Wednesday, October 28, 2009

SmartBus a no-go with council

Even though city staff recommended Ottawa go forward with the installation of SmartBus technology on OC Transpo buses, and paying the $17M tab that goes with it, a potential lawsuit put the decision on hold--and possibly off the table.

From 580 CFRA:
A contract to install an automated next-stop announcement system on OC Transpo buses has been parked.

City Council voted 11-10 against a $17 million contact with US-based Clever Devices to install the system on all OC Transpo buses.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

West Side Action takes an in-depth look at the downtown tunnel

West Side Action, a great local blog focusing on the west side of Ottawa's downtown, has been taking a very thorough examination into the impact the Downtown Ottawa Transit Tunnel (DOTT) will have on residents in the area bounded by downtown's western edge, Bayview, the Ottawa River, and Dow's Lake.

Rather than attempt to paraphrase Eric Darwin's terrific in-depth look--which includes everything from discussions of the effects boring tailings might have on the neighbourhood to the "hidden subsidies" to single-occupancy cars built in to Ottawa's transit tab--so take some time to look at the chapters he's published so far:
The series seems to be ongoing, and I'm not sure how long Eric will keep it going. Either way, it makes for some interesting reading while we watch the bureaucratic processes about actualizing the transit plan work their way through.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Transit plan first phase price tag climbs to $2.1B

Tentatively predicted to run the City of Ottawa $1.8B, it turns out the more realistic cost estimate for the first phase of Ottawa's ambitious transit plan is around $2.1B, according to
Light rail between Blair Road and Tunney's Pasture, including a three-kilometre downtown tunnel, will cost $2.1 billion, city staff estimated Friday. That's $400 million more than their December 2008 estimate and $300 million more than the estimate in the city's recent funding request to the federal and provincial governments.
In initial discussions of potential direction for Ottawa's transit plan, the above-mentioned first phase of the was estimated to cost $1.4B. In recent weeks, reports indicated it would climb due to unforeseen design changes and land procurement costs. After a more thorough examination, which included consultations with "experienced firms involved in transportation and tunnelling projects" and a review, according to the above-linked CBC story, seems likely to be the best estimate, which City officials will present when appealing to federal and provincial governments for funding.

Although federal officials have been rather quiet in awaiting an official request with hard numbers, Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister and Ottawa West-Nepean MPP Jim Watson has for weeks been announcing his concern with the affordability of Ottawa's transit plan. This past weekend, as reported in the Ottawa Citizen, Watson re-iterated his concerns:
"I'm becoming increasingly worried about the city's capacity to bring this project to a conclusion," said Watson, the MPP for Ottawa West-Nepean. "We're very, very concerned. I have to simply question the affordability of this plan."


"They've designed the plan without an upper-limit budget. The price just keeps going up," said Watson. "We cannot simply send a blank cheque to the City of Ottawa."
Although Watson is concerned with the city's ability to pay for its third of the transit plan, the recently-unveiled $24.7B provincial deficit in Ontario, which will undoubtedly affect the province's ability to offer cash to municipalities. The deficit is the largest the province has ever carried, according to the Ottawa Citizen. The City is looking for at least one-third of the capital cost of the project from each of the provincial and federal governments, meaning $700M from each level over the course of the first phase.

Funding partners--including, albeit on a smaller scale, citizens of Ottawa--are all likely mindful of the (mostly negative) perceptions of staff and decision makers in this city, which combine to make what Steve Collins refers to as a "trust deficit" in the Ottawa Metro. That scepticism certainly shines through in Watson's comments. It remains to be seen what federal ministers, particularly Ottawa West-Nepean MP and Infrastructure Minister John Baird, have to say about the recently-announced cost increase.

City staff are convinced that Ottawa can foot their portion of the transit plan.

The cost for the full four-stage transit plan is now an estimated $6.6B, up from the initially-predicted roughly $5B price tag.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Staff recommends light-rail, council to vote Nov. 18

Looks like the staff-favoured option for Ottawa's transit plan is light rail powered by overhead electricity lines, rather than heavy rail. Council will vote on whether or not they agree with staff assessments on November 18, 2009.

From the Ottawa Citizen:
Council and its planners have for years wanted to use light-rail technology and this is to be confirmed Wednesday, a senior city official said. Light rail with overhead wires means Ottawa would not have to ensure that the whole system is grade-separated.

Therefore, future extensions of the rail corridor into outlying communities would allow the rail cars to run at road level, if necessary.

The technology choice, to be confirmed by councillors Nov. 18, sets the stage for more detailed planning and negotiations for the transit project, which sees: a downtown tunnel; the bus transitway converted to rail from Blair Station to Tunney’s Pasture; rail extended eventually to Baseline Station, as well as to the south; and expansions of the bus system in suburban areas.
The wheels are in motion, apparently.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Stop-calling gets worse as SmartBus upgrade put on hold

The compliance rate for OC Transpo drivers calling out stops on buses hit its lowest point of the year in September, dropping to 78 per cent according to The City of Ottawa was fined $5000 in July for failing to achieve 100 per cent compliance with stop announcements, and has yet to address the problem.

