Thursday, December 23, 2010

Is OC Transpo an essential service?

Public transit news made some waves earlier in the week when the Ottawa Sun ran a cover story featuring Toronto mayor Rob Ford saying that Ottawa should make OC Transpo an essential service, similar to what he's trying to do with public transit in his city.
“They should do the same thing,” said Ford when contacted by the Ottawa Sun on the subject. “It’s definitely an issue. We had 13 strikes in Toronto and it cost us $50 million a day.”
My immediate reaction was: Why are we asking the mayor of another city why Ottawa's public transit should be declared an essential service?

But after deciding to move beyond that question, I remembered the discussion of making OC Transpo an essential service in the aftermath of the 2008-09 winter transit strike. The Canadian Industrial Relations Board, which has jurisdiction over OC Transpo because of the inter-provincial routes included, sought to determine whether or not such a designation was fitting, and both the city and the union argued that it wasn't an essential service. Certain citizen groups had argued in favour of the designation, but given those counter-arguments, it wasn't done.

In response to Ford's comments, Amalgamated Transit Union 279 interim president Mike Aldrich said he was "surprised" by the comments.

My opinion on the matter is that public transit is most definitely an essential service for some people in the city. Although legislating it would be difficult, a partial solution for Ottawa may be designating the core of OC Transpo service essential (for instance, Transitway routes 95-96-97 and select others, like the 106), as was suggested by Klaus Beltzner (B.Sc., M.Math., M.B.A, and member of Friends of the O-Train) a couple of years back.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Geotechnical report raises questions on Ottawa's LRT tunnel

As the preliminary planning work for Ottawa's light-rail transit plan chugs along, the Interim Geotechnical Data Report for the downtown tunnel portion was released this week, with a couple of snags that are reportedly forcing staff to consider changes to the plan.

The first of the potential changes, as reported by CTV Ottawa, it bedrock depth and poor soil quality around Campus Station. It might force the city to end the tunnel earlier than previously planned, bringing the Campus Station outside of it.

In the city's DOTT Planning and Environmental Assessment Study [.pdf, see page 13], three potential scenarios were outlined for the tunnel portal, leaving the door open for a shorter tunnel and Campus station being located outside of it. Should city engineers decide that the bedrock around the proposed station is too deep and the soil quality too poor, they'll likely choose the 'North Portal' option and have Campus Station at-grade. So that's not necessarily a huge change.

That scenario will naturally shorten the length of the tunnel--and perhaps fairly significantly, as much as 900m--but will it reduce the bottom-line cost of the project? The Ottawa Sun seems to think it could, in their story on the subject, but CBC interviewed city staffers who said it's not likely to bring down the cost.

The second, depending on the risk, may be more worrisome. The image below, a figure presented in the geotechnical report, shows the faults underground in Ottawa (click to enlarge):

The set of faults in question are the Gloucester Faults, which cross the proposed DOTT alignment in three spots between Lyon and O'Connor Streets, but may in fact lie further east of where indicated on the map above (which is based on a Geological Survey of Canada regional geology map), according to the report. Although the fault lines are present, they are apparently inactive, and city staff told CBC that they aren't a major concern.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A change of tone between the OC Transpo and the union

Well this is a refreshing dose of positive news.

Less than a week ago, I posted about early jockeying between the city and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 279 as the two sides were preparing to negotiate an extension to their agreement to keep OC Transpo buses running. It seemed the hostility between the two sides hadn't faded at all, and didn't bode well for negotiations.

But now, things seem to be a little different. Mayor Jim Watson met with acting president of the ATU 279 Mike Aldrich on Monday to discuss the future of Ottawa public transit (and preventing another transit strike), and Transit Commission acting chair Diane Deans is to meet with Aldrich on Tuesday for the same thing. The two had earlier said their interest was in smoothing relations between OC Transpo and the union, but hadn't done anything to put substance behind their words; opening up communication is a good place to start.

But it takes two sides to negotiate, and it looks like Aldrich is ready to do so now, too. On Monday, in an interview with the Ottawa Sun, Aldrich seemed to be moving forward with the negotiations:
Aldrich said he’s “looking forward” to the upcoming negotiations and hinted that things will be different with the ATU now under his leadership and not that of former president Andre Cornellier.

“It will be a whole new way of negotiating. We’re going to get rid of the adversarial attitude and get along. We (the ATU and the city) want to have a world-class transit system,” he said.

“This is the public’s transit system and I don’t want to use the public as pawns, we had 54 days of that s**t. It’s the last thing we want.”
There's some passion there, and it's a passion to find a proper agreement before push comes to shove and a strike seems inevitable. All of a sudden, I'm fairly optimistic these two sides can figure this thing out.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Bus ride reading: Urban Nation

While browsing through the Ottawa Public Library collection, my interest was piqued by Alan Broadbent's Urban Nation: Why We Need to Give Power Back to the Cities to Make Canada Strong. Broadbent's premise is that Canada is becoming an increasingly urbanized nation, and the powers currently reserved for provinces need to be given to certain cities so that they've got the capacity and flexibility to respond to unique obstacles.

Although Broadbent mentions Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver as the cities which in particular deserve (and, in his opinion, need) this authority, his focus is undoubtedly on Toronto. Only a few passing examples show a concern for Vancouver, and Montreal is only mentioned a handful of times. The book is very much focussed on how a possible re-organization of government would benefit Toronto.

I was somewhat disappointed in Broadbent's dismissal of the City of Ottawa; although not nearly as large as the cities he focuses on, the Ottawa census metropolitan area is in the unique position of being affected by five levels of government as well as numerous different government agencies (the National Capital Commission and Parks Canada, to name a couple). If the idea is to build a more efficient and specifically capable municipal body, few Canadian cities would benefit from the change more than Ottawa would. But that wasn't a focus Broadbent dealt with, although I think the book would have benefited from it.

Much of the book is focussed on taxes: How taxes could shift towards urban uses, different taxation mechanisms that would open up to cities with province-like authorities, tax credits, and financing infrastructure projects through taxes. Which is rather interesting, if somewhat dry at times to read. Still, Broadbent brings up some very good points about the benefits that could come about.

Peculiarly, however, are the significant jurisdictional modifications Broadbent suggests towards the end of the book. Noting a disparity between representatives in the federal government and population between rural and urban populations, he not only proposes more representatives for urban areas, but also proposes a provincial reorganization for less populous provinces. The Atlantic provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick would be united as "The Maritimes" (a label which I'm sure residents of Newfoundland and Labrador wouldn't appreciate, given that that province isn't a maritime province), while Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba would be united as "The Prairies". It seemed to come out of nowhere, but I suppose the point is that if cities are to gain powers, it's likely that someone else would have to give them up. In Broadbent's vision, that would be the lower-populated provinces across Canada.

