Friday, August 28, 2009

What if the ATU votes against binding arbitration?

In a little under a month, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 279 union will vote on whether or not to accept binding arbitration in all future contract negotiations, thereby relinquishing their right to strike in exchange for a third-party to dictate terms for the new deal signed.

The vote is part of the resolution to the Union's 52-day strike in the winter of 2008-09, but, according to reports on 580 CFRA, it's far from a certainty that the operators and mechanics in the union will approve the arrangement:
The drivers, mechanics and dispatchers will vote on the agreement on September 24th. Although the deal ended last winter's lengthy and bitter strike, it also gave up the union’s powerful right to strike, in favour of sending outstanding disagreements to binding arbitration.


One driver source says a big reason for opposition to the deal is that it would look good on Mayor Larry O'Brien -- who was villainized by the union, and actually was on leave when the deal was struck.
Putting aside the fact that voting down an agreement that many see as favourable to unions and which will ensure no stoppage in the union member's work (and keeps their paycheques coming) in order to spite a mayor whose four-year mandate will be over shortly might seem impulsive, what could a no-vote mean to the City of Ottawa and its residents?

First of all, it won't mean an immediate transit strike. Both sides of the recent dispute have both agreed to arbitration to settle this current contract negotiation.

But, according to that same report on CFRA's website, it could be a blow to the city's reputation when negotiating with other unions in the city. Ottawa has had issues negotiating with unions in the past, the winter strike being the most recent example, and such a vote wouldn't set a very positive precedent for future negotiations.

Finally, it would mean residents could be faced with another transit strike whenever this current agreement--whose results are anticipated by the end of September--comes to an end. The most recent transit strike was hard for many citizens and businesses, and left both sides with egg on their face. Although ridership has rebounded strongly since the strike came to an end, another transit strike so closely following this past one would run the risk of damaging OC Transpo's ridership numbers irreperably--a scary prospect with a $5B transit system upgrade coming soon.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ottawa Citizen gives two cents on transit issues of the day

The Ottawa Citizen has published an editorial on public transit in our city for each of the past two days, each of which speaks to a pressing issue in the public transit debate today.

On Wednesday, the Citizen spoke of a rise in complaints received by OC Transpo--including, of course, some stemming from their inability to ensure bus drivers are calling out stops regularly. According to the story, OC Transpo has had a 24 per cent increase in complaints over the last three years, and the Citizen's editorial board had some choice words for OC Transpo General Manager Alain Mercier:

It isn't Alain Mercier's job to justify the high number of complaints that come in to OC Transpo. It's his job to reduce that number.


The 24-per-cent increase in complaints over three years is partly due to an increase in ridership. But ridership only increased by about 13 per cent in that period. Clearly, there's something else going on.

Mercier, the general manager of OC Transpo, points out that the service is also getting more compliments than it used to. That's nice, but it can't compensate for the rise in complaints. If your bus is late, or zooms right past you, or narrowly misses hitting a cyclist, or runs a red light, it doesn't really matter that on another bus somewhere in Ottawa, a driver gave someone a friendly smile. We shouldn't be aiming for a compliments-to-complaints ratio that evens out. We should be aiming for a baseline, a bare minimum, of reliable, safe, friendly service.
Then, on Thursday, the Citizen responded with kudos to Ottawa West-Nepean MPP Jim Watson for his concerns over funding the city's ambitious and expensive light-rail transit plan:

Watson, a former mayor, says there were public concerns about costs in the first cancelled light-rail plan, which weighed in at $884 million. He's right.

To be more specific, city staff had estimated that the north-south plan would cost somewhere in the range of $600 million. However when the competitive bidding process took place, it became apparent that the staff estimates were about $200 million too low. That spooked the public, and politicians capitalized on the escalating costs -- not the least of whom were Mayor Larry O'Brien and Transport Minister John Baird, the top local federal minister.

Oddly, the new rail plan with a shiny tunnel and much more majestic ambitions costs about $5 billion and yet Ottawans don't seem to mind much at all. But Watson does, and good on him. Remember that the city was stretched to cover the costs of the original plan at about one-fifth the price. Remember, too, that $10 million of civic expenses translates into roughly a one-year, one-per-cent increase in your property taxes. One wonders how much of that $5 billion will land on your tax bill. Watson is concerned about that and is sitting down with city politicians and staff to crunch costs and feasibility with his people in Toronto. What he has found is that this plan costs a lot of money -- so much so that he is worried about its feasibility. So he should be.
Both editorials present a good case, and are good reads, to boot. Feel free to comment on either of them, and the issues presented within, in the comments.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Riders return faster than expected

OC Transpo ridership has rebounded quickly and strongly after the city's 52-day winter transit strike, according to Bay Ward Councillor and Transit Committee Chair Alex Cullen.

From 580 CFRA:

Statistics released this week show ridership returned to near normal levels in March as service resumed following the strike by drivers, dispatchers and mechanics.

Councillor Alex Cullen tells CFRA News conventional wisdom was that after a strike residents would have developed other habits, and it would have taken a while for ridership to return to pre-strike levels.

