Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ottawa: A city without direction

The Ottawa Citizen printed a great story about the fact that Ottawa, Ontario's second-largest city, got to share $400M in provincial infrastructure planning while Toronto received the lion's share, raking in $497M for their public transit projects. More interesting, however, was the story's exploration of the underlying problems--the fact that Ottawa has failed to establish a long-term transit plan, and that councillors are unable to have reasonable discussion at establishing priorities. Here's a bit of the story:

Ottawa missed out on the big transit money in the provincial budget because the city did not have a credible plan to spend big transit money once it scrubbed a plan built on a new north-south light-rail service. which had seen almost all approvals given. The current council reversed a decision to proceed with the project, leaving the city without a public transit plan -- and a lawsuit pending from the contractors who thought they had a deal to build the commuter-rail line.


Echoing the senior provincial minister for Ottawa, Jim Watson, Mr. [Peter] Hume [city councillor in the Alta-Vista ward] says Ottawa has reduced its credibility by sending mixed messages to the provincial government: saying it urgently needs infrastructure money, then using the funds to cut down a tax increase; approving the transit plan, then undoing the approval.


But in recent years, deep regional divisions have diminished the city's political voice. Mr. Hume says that in other Ontario municipalities such as York, Durham and Mississauga, there is "massive unanimity" on projects where financial help is needed from the provincial and federal governments.

By contrast, Ottawa has developed a political culture of dissension, where it's hard for others to know what the city's real priorities are and the city is still trying to figure out how to spend the $200 million in transit funding the provincial government has promised.


Mr. Watson says Ottawa cannot expect to get provincial money for specific capital projects until it presents a new public transit plan that delivers higher transit ridership.

"Do it right. Make sure there's good community support," says Mr. Watson, noting that the provincial government doesn't want to see a repeat of the reversed city council decision on light rail.

This may still be the after-effects of city amalgamation, and councillors seem to have failed to recognize the greater vision of the Greater Ottawa Area and the National Capital Region. Recent plans seem to offer some hope for a long-term plan being established, and it's imperative a plan--preferably one that works for all constituents, even if it's very long-term--in order to prove to provincial and federal governments that the money they give Ottawa will go to good use.

On thing's for sure: It's not a good thing that provincial bailouts for transit go to balancing the books instead of the transit projects they were earmarked for. That doesn't send the right messages to Queen's Park at all.


Ben said...

Stories like this one make me ashamed to be a citizen of Ottawa.

Our city council is so without leadership and even without cooperation among councilors, that nothing can be accomplished (save for a 7.5% tax increase).

Yet another reason to leave this city.

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