Putting aside his vision for a "New Canada", Broadbent's point about a lack of sufficient powers setting cities back is very apropos. He uses more examples that I can recount here, but his bottom line is that Canadians are flocking to cities, and our governance structure--established almost 150 years ago--has failed to adjust to reflect changing realities. As it is, cities are subject to the whims of provincial and federal funding partners, virtually relegated to beggars coming hat-in-hand to other levels of government to seek funding for significant projects.

For readers interested in urban issues in Canada or the relationship between different levels of government would likely enjoy reading Urban Nation. But don't go into it expecting much of an Ottawa perspective.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Jockeying starts early for city, union in negotiations

Although the contract between the Amalgamated Transit Union 279 and OC Transpo doesn't expire until March 2011, and with the winter 2008-09 53-day transit strike still fresh in our minds, both sides of the labour agreement have already started posturing to gain advantage in the upcoming labour talks.

Through his mayoral campaign and since, mayor Jim Watson has been stating his intention to mend the relationship between the city and the union; on the day she was selected as chair of the transit commission, Gloucester-Southgate Councillor Diane Deans talked to CTV Ottawa about "a new era of co-operation" between the two sides. Although it's still very early in their respective mandates (Deans was just approved as chair of the commission yesterday), neither has done much, if anything, in the way of tangible action to change anything.

Meanwhile, OC Transpo general manager Alain Mercier has initiated a survey of workers to get to the bottom of the seemingly ever-present low morale issues at OC Transpo--a survey which, according to acting president of the ATU 279 Mike Aldrich, is identical to one which was done five years ago, as reported by the Ottawa Citizen. Aldrich said issues are the same as were determined in the previous survey--"running times, scheduling and poor morale throughout the company"--and didn't approve sending the survey out.

On the other side, the ATU 279 leadership is using some more strongly-armed tactics, putting pressure on the city to make changes even before the union will agree to come to the table. Aldrich has complained that the negotiating team--led by Mercier--is the same as it was during the last negotiation, and that he wants to see some "changes" before proceeding with negotiations. From the CBC:
"We have the same players negotiating the same proposals," said Aldrich, referring to the 51-day strike in 2008-09 that shut down buses in the city.

"We know what happened last time. I'm not interested in going down that road."


"One of [Watson's] campaign promises was to repair the poisoned atmosphere at OC Transpo but so far nothing has been fixed," Aldrich said. "So until we see some changes, or improvements, we'll wait."
Although posturing such as this isn't really uncommon in labour discussions, it's still a little unsettling to hear that issues remain, and that these issues are enough to delay advance negotiations. On the plus side, both sides have said they want to avoid a strike; Aldrich told the CBC that there is "no way the union wants a strike".

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

New transit commission dominated by suburban councillors

City council's nominating committee submitted its list of councillors slotted on to the various boards, committees, and commissions on Tuesday. Although they will still need to be approved by full council, the new transit commission has eight councillors on it, according to the Ottawa Sun: Stephen Blais, Rainer Bloess, Diane Deans, Steve Desroches, Keith Egli, Shad Qadri, Tim Tierney and Marianne Wilkinson.

One thing you'll likely notice immediately is the heavy presence of suburban councillors, and very little in the way of true 'urban' representation among councillors. Five of the proposed members serve ridings outside the Greenbelt (Stephen Blais [Cumberland], Rainer Bloess [Innes], Steve Desroches [Gloucester-South Nepean], Shad Qadri [Stittsville], and Marianne Wilkinson [Kanata North]), while another two (Diane Deans [Gloucester-Southgate] and Keith Egli [Knoxdale-Merivale]) are just inside the Greenbelt, with their ridings encompassing the outskirts of Ottawa proper and significant portions of the Greenbelt.

Only Tim Tierney (Beacon Hill-Cyrville) represents a ward entirely within the Greenbelt. There is no downtown representation among councillors on the commission.

That's not to say these councillors won't be able to serve admirably on the commission, but it does mean that their direct constituents will rely on, at worst, a hybrid transportation strategy that will almost certainly include the bus complemented by a personal car. How this might affect the strategy OC Transpo employs moving forward remains to be seen.

The transit commission still needs to be filled out with four public citizens. It also remains to be seen how these commission members will be selected. According to Wilkinson, the position will be advertised in local papers and on Ottawa's website; according to Deans, the advertisements should be posted early in the new year.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bike-share may be coming back to Ottawa

After a pretty successful pilot program from 2009 was set back in 2010, some bike-share program may return to Ottawa for the summer of 2011, according to Centretown News. From their coverage:
[NCC Director of Communications Lucie] Caron says the NCC is working co-operatively with Ottawa and Gatineau and hoping for the program to be completed by the spring.

Media spokesperson Jasmine Leduc confirmed the NCC’s expectation for 50 stations and 500 bicycles to be available in Canada’s capital region and on both sides of the river by next year.
Ottawa's 2009 bike-share pilot program was supposed to set the groundwork for a permanent system, but in 2010 the NCC was unable to find a partner to manage the Bixi bike-share service, so it didn't get off the ground. Now, it appears the program is expected to move forward in the new year.

In the Centretown News article, Somerset Councillor Diane Holmes voiced significant support for the moving forward with the project. However, in a June 2008 interview with PTIO, new councillor David Chernushenko suggested the city needs to truly invest in building up a cycling infrastructure in order to make sure any bike-share program will work:
"We would start by saying every time a street or a sidewalk needs repair, we can seize that opportunity not just to replace the sewer infrastructure and the telecom cables and everything else that’s there. We’re actually going to redesign that street."
Many recent street redesigns have included measures to make them more pedestrian-friendly, particularly in the core, and a potential segregated cycling lane would only add to that.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Doucet issues warning to Toronto

As new Toronto mayor Rob Ford appears to be embarking on a road eerily similar to that Ottawa took in the immediate aftermath of our last election, former city councillor and failed mayoral candidate Clive Doucet--long an opponent of the current transit plan and proponent of the cancelled north-south transit plan--has issued a strong warning to councillors in the city.

His guest column in the Citizen talks about the years--often decades--and incredible effort that goes in to forming transit plans, and the huge cost associated with cancelling projects that are just about to start, as was the case in Ottawa, or already underway, as is the case in Toronto. It's a terrific column and I recommend you check it out in its entirety, but here's an excerpt:

The young council in Toronto needs to pay attention to Ottawa because the individual political consequences for Ottawa politicians four years on from the initial rail cancellation were equally disastrous -- almost half the council either left voluntarily or were retired by the electorate. Councils need to
succeed and you don't get success by cancelling projects that are slated to change your city for the better.