Attempts to address the problem, however, have recently hit a snag. While the City decided they were willing to pay nearly $12M to Clever Devices to install SmartBus technology across the OC Transpo fleet, Bell Canada has threatened legal action stemming from the City's bidding process, according to Metro Ottawa. While the city put out a call for bids on a system to call out stops, Clever Devices' bid included a number of other technological upgrades which were not included in the "scope of request" for the bidding process.

Who knows what'll happen. Another setback for the necessary upgrade to the bus fleet, risking another fine from the Canadian Transit Authority, and--more importantly--continued accessibility barriers for transit users.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Legislating courtesy, the Toronto way

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the policy of New York City Transit to fine those who didn't give up their seat to disabled passengers. Turns out it's not just New York, but Toronto's recently given transit special constables the same powers.

From the Globe & Mail:
The new fine for impoliteness is just one of a number of bylaw changes that went into effect Monday, with riders who prop their feet up on a seat, or those who lay down on a row of seats, now facing potential fines.

The new bylaw concerning priority seating doesn't mean that it's an offence to sit in the area of a bus or subway that's reserved for the disabled; rather, fines can only be issued if a rider acts “in contravention of instructions” from a special constable to remove themselves.
Nothing like this in Ottawa, at least not to my knowledge. But should Ottawa have by-laws like this?

EDIT: Turns out Ottawa's got courtesy by-laws, as well. From the OC Transpo website (H/T to 'anonymous' in the comments):


18. (1) A person with a disability, an expectant mother, a person with a visible need for priority seating, a person with a child in a carriage or stroller, a person with a Priority Seating Card or a person with an Assistant Card is entitled to priority seating on a front bench seat but is not guaranteed a seat.

(2) No person, who is not described in subsection (1), shall fail to surrender a front bench seat to a person entitled to priority seating.


35. (1) Any person who contravenes any provision of this by-law is guilty of an offence and on conviction is liable to a fine pursuant to the Provincial Offences Act.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Construction begins on southwest Transitway extension

Photo courtesy office of Gloucester-South Nepean Councillor Steve Desroches

Construction began on the southwest Transitway extension through Barrhaven on Friday, September 18, 2009. The route will move buses from the existing Fallowfield Park and Ride, following along the VIA train tracks until just before Greenbank Avenue, when it turns south towards the Strandherd Park and Ride, goes underneath Strandherd Avenue and through the Barrhaven Marketplace (along an existing pedestrian pathway) towards new residential development in Chapman Mills neighbourhood (see map below).

Google Map overlaid with new Southwest Transitway Extension route

The extension is intended to move commuters more quickly from the Fallowfield station into southern residential developments. One undesirable by-product of that is the new route will take many routes, such as the 95, further from residential developments along Fallowfield and Greenbank, but it does run through future developments between Longfields Drive, Greenbank Road, and the train tracks.

The construction is scheduled to be completed by the spring of 2011. Undoubtedly, the most interesting component will be when the route tunneling underneath Strandherd Avenue. It will certainly be complicated, considering Strandherd at that point is four automobile lanes wide.

For more information on the Southwest Transitway Extension, check out the city's official public consultation page.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Federal arbitrator sides with city in strike settlement

The outcome of arbitration which was used to settle the underlying issues of Ottawa's 52-day winter 2009 transit strike was released today, and reports indicate that the arbitrator sided with the City of Ottawa in the dispute.

The decision, which covers the three-year contract ending in March 2011, includes the following:
  • City gains control of scheduling
  • A raise of 8.25 per cent (3.25, 2.5, and 2.5 in the three years)
  • No one-time signing bonus
  • No new with sick/special leave
  • No contracting-out changes
One of the City's contract offers just before both sides agreed to arbitration was 7.25 per cent over three years, an increased number of sick days, a one-time bonus, and scheduling responsibilities handed over to the City--an offer which was soundly rejected in a federally-forced vote. The union was reportedly looking to retain control of scheduling, and gain a raise of 9.25 per cent over three years.

The issue of scheduling was the most contentious item in the strike, with the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 279 not willing to negotiate on it, and the City unwilling to negotiate without it on the table. OC Transpo management suggested that their reason for wanting to wrest control of scheduling was to take advantage of 'operational efficiencies' they felt they could gain.

Another of the key issues from the ATU's side was the contracting out of services. Particularly with regards to mechanics and the servicing of OC Transpo equipment, the union wanted some certainty that they had job security. This settlement fails to ease that concern, and OC Transpo management had suggested that contracting out some services may offer more operational efficiencies.

It is now up to OC Transpo management to demonstrate that those operational efficiencies are, in fact, significant enough to have justified the 52-day strike.

This arbitration settlement adds a level of intrigue to the ATU's recent vote against giving up their right to strike in favour of sending all future negotiations to arbitration. Although the common perception of arbitration is that they favour unions, this settlement demonstrates that they do not, necessarily.

