Monday, September 28, 2009

OC Transpo union votes against arbitration

In an historic vote on Friday, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 279 voted in favour of maintaining their right to strike and against agreeing to send all future unresolved contract negotiations directly to third-party arbitration. Almost two-thirds of union members (62.3 per cent) who voted opted to maintain the current arrangement.

It's unclear what the immediate fallout of the vote will be. The recent 52-day winter transit strike has gone to arbitration, with the settlement expected soon, so there shouldn't be another transit strike until that contract (however long it turns out to be) expires. At that point, there will obviously be negotiations, with the possibility of a resolution or an agreement to go to arbitration before a strike would occur. That's all speculation at this point, though.

In the long-term, the decision could negatively impact the city's standing with labour unions, as reported last month. In the Ottawa Sun, though, OC Transpo general manager Alain Mercier took an optimistic outlook, stating that "This is a vote of confidence in our ability to move forward together." Innes Ward councillor Rainer Bloess, though, told 580 CFRA that he was "disappointed" with the no-vote, believing that it "could have given reassurance to the residents of Ottawa."

For mainstream media coverage of the vote:

Sunday, September 27, 2009

LRT cost estimate "had no basis in reality", continues to climb

After news of a $100M cost increase to the first phase of Ottawa's light rail plan came out last week, yet another unforeseen expenditure has been unearthed by the Ottawa Sun, this time $200M in order to purchase property for the east-west leg of the city's light-rail extension.

The Sun released the reaction of a number of interested parties, including Deputy City Manager Nancy Schepers, who suggested that a deviation of up to 25 per cent of the estimated cost--which in this case could be a difference of $450M--should be expected as typical. River Councillor Maria McRae called the new information "alarming and shocking," and posed the question of whether or not this transit plan--replete with rapidly increasing costs--remains affordable. Gloucester-Southgate Councillor Diane Deans said that the original estimate "had no basis in reality" and questioned whether or not this type of inaccuracy will negatively impact the city's ability to secure funding from the federal and provincial governments.

Ottawa West-Nepean MPP Jim Watson questioned the city's transit plan over a month ago, and suggested his concerns that the plan wasn't affordable, and he predicted that costs could escalate quickly. Turns out that was a prescient concern.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Promoting public transit through... Air Miles?

The City of Ottawa has announced a new partnership, offering an interesting new promotion for transit users (or at least those who happen to be Air Miles cardholders):
AIR MILES Collectors can now redeem 650 reward miles to obtain a Regular Adult Monthly Pass by visiting AIR MILES at and logging on to the My Planet Rewards page. Along with more than 100 other environmentally responsible products available through the AIR MILES My Planet program, the selection of an OC Transpo pass gives Ottawa’s AIR MILES Collectors the opportunity to take public transit, leave their cars at home, and make a personal commitment to reducing their own carbon footprint.
As I said before, an interesting promotion, and definitely a reflection of "'out of the box' thinking"--as Bay Ward Councillor and Transit Committee Chair Alex Cullen called it. OC Transpo's not the first public transit utility to offer the promotion, though; Edmonton also offers an adult bus pass for 650 Air Miles, and the Toronto Transit Commission offers one for 850 Air Miles.

Although it's targeted at new users, it's as valuable to frequent existing riders, as well. Any readers considering taking advantage of the offer?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rising transit plan costs concern province, citizens

According to a report in the Ottawa Sun, the first phase of Ottawa's light rail plan is already running about $100M over the budgeted cost. The phase, initially pegged at between $1.7M and $1.8M of the plan's total roughly $5B price tag, hasn't broken ground yet, and includes the city's proposed downtown tunnel. Contributing to the cost overruns, according to the report, are design changes to a maintenance yard and some light-rail platforms.
The Sun has learned several significant design changes to the $1.8-billion project have sent costs soaring. City staff have underestimated the pricetag for the east-west LRT maintenance yard that’s expected to be located in the St. Laurent area, a senior staffer told the Sun.

Bay Coun. Alex Cullen, who is also chairman of the city’s transit committee, confirmed last night there are several unexpected design changes, including to the maintenance yard.