If you think this is a rather extreme conclusion, consider this: If Ottawa now had a brand-new, light rail service from Barrhaven to the University of Ottawa in operation instead of $37 million
in cancellation fines and $60 million in lost investment; if O'Brien had finished his mandate by cutting the ribbon on that line and turning the sod on the new east/west line it would have connected to -- would he have been defeated?


The Ottawa experience proves it's not only expensive to cancel approved transit projects, the lost opportunities are even more costly. While Ottawa waits for the new transit projects to happen, it is becoming congestion city. The same will happen in Toronto.

All in all, a very interesting take from someone who, whatever you think about his politics, has a lot of experience a plenty of ideas on public transit and cities in the 21st century.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hero bus driver saves three from fire

Pretty incredible news story that came out last week. From the Ottawa Citizen:

The transit worker was driving his Route 5 bus when he saw a building on fire, the memo says.

After contacting the transit control room, he ran out of the bus and into the building, eventually making his way up to the third floor. He then kicked open the door and helped evacuate the apartment of the three people inside, Mercier wrote.

The driver, Peter Paquette, is a former firefighter, according to CTV News. And according to his wife Sandy Maxwell Paquette, as quoted in a CBC article, he "won't like" the attention that comes with being hailed a hero, but I think it's probably a fair label for a guy who saved three people (and a dog) from a fire.

With all the focus people have on how much bus operators get paid, how early or late their bus is, or how grumpy their driver was on a given day, we often forget that there are plenty of terrific drivers out there, too. Paquette's is an extreme example, but there are very often small ways bus drivers help riders as well as everyday citizens. For that, those drivers deserve our thanks.

Friday, December 10, 2010

U-Pass controversy bordering on absurd

Early last month, I discussed the controversy surrounding the universal student bus pass (U-Pass), and the headlines that controversy was making. In case you haven't been following it, the issue hasn't remotely settled down.

On Tuesday, 580 CFRA reported that a group of eight University of Ottawa students have taken the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) to small-claims court over the implementation of the $145/semester bus pass.

Just one day later, the Carleton University Student Association (CUSA) and SFUO jointly issued a press release, "signed by Ottawa university students", calling on new members of council, and particularly new mayor Jim Watson, to make the U-Pass permanent (which is currently just a pilot project).

Both SFUO and CUSA lobbied the previous council to initiate a U-Pass program, each had a referendum at their school which passed, and both have had some students express disdain with the charge. It's almost laughable how rabid both sides are; the example above being just one instance. It's going to be interesting how things work themselves out.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Council approves transit commission

In their first meeting after being sworn in, the new Ottawa City Council approved the creation of an arm's-length transit commission to manage OC Transpo. It was one among several governance changes made, as reported by CBC. The commission is expected to be up and running in just under a year, by September 2011.

The commission was a pillar of mayor Jim Watson's campaign, among the first announcements he made and likely the most significant promise he made for transit in the city. The composition of the commission will be somewhat larger than what Watson had originally suggested, with 12 members total: Eight councillors, and four members of the public with some specialization in transit issues (Watson's original plan was "probably 5-6 members of council, and probably 2-3 members of the public").

The commission wasn't universally supported by council, and some other commenters--notably David Reevely--have publicly wondered what it will do that the transit committee couldn't. The committee, in Watson's vision, will be able to focus more on the operation of the transit utility, and less on political motivations. The establishment of some arm's-length committee was also among the key recommendations of Larry O'Brien's mayor's task force on transportation, and both O'Brien and Andy Haydon were two other mayoral candidates who had announced their intention to establish a transit commission, if elected mayor.

Specifics aren't clear at the moment, so it's unclear what the qualifications are for a member of the public to apply for consideration on the committee, nor what the process would be. I will offer that information when it becomes available.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A dream transit plan for Ottawa...

I'm just going to post this picture (from Adam Bentley on SkyscraperPage Forum, via @dbmcclelland) and let everyone dream of how awesome it would be to have such a great rapid transit network. Forget, for the moment, how ridiculously expensive it would be to operate, let alone build in it entirety.

One odd note: Not even this dream-plan uses the Prince of Wales Bridge. Not sure why, but it's an interesting thing to avoid.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

OC Transpo to be fully stop-call compliant by March

Although the city had originally planned to have the Next Stop Announcement System installed on all OC Transpo buses by the end of this year, it has been delayed and has March 2011 as an estimated date of completion, according to 580 CFRA. Once the system is fully installed, the transit company will be compliant with Canadian Transportation Authority (barring technical problems, of course).

The city also announced that there will be a change to the "next stop" chime sound that has confused so many riders to make it easily distinguishable from the bell-ringing of a stop request. Good decision.

Monday, December 6, 2010

More of Ottawa's rail history in jeopardy

The City of Ottawa doesn't quite have a sterling reputation for rail transit. More than 50 years ago, the city scrapped streetcar service in the urban area in favour of personal automobiles and bus-centred transit. And in 1966, the National Capital Commission removed passenger rail tracks from Ottawa's city proper, relocating the city's train station out of downtown and to the southeast of the city.

Now, another potential loss for rail transportation in the area: The Ottawa Valley Railway, according to reports on, is in peril. The line, which runs from Sudbury to Smiths Falls, is owned by Canadian Pacific, and is currently out of use; they're planning on ripping up the tracks and selling the scrap metal for an estimated $50M, unless governments are interested in purchasing the line. Neither the federal nor provincial governments have stepped forward and publicly indicated any interest.

It's unclear what use the rail line could actually serve, though. It's certainly got historical value, as the Ottawa Valley portion of Canadian Pacific's cross-country rail line, but the line is out of service today, one assumes because it's not profitable to run trains on it. It may be a worthwhile purchase for the Canadian military, given that CFB Petawawa is right on the line, but they're not exactly in the business of running rail service. The chief value to governments would likely be as a strategic asset, as was noted in the CBC article; If CP is willing to sell the line for $50M or some similar price, that (plus associated refurbishing costs) would be a much more manageable price tag than trying to re-build it should the need arise in the future.

The O-Train marked a renaissance of rail transit in the city, even if it's taken some time for that to mature beyond that pilot project. Most city councillors are in favour of moving towards a rail-based transit system once again, though, and it seems the city is more friendly to it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Laurier could make a good bike lane, but still not perfect

After a few rounds of deliberations, the City has decided that Laurier Avenue represents the best option for a pilot-project segregated bicycle lane. But according to the Ottawa Citizen, it's not one that's free of issues that will need to be addressed:
While community members showed mostly support for the proposed segregated bike lanes on Laurier Avenue, concerns have arisen about the continued westward connections for cyclists past Bronson Avenue.

