra 15 years out of them. The downside is that they are not low floor, they do not have wide-door access and carrying capacity is not as much as the new vehicles.

"When we look to the States, they've gone into LRT and it's boosted ridership. New vehicles will cost $4 million to $5 million (each). The lifespan is 30 years and they can replace the CLRVs on a two-to-three ratio," he says. "It might not be as much a difference as one might imagine."

But Toronto's budget chief, Coun. David Soknaki, says Mihevc's proposal would add $400 million to the TTC's capital costs and funds already are tight.

"It's a long way between cup and lip. Visioning and looking at the future is important, but finding out whether a vision is viable and affordable is important as well," Soknaki says.

The timelines of the transit plans in the three areas are unlikely to permit a pooling of resources.

"A joint tender would imply that the timelines for delivery would be bundled, within a year or so," Ottawa's Chartrand says. "Builders will not commit to prices beyond a few years. But whatever information we have, we'll be openly sharing that with those two cities."

Ottawa and the Waterloo region believe the issue of their urban form must be addressed immediately, while Toronto's priority is dealing with aged equipment. While none of the three areas believes it can wait for the others to move forward, all three expect investment in LRT technology will happen in southern Ontario.

(James Bow can be reached at bow@businessedge.ca)