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A seminal event, a massive change

Ottawa city council approves light rail project, but financing, hard decisions on route choices still to come.

By Jake Rupert

Published in the Ottawa Citizen on Thursday, May 29, 2008.

City council approved a new mass transit system based on electric light rail yesterday.

It could provide a public transportation backbone in the region for a century, but now the hard parts begin.

The long-term city-wide plan would see light rail serving all parts of the city and is estimated to cost $8 billion if every part were completely constructed today. The first phase is estimated to cost $4 billion, based on 2007 estimates, and the city will have to secure at least $1.33 billion each from the Ontario and federal governments to get it going.

The chosen routes, including a downtown subway, will also have to be studied to make sure building them is feasible, the costing has to be done in detail, and city council has to sort out the politically sticky decision of what parts of the system to build first. Staff also have to study and cost out secondary light-rail routes.

In the fall, council is scheduled to decide the order in which to build the system, and final approval of the entire transit system and strategy is scheduled for next spring. At the same time, the city is to revamp land-use planning rules designed to support the system and create more compact neighbourhoods across the city.

City staff estimate that if all goes well, transit users could be sitting in rail cars moving through the subway within eight years.

Of all the issues surrounding the project, questions of costs dominated debate at city council before the 19-4 vote to proceed with the plan.

This is the city's second stab at creating a rapid transit system in the last few years after the first plan was nixed by council, a move that led the consortium of companies chosen to build that system to sue Ottawa for $277 million. Those claims are making their way through the courts.

If built, the first phase of the new system would see light rail running from Blair Road downtown on the current bus Transitway, through a subway across downtown and west to Baseline Road on the western bus Transitway and Ottawa River Parkway. Another light rail line would run north from Bowesville Road to LeBreton Flats, where it would hook in with the east-west line. Bus Transitways would connect Orl