Nothing quiet on the Western front

When council was embroiled in a rapid transit debate last year, there was an oft-repeated concern among citizens. The worry I heard over and over again was that a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) plan would be too easy to whittle away. The grand vision of a premium service could be slowly eroded — a station amenity here, a bit of dedicated lane there — until it was little more than a minor upgrade to the busting-at-the-seams service we have now.

There will undoubtedly be pressures from many sides to pare down the city’s rapid transit plans between now and its full implementation, still several years away. I was glad to see council clear an obstacle last week when their eyes didn’t bat at a higher price for electric buses.

But a few — or even $6 million — dollars is nothing compared to the clash of interests about to happen between the city and Western University. This week, the school’s board of governors discussed and approved a list of 15 conditions (later downgraded to concerns) they have about the portion of the route that will run through campus.

I don’t think anyone believes the City of London is going to roll over on all of Western’s conditions. I don’t think the intention of either party is even to negotiate a compromise on each of Western’s concerns. Instead, the happy medium will likely be the result of Western giving up on some of the more damaging demands entirely so they can get some of the more preposterous but less destructive things on their list.

Western asked for a maximum of eight buses each way every hour, and they don’t want any chance of a rail upgrade in the future.

The former doesn’t even allow the city to provide the starting capacity proposed in last year’s business case, much less allow for growth. The latter would mean clawing back that conciliatory vision of light rail possibilities for the future.

Together, they’d put a hard limit on the capacity of the city’s busiest rapid transit line. All of it. For every rider, on and off campus. Erosion.

Some of the board’s other “concerns” seem unreasonable, or are vague enough to be potential minefields of taxpayer-funded expenses. But these two in particular can’t be met — or even budged on — without breaking the spirit of the commitment made to riders and citizens last year.

I think the Western board of governors is well aware of that. I think the city knows that. But a bit of a track record for short-sighted planning by committees of council, and a history of putting transit riders on the back burner leave me worrying about how we’ll handle this next major obstacle.

Will the city stand its ground and ensure London transit riders get the service they deserve? Or will they kowtow to the pressure of an influential organization? (There’s a bit of a track record for that, too.)

 There’s still plenty of reason to be hopeful a premium BRT service is on its way, but I hope we’ll all be watching for signs of whittling, too.