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.


Dean said...

What actually happens when you make a complaint? A year and a half ago I made a complaint about a driver who refused to let a blind man on the bus. OCtranspo has never bothered to follow up with me. Calls after the fact to them has yielded nothing except promises that they will get back to me.

Anonymous said...

Dean, don't hold your breath! I've complained a bunch of times too and nothing ever really happens. They usually take a month or two to respond and then they say something like, "We're sorry for the inconvenience and we'll look into this issue." It's a non-response.

It seems strange they haven't responded to you in over a year though. That's a bit excessive.

Keith said...

The second editorial about the new light rail plan is ridiculous. The new 5 billion dollar plan is an all-encompassing phased plan spread out over decades. The $1 billion for the first phase is a very logical conversion of the current transitway. And it's a fraction of what Toronto is getting for its Transit City, subway extension and SRT replacement programs. There is nothing wrong in Ottawa pushing for this plan. Watson's transitway was a great idea in its time but today like Watson it's obsolete. It's time to move on Ottawa!