Mainstream coverage of the outcome:

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Barrhaven Bullet a silver bullet?

When it rains, it pours. Just as it appeared the City of Ottawa was poised to move forward with an ambitious long-term transit plan to build a light-rail train infrastructure through the city, everything now seems to be falling apart. Significant cost overruns before the project's plans are finalized, new implementation scenarios, and entirely new technological hardware entering the dialogue.

Another new option came out this week, an 11-year-old proposal which would involve running heavy-rail commuter trains along the existing rail corridor from Barrhaven in Ottawa's southern suburbs into downtown (EDIT: what is now Train station, southeast of the downtown core). The idea was brought into discussion by Barrhaven Councillor Jan Harder, and (as one might expect) supported by Gloucester-South Nepean Councillor Steve Desroches. The Ottawa Sun article in which the idea was raised didn't counsel any other city politicians (for instance, any councillor whose constituency wouldn't directly benefit from the train).

From the Sun:

With the possibility of an electric heavy rail transit option for commuters, Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder says it’s time to renew an 11-year-old rail transit plan proposed by UniRail Canada Inc. to run a heavy rail commuter line from Barrhaven to downtown using existing rail lines.


The 1998 report, which was tabled before the Ottawa-Carleton regional government, suggested it would require a small capital investment and could get rolling right away. The average speed between the proposed 10 transit stations along the route — including ones at Billings Bridge, the Merivale and Colonnade business parks and the Walkley transit station — would be 50 km/h, it would generate almost 4,000 rides per day and take less than 20 minutes to get from Barrhaven to the VIA station.

“The CN Barrhaven-Ottawa station corridor when compared with other options indicates a greater potential to attract new ridership to the rail transit service as well as establishing integration with existing transitway corridors and services,” says the report.

If the City can come up with some reasonable agreement with VIA Rail, it seems like the cheapest, quickest, and easiest way to get commuters from Barrhaven into the core, and requires little in the way of capital expenditure--basically just the purchase of the vehicles, and establishing the proposed ten stations along the route--and whatever costs are demanded by VIA, the hiring of qualified drivers, and likely other expenditures. In all likelihood, less expensive up-front than building the infrastructure required for light-rail from scratch, but that's a purely fiscal comparison.

But don't let the name fool you: This is no Bullet Train. It may be nicknamed such, but the Shinkansen (the original bullet train) in Japan travels at speeds of up to 300 km/h normally, while this proposed train from Barrhaven would likely run at 50 km/h. Still, even at those speeds, it would take around 20 minutes to get from one end to the other.

We'll see what happens.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Heavy-rail: Cheaper, faster, more capacity; better?

As reported in the Ottawa Sun, City of Ottawa councillors may soon face another decision for the new transit plan: That between a light-rail or heavy-rail train. It's a choice that seems to come out of left field, after months and years of discussion surrounding light-rail as the next step in Ottawa transit.

From the Sun:
"For years city staff and councillors have been discussing a light rail transit (LRT) network, but in November councillors will be presented with a detailed plan that will offer them a choice between building a heavy rail transit (HRT) system or an LRT network.


"[Transit committee chairman and Bay Ward Councillor Alex] Cullen said HRT has benefits: It’s cheaper than LRT, has faster acceleration and can carry more passengers."

As the Sun story goes on to say, there are several councillors--River Ward Councillor Maria McRae and Kitchissippi Ward Councillor Christine Leadman chief among them--who are none too happy about this development. It must certainly come as a shock to citizens, many of whom have been hearing about light-rail for years and are now faced with another possible 180-degree turn in the city's transit plan.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

NCC needs justification to concede Greenbelt land for transit plan

According to the Ottawa Citizen, the National Capital Commission (NCC) is going to have to be convinced by the City of Ottawa that there's good reason to give up land in the Greenbelt for the city's transit plan--and that planners can't assume anything.

The NCC’s executive director of planning, François Lapointe, has written to the city official overseeing the $5-billion transit plan, saying that the NCC is not prepared to hand over a slice of the Greenbelt for the west transitway extension between Bayshore Station and Moodie Drive.


“It should not be assumed that NCC property is available for new projects, but rather a thorough justification must be presented to demonstrate that all other options are not feasible. Cost alone may not be a sufficient reason to justify the use of NCC property over other potential options,” wrote Lapointe. He encouraged the city to “revisit” the selection of the preferred corridor.
As interesting as this development is with regards to the particular portion within the Greenbelt along the Queensway, it's hugely important with the city looking to build light-rail service along the Ottawa River Parkway into downtown. The NCC, according to this statement, will be insistent that all alternatives be examined--alternatives which include Carling Avenue, Byron Avenue, or any other possible corridor. These are fairly strict guidelines, and the fact that the NCC is insisting that all other options can't simply be proven less desirable, but must be proven "not feasible", it makes the onus on the city significant.