Growing Up: The Story of ION Light Rail in Waterloo Region, ON, is a 2020 co-winner in the transportation category of FCM’s Sustainable Communities Awards.

In 2019, the Region of Waterloo, ON, welcomed its first passengers on the ION Light Rail Transit system. The ION system connects the Region’s three urban centres with reliable, fast transportation that helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions and urban sprawl, while increasing investment and development in the rapidly growing region.

Transit system connects the Region’s three cities

The Region of Waterloo is spread over seven municipalities, including the cities of Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo. As Canada’s fastest-growing region in 2019, and with more than 200,000 new residents expected to move there over the next 20 years, the Region needed a public transportation option to enable residents to travel between urban areas. Increasing public transit options reduces GHGs and encourages more mixed development in urban areas, which limits urban sprawl and takes pressure off surrounding farmland and groundwater sources.       

Population growth had environmental consequences

With the growth in population, the Region was also experiencing a rise in vehicle ownership on a per capita basis and the threat of urban sprawl encroaching on sensitive environmental landscapes and farmland. To meet objectives of reducing GHG emissions and protecting surrounding rural lands, the Region had long been planning to develop a regional public transit system. After extensive public consultation, environmental assessment and research into transit technologies, the Region determined that light rail transit (LRT) could offer the most sustainable solution.       

ION system has environmental, social and economic benefits

Light rail trains use cleaner electricity instead of diesel fuel and their comfort and reliability attract riders. By decreasing the use of personal vehicles and moving more of the transit system’s ridership onto greener vehicles, the Region of Waterloo is able to decrease GHG emissions. The ION rail system connects residents to bike and walking trails and parks, supporting active modes of transportation and healthy lifestyles. Other social benefits include increasing mobility options for seniors, youth and low-income residents and reducing economic barriers to mobility.

The Region has also seen indications that the LRT is encouraging a more compact urban form, with 50 percent of new development taking place in existing urban areas. Redevelopment around the transit corridor has reduced the number of surface parking lots and their associated impact on the urban heat island, and has resulted in over 30 hectares of brownfield remediation. The new ION system has attracted investment to the region, including the Canadian headquarters for Google, and spurred further growth in residential and commercial development—which in turn increases employment opportunities and grows the municipal tax base.     

High-profile project faced pressure from political and public scrutiny

As the largest project in the history of the Region, the ION transit system was in media and political spotlights during its development. It took a long time to reach consensus on a vision, and funding for the project was ultimately decided through the election process. However, once the project was underway, having strong and consistent leadership and engaging in ongoing public communication and consultation helped the project stay on track. Vendor and construction delays also came under scrutiny, but in the end allowed the project team more time to prepare for a smooth launch that contributed to ION’s success.     

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