“There have been scope changes that shows us adding on to the cost,” said Cullen
It seems unlikely that many people expected the project to finish on budget, chief among the sceptics being Ottawa West-Nepean MPP and Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Jim Watson, who voiced his concern a month ago. Watson came out again today, again in the Ottawa Sun, calling into question the City's credibility:
Watson’s major concern is that the financial commitment expected from the province has jumped from $200 million to $600 million, and the final number could be even higher.

“We (the provincial government) have serious financial limitations. They have to make sure the project is affordable.”

“We can’t be funding one-third of a question mark,” he said, adding the city’s numbers have to be “firm, defensible and credible.”
The $200M figure cited by Watson was that initially pledged for the now-cancelled North-South light-rail extension, which was scrapped in 2006 when city council decided to move in another direction (literally and figuratively). It's somewhat deceptive to use it as the starting point, but his message is quite clear: The city needs to figure out what it's doing, and what it's asking for, before the Province of Ontario is going to offer any significant funding above and beyond what's already been promised.

Innes Ward Councillor Rainer Bloess suggested that city staff will have to find an efficiency elsewhere in the plan in order to offset the increase.

Transit projects of this magnitude have a tendency to go over budget due to unseen or overlooked expenses, and the City of Ottawa has had problems with similar budgeting before--including, most recently, the $5.6M budgeted to outfit the OC Transpo fleet with technology to call out stops, which has now more than doubled to $12M.

Still, it's got to be concerning for funding partners and particularly citizens of Ottawa that these issues are coming up already, before the work has even commenced.

It poses a couple of pertinent questions: Were you expecting to see news like this? If so, were you expecting to see them so soon? Is it likely staff will be able to find some other area to cut from in order to restore the previously-estimated cost?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Can we get cars to pay for buses? Should we?

In one instalment of Public Transit in Ottawa's ongoing "Funding Ottawa's Transit Plan" series, the possibility of having non-users, specifically personal automobile drivers, pay a levy which would fund transit plans. It's a possibility at least as interesting as it would be divisive, but there's no doubt it would help offset the investment in public transit, and encourage more people to get onto the bus or train.

Just a few weeks ago, British Columbia transit company TransLink's commissioner Martin Crilly. In his first review in the position, Crilly suggested three possibilities, including raising vehicle registration fees, charging road tolls, and increasing insurance as possible ways to, ahem, drive people out of their cars and onto public transit, according to The Globe & Mail.

The measure is one of several possibilities transit utilities are going to have to look into to keep up with operating costs--to say nothing of capital and expansion costs. According to that Globe story, increases in operating costs are outpacing inflation, fuelled by improving--and expensive--new technologies, such as the $12M SmartBus technology which the City of Ottawa's Transit Committee recently approved for installation on the OC Transpo fleet.

Traditional measures for dealing with increasing costs, such as raising fares, are not working for transit utilities, so this isn't likely the last we've heard of such measures. It seems probable that these discussions will gain steam in cities all over the world, and Ottawa will be no exception.

Friday, September 18, 2009

North-south line may be resurrected to woo provincial funding

The light-rail project connecting downtown Ottawa to the southern reaches of the city, approved by council in July 2006 and then cancelled by council in December 2006, may be revived--at least in part--to make the project attractive for provincial funding.

From the Ottawa Citizen:
Ottawa may have ditched its first north-south light-rail plan, but it could soon be building the project regardless, if the Ontario government decides to fund it.

Briefing notes on the city’s pitch to two key provincial ministers show that Ottawa is offering two options for the funding of its new transit plan in the first phase.

One option is a package that includes building the light-rail tunnel downtown and building the rail line from Blair Station in the east to Tunney’s Pasture west of downtown, as well as expanded bus transit corridors. This would cost $1.7 billion.
Just last week, City Council voted in favour of a $36.7M settlement of a lawsuit stemming from the initial cancellation of the north-south rail project. Had the project not been cancelled, preliminary timelines estimated it would be finished or at least finishing in autumn 2009--or around this time.

Even if the province decides to fund the first-phase option including the north-south line, Ottawa's downtown transit tunnel would still be the first undertaking.

Friday, September 11, 2009

In the news: $36.7M to get nothing, and more Ottawa transit headlines

Quite a few transit-related news items this week, beginning with one of the most controversial transit-planning related issues of the day: Ottawa's cancelled north-south transit line, and the $36.7M settlement it may require stemming from lawsuits around its cancellation.