"I think there are some advantages to Laurier with eastern connections, but there is a huge problem with connection past Bronson," said cyclist Ryan Utter, 33, who rides his bike daily for most of the year.


"There's way too much of that in Ottawa where there's a bike lane and all of a sudden, it stops," Gauthier said.

She said the city would need to warn and direct cyclists to other routes.
Laurier, as you can see in the image above, basically ends at the western edge of Ottawa's downtown, pretty much right in line with Bronson Avenue--before it gets to Somerset, Hintonburg, or the other western neighbourhoods. Cyclists could turn north up to Albert, which turns into Scott and ends in Westboro. Or some other route, but it's going to have to go somewhere to be a successful pilot project.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

First western LRT consultation draws hundreds

Although I was out of town and unable to attend, CTV is reporting that Monday's public consultation on the Western corridor for the light-rail transit plan--the first in a series of consultations--drew hundreds of interested citizens.

General opinions were those which have been voiced before: A concern about appropriation of houses along possible routes (something which will almost always come up in the discussion of municipal mega-projects), and a widespread disinterest in running rail along the Ottawa River Parkway.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Toronto pressing the re-set button, too

It's hard to believe that the City of Toronto's mayor-elect Rob Ford is actually going to go down the same road which outgoing Ottawa mayor Larry O'Brien took: Cancelling a transit plan which had been approved by all sorts of assemblies of staff, council, and other governments in favour of his own direction.

Those who think O'Brien's decision was a mistake can look at Ford's for a little bit more solace: Ottawa had only signed the contract when the north-south plan was cancelled. In Toronto, not only have contracts been signed, but construction has already commenced. And O'Brien deferred to a task force on transportation to re-set the plans (that task force ended up recommending the downtown tunnel plan Ottawa has now), Ford's just out-and-out gone ahead and made his own plan: No more surface-grade light-rail, but instead a continued investment into subways.

Ford's first move as mayor is expected to be this morning's announcement of his intentions to stop the plan. Rest assured, it's going to be a bumpy transit ride in Toronto through his tenure.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Public open house on Western Light-Rail Corridor

Just a heads-up for transit enthusiasts that the city will be hosting an open house for the western corridor of the city's LRT plan:

Monday, 29 November 2010
5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Tom Brown Arena
Upper Hall
141 Bayview Road, Ottawa

For some great info on the western corridor options, check out Eric Darwin's series on West Side Action:

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"Please ring the bell"

I thought this entry from the OC Transpo LiveJournal was kind of funny:
I know the next stop announcement system goes "Bing Bong" but that doesn't mean the bus is going to stop. Please ring the bell if you want to get off.
One morning when I was riding in to work, I remember on one route, riders neglected to ring the bell twice and both missed their stops as a result. And both times, they--naturally--were up in arms and angry with the operator. Neither seemed to realize that the fault was theirs.

And although it seemed obvious to me, it mustn't have been very funny for those people who'd missed their stops. OC Transpo might need to consider a new tone besides the bing-bong the next-stop announcement system is currently making, because it's obviously confusing people.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Is running over-budget an inevitability?

Yesterday CBC's Inside Politics blog printed a bit of a cheeky post suggesting that maybe seeing construction projects in Ottawa run late and go over budget shouldn't be too surprising to us--it's just "part of our national heritage".

The article is about the significant renovations to Parliament's West, not some public transit infrastructure project, but it does touch on what seems to be a trend of projects overshooting their budgets--sometimes, as in this instance, by a large margin.

Fulfilling the 'national heritage' is a very real possibility with Ottawa's light-rail transit project--although so few details are known right now, and the estimate is so loose (right now it's left itself a 25 per cent buffer), that it's an unknown quantity. Mayor-elect Jim Watson seems genuinely committed to staying on budget with the project, and actually has ideas on how to do so (particularly his desire to have a management board oversee the project), so I'm fairly optimistic about the possibility of staying on budget, or at least minimizing the budget overshoot. But there are so many unknowns right now, it's hard to say.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

OC Transpo stop-calling hits high, complaints hit low

In what should have been expected as soon as the OC Transpo fleet began being retrofitted with the Next Stop Announcement System (NSAS), the rate of stop-calling compliance has hit a 2010 high of 92 per cent, and the number of complaints related to stops not being called out reached a 2010 low (at least by OC Transpo's own measures). Because not all buses in the fleet have been outfitted with the system, the rate of compliance hasn't yet reached 100 per cent.

It took a while, but it looks like the chapter may finally be coming to a close. All it took were repeated warnings from the Canadian Transportation Authority, as well as a couple fines from them for good measure.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Helping developers help public transit at the Westboro Convent site

Following Joanne Chianello (@jchianello) on Twitter is probably one of the best ways to keep in the loop on city council meetings, and Tuesday's Planning and Environment Committee Meeting on Ashcroft Homes' proposed development on the grounds of the former site of the Les Soeurs de la Visitation convent was a perfect example.

The meeting will continue Wednesday (and possibly Thursday, as well), and has brought out a huge number of concerns with the site proposal, including those about the nine-story buildings proposed, the number of units (600 in total), traffic concerns with the new residents, and the disruption of a community "linear park" at the south end of the lot (in the image above, it's parallel to Byron Ave., and would be dissected to give the lot access from Byron).

One interesting possibility that came out as the city seeks some level of compromise with the developer, however, concerned public transit. As tweeted by Chianello:
Staff recommending that developer give free bus passes for a year to every new resident of the convent redevelopment. #ottcity
After first misreading the proposal, I realized the potentially positive effect of encouraging people to use public transit by offering them a complimentary bus pass (funded by the developer, of course). It would not only offer people a period of time to 'get the hang' of public transit, so to speak, but also may serve to mitigate the traffic concerns with this particular site. The Convent site is a 10-minute walk to Westboro Station, right on the Transitway, which would get riders downtown within only about another 10-15 minutes.

Obviously a lot of unfinished business remains in the city's discussions with Ashcroft (a lot of which could be for naught given that Ashcroft has already filed with the Ontario Municipal Board to fast-track the plan), but a partnership between the developer and OC Transpo to offer, for instance, a free bus pass for a year seems like something good for the city, and makes the homes even more attractive for new residents.

Monday, November 15, 2010

U.S. Commercial Service publishes report on Ottawa's light-rail project

Although there really isn't anything that's quite ready to be bid on yet, the U.S. Commercial Service (a branch of the Department of Commerce) recently published an information dossier on Ottawa's upcoming light-rail project.