This is good news for Ottawa, particularly as City Council begins to push hard for federal and provincial funding for their $5B light-rail transit plan. High levels of relatively consistent ridership, as demonstrated by this quick return to the buses, is necessary to justify the need for a light-rail system which only becomes economical if ridership stays high.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Province wants answers before funding Ottawa light-rail

Ottawa West-Nepean MPP and Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Jim Watson expressed concerns with the City's current light-rail transit plan, suggesting that he's not convinced the estimated $4-5B price tag would not escalate quickly, according to the Ottawa Citizen:

Watson, speaking to reporters Monday after addressing the Association of Municipalities of Ontario annual convention in Ottawa, said provincial government staff are continuing to scrutinize the proposed plan, which includes a tunnel downtown for a light-rail service.

He said he is concerned about the affordability of the plan because the city's original project for north-south rail -- scrapped by the current council -- was a $1-billion project while the current, more extensive plan is close to $5 billion.

"That obviously concerns me as a keeper of tax dollars," said Watson, the Liberal MPP for Ottawa West-Nepean.
It's no secret that members from every level of government--municipal, provincial, and federal--are concerned that a project of this magnitude runs the risk of overshooting its budget. It seems unlikely that staff can offer certain assurances, but they'll have to come close if this thing's ever going to get started.

Friday, August 14, 2009

More on OC Transpo calling out stops

A couple of weeks after OC Transpo was fined $5000 for failing to call out major and requested stops on buses, 580 CFRA announced that, for the month of July, OC Transpo drivers called out 81 per cent of stops. Although 81 per cent seems like a respectable number, it's far off the 100 per cent demanded by the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), and amounts to one out of every five stops missed.

Earlier this week, OC Transpo Manager of Performance and Quality Vincent Patterson told 580 CFRA that--although the call-out rate could and should be higher than 81 per cent--drivers may not hit every stop announcement due to the distractions that come with operating a bus. For that reason, it's unlikely that drivers could ever reach a perfect 100 per cent call-out rate.

Meanwhile, Ottawa still has $7M budgeted for an automated system to call out stops, but has yet to award the contract. OC Transpo has already violated the CTA's deadline for having 100 per cent efficiency, and it is unclear how often the transit authority may fine Ottawa's transit utility.

Monday, August 10, 2009

TransitOttawa on CBC Radio's All In A Day today

Executive Director of Public Transit in Ottawa Peter Raaymakers will be on CBC Radio One Ottawa's All In A Day program on Monday, August 10, 2009 at around 3:40 p.m. Discussion will focus on the recently-announced Journal of Public Transit in Ottawa, a community-reviewed journal about the City of Ottawa's public transit infrastructure.

All In A Day is, according to CBC, Ottawa's top afternoon drive program. Hosted by Adrian Harewood, it runs from 3 to 6 p.m. every weekday on CBC Radio One Ottawa, 91.5 on the FM dial.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Call for submissions: Journal of Public Transit in Ottawa

The Public Transit in Ottawa Portal (PTOP) is pleased to invite submissions for its community-reviewed publication, the Journal of Public Transit in Ottawa (JPTO), whose first issue is scheduled to be published later in 2009. Authors of original applied original research interested in submitting articles to be considered for publication in JPTO should contact Peter Raaymakers, Executive Director of Public Transit in Ottawa, at for more detailed information.

JPTO is intended to address topics of relevance to public transit in and around the City of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and the National Capital Region (including related municipalities and the City of Gatineau). Articles should be written in a scholarly tone for an audience looking to gather more information on public transit issues in Ottawa in order to encourage deliberation for the betterment of the city's public transit discourse. The JPTO will be available for download through PTOP's website,, and may also have a printed distribution should resources be available.

Submission requirements:
  • Deadline to declare interest in submitting an article (including brief abstract) will be Monday, August 17, 2009. Declaration of interest must be e-mailed to and CCed to
  • Articles must be in Microsoft Word (.DOC) or Adobe Portable Document (.PDF) format.
  • There are three types of articles: Short-form articles (400-500 words), medium-length articles (800-1200 words), and long-form articles (1500-2000 words). Please be clear on which style you envision your article.
  • Co-authored manuscripts and/or those drawing on cross-disciplinary perspectives and research traditions are welcomed and encouraged.
  • Articles may be written in English or French.
  • PTOP will reserve the right to edit articles submitted to JPTO for grammar, style, tone, and length, and to print them in electronic or physical format without paying royalties to original author(s), who shall retain copyright over their own articles.

Manuscripts will be accepted for consideration with the understanding that they are original material and are not under consideration for publication elsewhere. Manuscripts will initially be reviewed by JPTO's editorial staff and, if situations should require, may be sent out for further review. If you would like to be considered as a reviewer for JPTO, please contact

The PTOP is a not-for-profit organization seeking to inform, engage, and involve the citizens of Ottawa in the decision-making process surrounding public transit and its related issues. For more information about PTOP, JPTO, or questions about offering financial support for the publication, please contact Peter Raaymakers, Executive Director of Public Transit in Ottawa and Managing Editor of the Journal of Public Transit in Ottawa, at