The Ottawa Citizen quoted Mayor Larry O'Brien about the lawsuit, which he says is a necessary cost for the City to "move away from the old, tragically flawed LRT plan and move on to something the citizens of Ottawa would really embrace". Recently some politicians, including Ottawa Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi in an interview with Public Transit in Ottawa as well as Capital Ward councillor Clive Doucet, have questioned whether the cancellation of the north-south line, which would be finishing at around this time, was the right decision. The project was to cost an estimated $600M (EDIT: and the actual contract for which was $778M), two-thirds of which was already pledged by federal and provincial governments, and $54M has already been spent on preparing for the transit plan--money which will now be written off by the City, the Citizen says.


With reports that only 80 per cent of transit stops are being called out by OC Transpo operators, and the Canadian Transportation Agency demanding that number be 100 per cent, the City is still looking into an automated system to ensure compliance with the regulatory body's order. Council had previously approved a $6.7M expenditure on the technology, but 580 CFRA is now reporting that the system will cost the City almost twice as much; $12M to install on the entire OC Transpo fleet.

The $12M bid, from Clever Devices, would also include "bus time arrival information and vehicular system condition monitoring", and would be presented visually as well as aurally in English in French.

According to, the city might take a step further with the retrofit, bumping up the cost to $17M but including further increases in bus-tracking and efficiency, as well as a move to ease the installation of a wireless SmartCard system.


OC Transpo is making moves to help prevent 'free rides' on buses, including a Communication Plan to inform people of the fees that come with detected non-paying riders, according to 580 CFRA. The transit utility may also implement measures including no back-door boarding, but they're saying the real solution will be implementing a SmartCard system through the entire fleet.


Finally, the City is looking into a number of measures to lower the 'carbon footprint' of the public transit system, accoring to an official press release. The measures include looking into the following actions:

  • Examining the cost of bio-diesel as an alternative fuel
  • Providing annual greenhouse gas emission reports for buses and trains
  • Completing the implementation plan for 177 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which will be used on low-speed transit routes with frequent stops
  • Converting the fleet to more environmentally friendly No.2 diesel fuel
  • Preparing to use urea as an exhaust after-treatment agent in buses with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 2010 certified engines
  • Completing a study on tire pressure monitoring and tracking
  • Finalizing the testing and evaluation of its three double-decker buses

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The City of Ottawa: A green destination

Sometimes when you live in the city of Ottawa, you forget just how nice this city can be. Sometimes all it takes is an outsider's perspective, though, and you're quickly reminded that this city has a lot of great attractions to offer--for vacationers or staycationers.

The Mother Nature Network recognized that fact, and recently proclaimed Ottawa as a green destination for travellers. They commended, among other things, Ottawa's alternative transit options--whether they be public transit, skating, walking, or biking. Here's what they had to say, but check out the article for ideas of things you may be taking for granted:

Ottawa has an expansive public transportation system. Buses and rail lines make it easy to get around year-round. A regional rail network connects Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Because these cities have good public transit networks, it's possible to tour urban Quebec and Ontario without having to once step into a car.

Ottawa's compact size and user-friendly layout make it an ideal city to explore on foot. Many of the city's attractions are in the vicinity of the Parliament buildings. Ottawa Walking Tours offers guided two-hour sightseeing strolls in downtown Ottawa.

Bicycles are another form of convenient, low-impact transport in Ottawa. There are nearly 100 miles of bike paths throughout the city, and many roadways are bike-friendly. Even pedaling through the downtown area is relatively safe and straightforward.
They really make our city look like a heck of a place. Although it's easy to get frustrated with some of the decision-making processes in our city, it's still a nice place to be. Any tourists out there who'd like to comment on the city of Ottawa? Any residents feel differently than the Mother Nature Network?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

OC Transpo age cap dies, Twitter is witness

After the pedestrian and transit advisory committee recommended to the City's transit committee that the age cap on student bus passes be revoked, the transit committee unanimously endorsed the idea.

Today, Council as a whole voted on the issue. It had to be reconsidered for debate, since it had already been passed several months ago at the the same table.

Councillors unanimously voted to reconsider and then quickly voted to endorse the transit committee proposal to drop the age limit.

So, no more age limit. live-tweeted the event, and you can check out @nonstopnicktv to get the full scoop.