The report seems to be a heads-up to U.S. companies that requests for proposals are forthcoming as part of the project, and mentions in particular the need for companies specializing in tunneling, rails, vehicles, construction (of the maintenance facility and of stations), safety and support equipment, electrical supply design, communication infrstructure, and public arts.

It's a fairly broad report, but offers an interesting outsiders perspective of the Ottawa light-rail plan.

(Thanks to Peter for sending me the report.)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

This seems like a bad idea, too...

A Montreal metro car running with one of its doors open.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Interprovincial planning made a little easier

Yesterday, Gatineau's STO transit system launched a new trip planner called Plani-Bus (public transit utilities seem to have an unhealthy obsession with word-splices), a new system that was able to be combined with OC Transpo's trip planner to make cross-river public transit use a little more convenient for riders.

Just to try it out, I went to and asked for a trip plan from the Rideau Centre to the Casino du Lac Leamy, and it worked. At least I assume it worked, I didn't actually try the prescribed travel plan results.

Seems like a common-sense solution that is probably overdue, but will certainly be appreciated by interprovincial riders moving forward. Hopefully further integration of the two utilities--including timing complementary routes well at transfer points--will follow soon, too.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Getting a steal on light-rail land

The possibility of getting land owned by the federal government needed for building the city's light-rail transit plan for a symbolic $1 fee came up a while back, slipped below the radar, and is making headlines again now that politicians are commenting on it.

First off, Diane Deans had asked the federal transport minister, Chuck Strahl, where his government stood on the issue. Deans interpreted Strahl's rather vague e-mail with an air of victory, saying (as quoted by 580 CFRA) "if you don't ask, you don't get." But the comments were pretty non-committal; here's the section where he actually addresses Deans' request, as presented on Ken Gray's Citizen blog The Bulldog:

In your correspondence, you inquire about transferring federal lands along the Ottawa Light Rail Transit phase-one corridor-including rights-of-way and a station at Tunney's Pasture-at a cost of $1.00. Where possible, and as the law permits, the Government of Canada will explore opportunities to facilitate the City of Ottawa's request; however, some limitations may exist where the immediate disposal of federal real properties must be made at fair-market value.
A day after the e-mail was released, Strahl clarified his comments by couching them with a lot of ifs and buts. Ken Gray is calling it a 'flip-flop', although it seems like Strahl never really made any promises in the original e-mail, anyway. So now Strahl is saying there's nothing written in stone, and that the one-dollar deal wasn't something the government has agreed to (although he stopped short of saying it's something the government would never agree to). From the Citizen:

"Let me be clear. At no time did we indicate that a straight transfer of land for one dollar was an option that the government of Canada would agree to," Strahl wrote Thursday to Gloucester-Southgate Councillor Diane Deans.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

U-Pass controversy getting out of control

It's pretty amazing to think that the City of Ottawa's U-Pass pilot project has become such a hugely divisive issue. The project, for those who use public transit regularly, means a 50 per cent savings for those with a regular student pass (based on an eight-month school year). And since it qualifies for up to and including rural express fares, it means a nearly 60 per cent savings for 'express' students, and a massive nearly 70 per cent discount for 'rural express' students.

The problem, though, arises when considering those students who don't use transit. And maintain that they won't, whether or not they're given a pass. Without an opt-out clause, it means a $290 tuition increase for those students who don't use transit that comes without direct benefit.

Charlie Taylor eventually lost his run for Ottawa's mayoralty, but his campaign was memorable for his passionate calls to end the U-Pass project, which he called an "unethical" tax on students who choose to walk or bike rather than take the bus or train. He mustered a small but active following based on his stance.

Complaints about the U-Pass have peppered local papers for months now. Quebec residents, for instance, are not eligible for the pass. And there was the memorable case of a Carleton University student caught in a sting operation trying to sell her non-transferable U-Pass on Kijiji. For her efforts trying to recoup the $290 expense, she was fined $610 for illegally trying to sell her pass.

The story prompted a bit of a back-and-forth in the Ottawa Citizen's letters to the editor, beginning with a letter of support from a University of Ottawa student who said the pass, and the charge therefor, are "unfair" because all students must pay for a service that not all students use.

That letter was followed by a rebuttal validly pointing out how commonplace it is for municipal services to be paid for by all, but only used by some. Take, for instance, OC Transpo itself, which is hugely subsidized by Ottawa's taxpayers--a 50 per cent subsidy--even though far from all residents in the city use the service. The author of the letter also cited other social programs, like employment insurance, welfare, and, fittingly, higher education, as instances where all must pay for the benefit of some.

Some history on the U-Pass: It was heavily promoted by the student federations at both the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, as well as the Canadian Federation of Students. Reluctantly, OC Transpo agreed to a pilot project for the U-Pass after referenda at both universities passed (albeit with characteristically low student-voter turnouts). But it's still a pilot project: Right now it's for one year, and OC Transpo hasn't really changed anything in preparation for the project--although they seem to expect lost revenue as a resul of the project--because they're waiting to see what becomes of it. From the 2010 city budget:
Council implement a two-semester pilot program establishing a U-Pass for $145/semester, beginning in September, 2010 with no changes to the service levels and with any resulting revenue deficit in 2010 to be taken from the Transit Reserve. Staff to evaluate the actual costs and benefits of the pilot program after the first semester and provide a report to City Council prior to the 2011 Budget.

So there's nothing permanent here: The city, OC Transpo, and--one would assume--the student federations are waiting to see what comes of the pilot project. But this also means that students outraged by the project have plenty of opportunity to make waves during this year's student elections, either by running directly for positions, proposing referenda, or just getting their peers out to vote.

This isn't something that's been forced on students. And if students are looking to change it, they have every opportunity to do so. But if other students want to keep it around, they'll have to be vocal about it, as well.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Renewable energy and public transit

Interesting news story coming out of Massachusetts, where the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority recently broke ground on a wind-power generator station to help reduce their electrical energy costs.
"The Northwind 100 wind turbine is expected to produce about 181,000 kilowatt hours of energy per year. In addition, one 100 KW turbine offsets about 257 tons of carbon emissions per year," said CCRTA Administrator, Thomas Cahir.
The project seems to be a relatively modest sum of $331,600, funded as part of a larger, $6.35M award the CCRTA was given by the Department of Transportation under the United States Recovery Act: The Cape Cod Smart/Green Transit Initiative.

Government-run services like public transit seem pretty uniquely situated for making use of renewable energy options: They have ample land and space for the projects, they have the financial wherewithall to invest in them (with government help, of course), and their lifespan is enough to justify the high up-front costs by spreading it over a long period of time.

