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ION anniversary: Looking back - and ahead - at Waterloo Region’s big transit project

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On June 21, 2019, the first ION Light Rail Transit (LRT) train departed Fairway Station.

Five years later, it has become a daily use for many in Waterloo Region. ION trains have carried more than 19 million passengers and more than $5 billion has been invested in development along the ION line.

"To see the way that this community is responding to this infrastructure is really gratifying," said Rod Regier, commissioner of planning, development and legislative services for the Region of Waterloo.

To celebrate the milestone, all transit services will be free on the weekend of June 22 and 23, including the LRT, buses and MobilityPLUS services.

On June 22, Grand River Transit (GRT) will be hosting a party at Fairway Station from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

History of the LRT

The launch came after more than a decade of planning and five years of construction.

The idea for the LRT first came up in 2002, but didn't get the green light until 2011.

Shovels first went into the ground in the summer of 2014, with Uptown Waterloo and parts of downtown Kitchener being ripped up for months.

The original start date of 2017 for the service was continually pushed back until the start date of spring 2019 was finally announced.

MORE: Detailed timeline of Waterloo Region’s 17-year ION journey

‘More and more residents are using transit’

Like many cities around the globe, the pandemic impacted transit service across Waterloo Region. However, the region reports that ridership has now increased beyond pre-pandemic levels with a 33 per cent increase since 2019 and riders taking over two million trips across the transit network this year.

“More and more residents are using transit as their way to get to work, school, shopping, entertainment and more…careful community planning and development have helped achieve ridership growth over the past five years,” said Lynsey Slupeiks, spokesperson for the Region of Waterloo.

But it hasn’t come to this point without challenges such as annual service interruptions, like ice and freezing rain, and crashes involving both vehicles and pedestrians.

"Today we're at 96 per cent reliability,” said Doug Spooner, acting commissioner of transportation. “Reliability is the thing that we're after. Two years ago we did experience a number of ice incidents."

The region says its installed ice scrappers and hot wire to prevent ice build-up. Spooner expects road safety to improve as the community grows more accustomed to the new infrastructure.

Learn more about ION light transit here.

Next steps

The Region of Waterloo is still at least seven years away from starting construction to connect the ION Light Rail Transit (LRT) to Cambridge.

"Probably no earlier than 2032 construction for stage two. But again, the exact timing will be dependent on a number of other steps in the middle," said Matthew O'Neil, manager of rapid transit coordination for the Region of Waterloo in an interview with CTV News Wednesday.

Since 2022, the region has been updating King Street from Sportsworld Drive to Highway 401. A part of that work has resulted in concrete medians on King Street that are designed to accommodate a future LRT.

"This is only half of an ION system,” said Counc. Colleen James. “We still need to connect the second part of the system. We want to build it right, we have to make sure that there's room."

Before any work can start on LRT construction, the region first needs to install similar medians on King Street from Sportsworld Drive to the Highway 8 overpass.

"That is anticipated roughly at about five years, give or take, for construction," O’Neil said.

The region did endorse the second stage route for the LRT to extend it 17.5 km and add seven new stops from the Fairway Station to downtown Cambridge. The region is just starting its initial business case for Stage 2 to establish who will do the work.

More than $4.5 billion has been invested in housing and industry along the ION corridor since 2011. The region says around one in five of its residents live within the corridor.

"We’ve seen a tremendous amount of investment and people moving into those station areas in order to take advantage of the infrastructure,” Regier said.

The region will be providing updates on the construction phases as they begin.

"The region is going to grow to more than a million people by 2051, and it's very important that we plan for that growth, that we bring it to the urban areas and we offer people options for transportation. We cannot continue building roads and widening roads forever," O’Neil said.

"I think we've done a really good job so far and I have no doubt that we will continue this successful path," said Karen Redman, Region of Waterloo chair.

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