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Poor transit plan to set Ottawa back 10 years: experts

Cities that embrace new light rail projects are improving their competitiveness and future prosperity.

By Mohammed Adam

(This article was published in the National Post on Wednesday, January 30, 2008.)

While major Canadian cities are reshaping their futures with new light-rail projects, Ottawa has embraced a transit vision that will set the city back a decade and undermine its competitiveness and future prosperity, several experts say.

They point out that, in the past year, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver have unveiled transformative commuter rail plans that will strengthen their ability to compete for global investments and economic opportunities.

The mayor's transportation task force acknowledged this kind of transformation when it said the time has come to make light rail the anchor of the city's public transit. But Transport 2000 president David Jeanes says that, in reality, Ottawa is turning the clock back to a 1980s transit vision that relies heavily on buses - not rail.

"Every indication we have is that the city is moving back to the 1980s transit plan. The strategic direction approved by council is putting completing the transitway ahead of light-rail expansion, which is a complete change from the 2003 plan," Mr. Jeanes said.

"Cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary realized long ago that rail is part of a larger approach that connects quality of life to a strong economy and a competitive city. But we haven't realized that in Ottawa and we are falling behind. It will set us back 10 years," said David McGuinty, the Ottawa South MP and Liberal environment critic.

"I've told my councillor that they are risking Ottawa's future, they are risking the sustainability of the city and they are making it difficult for us to to be competitive and attract capital. Life is competitive out there and I don't think city council understands what is at stake," Mr. McGuinty added.

Councillor Alex Cullen, chairman of the city's transit committee, dismisses suggestions that council is abandoning light rail for buses, saying it is too early to draw such conclusions. He says it is obvious that key parts of the city's transit blueprint - tunnel, light rail, transitway - can't be completed all at once and have to be staggered. Mr. Cullen says there is no indication the city favours one mode over another.

"It is a bit premature to say we've moved away from light rail and it is premature to say we are tilting back to the 1980s," Mr. Cullen said.

"What technology we choose for the tunnel is going to shape the rest of the system. It could be rail, buses or a mixed system, but we haven't made those choices. We have not made up our minds because we don't have the environmental assessment."

But Mr. Jeanes remains skeptical, saying the city's actions since the cancellation of the north-south rail project lead to one conclusion: light rail has taken a back seat in Ottawa.

Despite talk of a $2-billion transit plan revolving around rail, council adopted a new blueprint last November that laid out its key priorities as:

  • Completion of the transitway
  • Construction of the downtown transit tunnel
  • Construction of the Cumberland transitway for rapid transit and
  • Expansion of the O-Train to Riverside South.

Noting that the federal government had set aside $1.9 billion for major projects in Ontario, councillors agreed that Ottawa's share of the money, as well as the unused $400 million originally earmarked for the north-south rail project, should be used to pay for these four priorities.

Council passed a resolution to "communicate to the Province of Ontario and the federal government these projects are the city council's priority projects for transit funding under the national priorities section of the Building Canada Plan ... and direct staff to enter into discussions with the federal and provincial agencies on funding for these priority transit projects."

Mr. Jeanes believes council's action plan shows that it really wants to spend money on transitway expansion. The mayor's task force, for instance, talked about "an east-west rail tunnel bored through downtown," but the council direction speaks to a "downtown transit tunnel," a subtle, but important change that opens the door to building a tunnel for STO and OC Transpo buses.

The only rail project in the city's blueprint is the extension of the O-Train to Riverside South and Mr. Jeanes says this means downtown, as well as the city's eastern and western suburbs, will not have rail service for decades.

He says to find the money, complete the necessary studies and build the remaining sections of the transitway to Cumberland, Kanata and Barrhaven will take 10 years. But once the expensive transitway is built, there would be little appetite for commuter rail in Ottawa. People would argue that it makes no sense to build rail at considerable cost just to compete with the busways.

"What they are doing is a serious departure from the planning that has gone on before. It will make it more difficult for light rail in Ottawa," Mr. Jeanes said.

Stephen Hazell, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, echoes his concerns.

"There's a lot of talk about smart growth, but the reality is we are not doing very much to make the city sustainable," Mr. Hazell said.

"It is clear people prefer to travel on light rail than buses. But we've had any number of light-rail plans and they all seem half-baked. We just do not have leadership on the issue. It is taking forever to get things done."

Mr. McGuinty says it doesn't make sense for Ottawa to go back to the 1980s for inspiration when other cities are moving forward.

This month, the B.C. government announced a 12-year, $14-billion transit plan, the bulk of which will go to Vancouver to expand the SkyTrain, build new light rail, streetcar lines and busways. Officials believe this will allow people to get around Vancouver much as they do in London or New York.

Last year, the Ontario government unveiled a $17.5-billion plan for the Greater Toronto Area that will see subway extensions, expansion of the GO Train and several new light-rail projects, including a link to the airport. Montreal also announced an $8-billion plan last year to extend subway lines, metro trains and build new streetcars.

All the major cities, including Calgary and Edmonton, have rail as the spine of their system. As the fourth-largest city in Canada, Ottawa-Gatineau should have similar plans to stay competitive, Mr. McGuinty says, adding that in an increasingly green world, tying public transit to buses that guzzle diesel fuel and leave toxic fumes in their wake is not the mark of a great city.

"Ottawa is in a bit of a dysfunctional state when it comes to its transit plan," he said.

Mr. Cullen says things may not be going as fast as critics want, but the reality is that fundamental changes just don't happen overnight. There are stringent federal and provincial processes to follow and these take time.

Until the tunnel is sorted out, no decision can be made on light rail other than the extension of the O-Train. Transitway extension is the only project that can be undertaken relatively quickly, he says.

But Mr. McGuinty warns that time is not on Ottawa's side. He says federal and provincial governments may seem willing today to finance large transit projects, but with the looming possibility of a recession in North America, there is no guarantee that they will still have money to spend in three or four years, when the city is ready.

"There is a downturn going on now and the surpluses at the federal and provincial levels are not going to continue in perpetuity," he said.

"You have to seize your moment. Other cities have. We haven't."