I can think of a few instances where Ottawa could benefit from renewable energy in, at, on, or around transit stations. Taking the bus this past week proved one thing: More heating for transit stations would be nice. And if rooftop solar panels installed at transit stations could help offer, it's a good idea. And considering how vicious the wind can be at some stations, even wind turbines might work well (the hills at Hurdman Station, on top of the former dump, seem like a good option). I don't think the timing for projects like this is right these days, though, with the municipal government already spending a lot of money on the LRT project, and provincial and federal governments having posted fairly significant deficits after the recovery funding. But it's still a good idea.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Funding Ottawa's transit plans, part six: The bar car

The bar car is nothing new on trains. You'd almost expect that on longer-haul trips, a train car offering alcoholic beverages--colloquially, a bar car--would be a much-appreciated luxury for riders.

But it's not only for long-haul riders. New York City, one of the last North American holdouts after New Jersey and Chicago abandoned the luxury, still has the bar car on some commuter rail lines run out of Grand Central Station. The New York Times describes the bar car in NYC:
The cocktails started early, before the train left Manhattan, and by 6 p.m. most of the passengers were already on the second round. Tiny vodka bottles and punched ticket stubs littered the floor. A game of dice by the bar was getting rowdy as a couple canoodled in the corner, beers in hand.

The bar car is a mainstay of the commuting life, a lurching lounge on wheels inseparable from the suburbia of Cheever and “Mad Men.” “The commute is so bad as it is,” explained Paul Hornung, a financial worker, as he sipped a Stella Artois. “This is the one thing you can look forward to.”
This week, with the possibility of increased transit fares looming, columnist Paul Mulshine from The Newark Star-Ledger suggested NJ Transit revive the bar car on their trains to help improve revenue. He says that New York brings in $9M from the service (although I'm not sure how to verify that statement), something that might offset some of the deficit the utility is running (even though they've already taken the huge measure of raising fares by 25 per cent). Says Mulshine:
Drinking on NJ Transit trains is already permitted. So why not make it more civilized? On a recent Amtrak trip to Washington I witnessed a crowd of people enjoying the bar car. Prices - and presumably profits - were high, but the passengers didn't seem to mind.
Unlike many conservatives, I am not opposed to train service. In fact I am of the opinion that about half the people currently driving cars should be on trains instead.
And if New York can make money off this, let's do it in Jersey.
The problem with the bar car? Well, you can't have a comfortable bar car full of people with standing-room only; there'd be no room to sip your drinks, and a significant spill-risk. It's unknown whether the income generated by beverage sales would offset the lost revenue due to a lower-than-capacity train car. The efficiency of the car, in terms of people moved, is not as high as that of a normal train car, so if that's your primary goal, then it's probably not a good idea. If you're looking to move people comfortably, though (and expand the income sources available beyond traditional fare revenue), then the bar car is among the best ways to do so.

Another option, though, would be a 'cafe car', where riders and commuters--especially in the morning--can buy a coffee, a muffin, packaged sandwiches, or other breakfast foods. Lidded coffee cups are everywhere on buses as it is, so you'd expect them to be as commonplace on the train; with less of an expectation of a calm, casual relaxing space than the bar car, a cafe car can be filled with more riders, and even though it might not bring in as much income, it could still be a valuable way of 'upselling' riders and increasing revenues--while also improving service, if it's done well.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Election leaves transit committee gutted

One interesting outcome from the municipal election just a few days ago: The City of Ottawa's transit committee has been absolutely gutted. Five of the eight councillors on the committee will not be returning, as Alex Cullen, Georges Bédard, and Christine Leadman were defeated in their wards by incumbents, Clive Doucet lost his run for mayor, and Jacques Legendre stepped away from political politics.

Bigger than the names that will be missing from the list? The fact that every councillor representing an urban ward will not return, while Marianne Wilkinson, the vice-chair, from Kanata North Ward, and Rainer Bloess, from Innes Ward, represent suburban wards, and Doug Thompson represents the largely rural Osgoode Ward (a ward which has about five OC Transpo routes running through it).

So there will be at least five new faces on the next Transit Committee. What might this huge change mean for OC Transpo, and for public transit in Ottawa?

Well, it's possible it won't mean too much for too long; part of mayor-elect Jim Watson's platform called for the establishment of an arm's-length transit commission, with five or six councillors and a few members of the public. But this transit commission, if it happens, won't happen right away. And when it does, most of the councillors joining it will likely be those people already on the Transit Committee, and familiarizing themselves with the transit ticket. So who might step up onto it?

It's obvious that there will need to be an urban presence, as transit issues are most pressing in urban areas. And of the new councillors to join the ranks, David Chernushenko, as likely the most left-leaning newcomer, seems like a natural fit for the committee. While we're all still getting to know some of the other new council members, the apparent prevalence of fiscally conservative members may make some individuals interested in joining the committee in an effort to bring down the operating costs of the city's highest budget item, transit services. Some longstanding councillors may also step up to the committee, as well, including Diane Deans. Deans has been outspoken on certain transit issues in the past, and has taken the lead on some items of the transit ticket, so there may be a fit there.

Whatever happens, though, there will be new faces on the transit committee, and there may be a learning curve. However you felt about Alex Cullen, he was the chair of the Transit Committee, and David Reevely thinks he'll be hard to replace. I suppose we will see.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Public transit: A leftist plot to turn you into a government-controlled automaton

I couldn't help but laugh as I read this opinion column on the Fox News website:

Living in NYC has truly awakened me to the New York elite and their penchant for the city’s self-described brilliant public transit system. I think it sucks… just like public transit always does.

“Oh I just don’t think I could live without the subway system, it’s so convenient. I can get anywhere I need to go in the city in a flash.” Right. Or –and follow me on this here– I could live anywhere else in the country, take 3 steps out my front door, get into my car, and drive anywhere on the continent. How’s that for convenience? Not only is it faster, but my car generally doesn’t smell like mothballs and urine (last Tuesday notwithstanding). It would almost seem that –dare I say this– private transportation is more efficient than mass public-transit! That won’t change today’s leftists from disparaging the former and praising the latter. Why?

It’s simple. Control. It’s no secret that the environmental movement is ultimately designed to create new inroads into increased government control. All of the shots taken at emissions, the dependence on fossil fuels and noise pollution are designed to paint those things as symptoms of a problem, with the government able to step in as the solution. The root of their problem is ultimately your independence.
Laughable. I'll allow people to comment on the article in the comments.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Plenty of change at the council table

The change starts at the top after Ottawa's 2010 election results, beginning first and foremost with Jim Watson putting up a decisive victory in the mayoral race.

But beyond the mayor's chair, the results showed a strong desire for change around the council table: Ten new councillors, including six who defeated incumbents to take the reins in their ward. The list includes plenty of different faces: Mark Taylor (Bay Ward, defeated incumbent Alex Cullen), Keith Egli (Knoxdale-Merivale), Tim Tierney (Beacon Hill-Cyrville, defeated incumbent Michel Bellemare), Mathieu Fleury (Rideau-Vanier, defeated incumbent Georges Bédard), Peter Clark (Rideau-Rockcliffe), Katherine Hobbs (Kitchissippi, defeated incumbent Christine Leadman), David Chernushenko (Capital Ward), Stephen Blais (Cumberland, defeated incumbent Rob Jellett), Scott Moffatt (Rideau-Goulbourn, defeated incumbent Glenn Brooks), and Allan Hubley (Kanata South). So there will be plenty of new voices and opinions on council.

But what might these changes mean for public transit in Ottawa?

In terms of the new mayor, Watson's support of the current light-rail plan means that there won't likely be a major change to the current project. Once the plan is ready to go to tender, he is planning on having Infrastructure Ontario manage the procurement, and an independent board manage the actual project, but that's mostly to do with the process; neither will likely change the plan significantly.

One potentially significant change Watson has suggested is the re-establishment of a transit commission to manage the day-to-day operations of OC Transpo. It's arguable how much of a change this will mean for typical users of the system, but time will tell.

Financially, Watson has also pledged to ensure property taxes will not increase by more than 2.5 per cent per year, which may affect public transit--especially considering the possibility that, as pundits are suggesting, that a good number of the new faces on council are fiscal conservatives who would likely be interested in supporting minimal to negligible tax increases. Most years, route and service cuts to OC Transpo are seen as ways to reduce what is the largest line in the budget, and there's little reason to think this year's budgetary processes would be any different. Doing so may not necessarily be a bad thing--it could, if done right, streamline the service--but taking too much out of the OC Transpo municipal subsidy would certainly hurt the service offered.

The new councillors take on their new responsibilities in early December, with the budgetary process beginning shortly thereafter. It should be an interesting ride.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Election day

Go vote.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

2010 Election: Watson on walking and cycling

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

Walking and cycling play a vital role in any efficient public transit system, because they allow people to get from the major bus stops to their destinations. Mayoral candidate Jim Watson thinks the city has done well trying to encourage cycling, but he thinks more can be done.
Obviously cycling is something that we should be investing in. The city, to its credit, has been putting some money aside through the capital budget, but we have a long way to go in terms of our cycling infrastructure compared to cities like Montreal. Everything from cycling stands, parking, to segregated lanes, to the fact that I think we still need to put more resources and emphasis into education, in terms of both motorists and cyclists themselves.
Watson said he supports the pilot project for a segregated bicycle lane in Ottawa's centre. And although he realizes that businesses may have problems with some of their on-street parking being handed over to bicycles, Watson thinks that's exactly what a pilot project is for: To find out what, exactly, a more permanent change would mean.
I’d like to see the pilot project go ahead, with the segregated lane. I’m not privy to what the recommended lane is going to be, I think we have to heed the legitimate concerns of the business community—if it means, for instance, they’re going to lose a good portion of their parking, and they rely on their parking for customers, are there ways that we can accommodate both the parking and the cycling, as they do in some municipalities? But until we actually have a pilot, we’ll never know what the impact is going to be, one way or another. I’m prepared to support a pilot project. Is there a street better than Somerset that would be less disruptive to the business community? There may well be, and I think we should keep an open mind and determine if we can reach a compromise between different interests.
Watson sees walking part of another issue for Ottawa: The reality that as our city's population ages, proper maintenance of the infrastructure for pedestrians will become more pressing.
I was talking to a seniors’ group the other day, and we’re trying to always get seniors to be physically active and living in their homes, yet the design of the sidewalks in many instances in Ottawa is very dangerous for people to go walking in wintertime. The steep slopes at the driveways, I don’t think they’re well-designed, and the actual maintenance of the sidewalks is not as good as the road maintenance. Roads are often bare pavement, and sidewalks tend to be a secondary priority for the city.
Still, Watson cautions that money for these projects has to come from somewhere.
We have some challenges, it all takes money, and it has to be prioritized against everything else.

Friday, October 22, 2010

2010 Election: Furtenbacher's transit alternative

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

After the debate of what service to run (bus rapid transit or light rail), one of the most discussed options Ottawa has for transit plans is between surface or underground lines. The current plan includes a 3.2 km tunnel downtown, but mayoral candidate Joseph Furtenbacher thinks that's more for show than practicality, and would move towards surface rail along the 417 if elected mayor.
I prefer light-rail down the 417-174 corridors and down the O-Train/VIA rail corridors. Not all at once, you know. That seems to make a lot more sense, starting off doing that, than by digging a tunnel that’s going to be a status symbol.
By running light-rail down the 417-174, it’s the historical and natural section obstruction re-route through the city. It’s like the TTC in Toronto, connecting up the east-west ends of the section and the north-south sections in a T, basically. That’s the same idea I have: Use existing corridors, lay new track, use light rolling stock, and start thinking about the whole city instead of office workers.

2010 Election: O'Brien on walking and cycling

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

Mayoral incumbent Larry O'Brien is happy with what he's seen in terms of investment and promotion of walking and cycling in the city of Ottawa. He thinks that with the city's cycling infrastructure where it is now, and with the consideration of cyclists nearly built in to the road-building process, the bigger challenge today is ensuring that drivers and cyclists are adequately respectful and safe towards one another, and that would be his challenge for the coming term if elected.
The city has been doing a huge amount of work over the last five or six years in terms of preparing for the bike lanes. It isn’t just a visit over to Europe, which one of my council colleagues went over to in the summer along with the head of the NCC and Mayor Bureau from Gatineau. We have been working very closely with the NCC and Gatineau to harmonize our bike path strategy.

Quite frankly, bikes has now moved to the level where it’s about safety. In the downtown, until we get the buses off the streets and replace them with mass transit, it’s not going to be safe for bicycles to go through the core of the city, and my first responsibility is for the safety of the citizens.

2010 Election: Watson on OC Transpo

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

Ask just about anyone in this city, and you'll likely get an idea from them on how OC Transpo could improve their service--and maybe you'd get as many different answers as people you've asked, running the spectrum of feasibility from easily-implemented to downright impossible. And mayoral candidate Jim Watson has some ideas of his own. Obviously, Watson wants to establish a transit commission to manage the utility, but he's also entertained other ideas.

Among the most pressing concerns Watson has is the cool relationship between OC Transpo staff and management. Watson had some critical words for current mayor Larry O'Brien regarding the transit strike, and suggested a change in mayor would--in his opinion--be positive of OC Transpo relations. But he also prescribes a general change in the tone of discourse, from the combative stance that seems to have taken over to a more co-operative one.
I think it starts at the top. I have respect for all the employees, I don’t treat them as subservient or as an irritant, I see them as a vital part of providing a good public service. I think one of the first things that any new mayor is going to have to do is to bridge those relationships on a more positive footing. It’s a very unpleasant environment at OC Transpo, from all the bus drivers and mechanics that I’ve spoken to, even supervisors and management, I think they feel very frustrated, and we still have not resolved all the problems that have emanated from the strike.
But beyond improving staff relations, Watson also wants to improve the efficiency of the service, to avoid rising taxes and rising fares. He thinks the new commission will have its hands full finding ways to do that, but one small suggestion he has made is the use of smaller buses run through lower-density areas to bring riders to the main routes.
I often will go into a suburban neighbourhood where there’s a huge bus going through and there’s two or three people on the bus. Calgary has a feeder-bus system where it’s almost like minivans will go in and pick people up; saves on fuel, saves on overhead costs, makes the system more efficient. So are there things that we can do to make the system more efficient from a creative point of view? I think there are, and I think that’s one of the mandates to give to the transit commission when they conduct their review of this. If there’s ways of saving money and improving service at the same time, then we should keep our minds open to those ideas.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

2010 Election: O'Brien on LRT affordability

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

Numbers are a huge part of the discussion when it comes to Ottawa's light-rail transit plan. As should be the case, really, when it comes to a $2.1B project that some have called the largest infrastructure project in the history of the city. The incumbent in the mayoral race, Larry O'Brien, has long maintained that the plan is affordable for the city, and he continues to feel that way. In his words, he's "past being confident" that Ottawa can afford it, and is now certain of it.
The city is far from broke. We have a balance sheet that most companies would be very proud of. Now, you add to that, the fact that of the tax coverage--the taxes that we collect--only 4.6 per cent of those taxes are used to pay the interest on our debt. The province has looked at this thing every which way but Sunday, and they say that most municipalities can deal with up to 25 per cent of their taxes going to cover their debt; well, we don’t want to get anywhere close to that. But even after, when you do the performance into the future, even after we’ve borrowed the money that we need to build the LRT, we’re only going to slightly over 5.5 per cent debt coverage.

To me, this is a no-brainer. This is something we need to do, we can afford it, we take the money and run.

2010 Election: Watson on ParaTranspo

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

It was interesting to note that on the day I interviewed Jim Watson about his mayoral campaign, one of his campaign volunteers was arriving in his office at about the same time--although she was later than she had expected, because the ParaTranspo ride she had booked was significantly later than the time scheduled. So she underlined to Watson the importance of finding a way to improve the reliability of ParaTranspo to the mayoral candidate, and Watson and I discussed it afterwards.

Recently, Ottawa's transit committee voted in favour of a full review of the ParaTranspo service, which Watson thinks is a necessary step in figuring out what the problems are so that they can be fixed.
We went through a strike with ParaTranspo, which was very hard on a lot of people. A number of years ago, we went through the privatization and then the un-privatization and my volunteer, I think, is reflective of a number of people who find it frustrating when you book for a certain time, and it’s an hour late. If you have a doctor’s appointment, or a work engagement, you can’t operate on ‘I’ll try to come by within an hour and a half.’ You have to be more precise. [...] So I think the review will allow us to put all the cards on the table and figure out exactly what is wrong with the system, why do we continuously have these periods where people can’t even get a booking, let alone if they do get a booking it’s quite late.
And if his campaign volunteer didn't underline the importance of the service thoroughly enough, Watson noted that Ottawa's aging population is going to make an effective ParaTranspo service that much more important.
We have an aging population; the baby boomers are becoming senior citizens, and as a result, we don’t have the kind of forward planning that we need to determine, "Alright, what are the needs of the aging society?" both the disabled and able-bodied seniors who need ParaTranspo.
Watson has proposed that he would hold a global 'senior's summit' to discuss issues such as these ones about ParaTranspo.

2010 Election: Scharf on OC Transpo

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

Mayoral candidate Jane Scharf has a few different ideas on how to complement OC Transpo bus service, from interprovincial rail service between Ottawa and Gatineau and aerial gondolas to add some spice to Ottawa's transportation infrastructure. But she also has several ideas based on her observations on how to improve bus service itself, which she thinks can help make for a more efficient service.
And there’s other things [I think are worth looking into], like putting more buses on the Transitway. It’s not overly busy, especially coming out this way—I’m in Kanata. It’s really congested--traffic congested--really badly. More buses, and more attention to that process. Like right now, it’s hard to use the Park’n’Ride, there’s not a lot of spaces; they could extend that, that would be cheap. Certainly cheaper than $2.4B. They could do all of that, what I just said, and that would make a huge impact on the congestion issues.
Scharf also thinks that there are big ways the city can change how they deal with the transit union in particular, and unions in general, to make for better relations and, as a result, better service.
I actually think that—this is a personal thing, I don’t even know if it’s something that they’re looking at in general—but personally, I think that the union process could be improved. And not just with OC Transpo, but everywhere, to make it more of a cooperative effort. For example, in Germany, in the 70’s they had a model of unions that was working really well where the government would train union negotiators and place them in a company, and once they’re placed they would be paid by the company, and it would be their job to set up a committee between management and labour—in equal numbers—and it was a requirement by law that all books would be open. And this labour guy just facilitated negotiations, and they had great results with it. Wages could go up, or down, depending on what profits were.

And it’s all open, so there’s not none of this adversarial ‘give us more’, ‘we don’t have any’, ‘give us more’, ‘we don’t have any’, that we have here. I think that you’d see better results, more effective. Doesn’t mean that I want them to change totally like that, but I think that they can go closer to that. For example, they could, say, make all the books open. Leave, by and large, the structure that’s there now, and just open all the books. To just the negotiating committee, not to everyone who works there, but whose ever coming on the negotiating committee.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

2010 Election: O'Brien's transit commission

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

One of the common threads of some of the most well-known candidates in the 2010 mayoral election has been the desire to establish a transit commission to manage the day-to-day operations of OC Transpo. Incumbent Larry O'Brien is one candidate who has thrown his support behind the idea, suggesting that some councillors approach issues with too much of a ward-centric approach.
I think it’s nothing short of bizarre who are supposed to act as a board of directors are arguing over bus routes.


We have things that we’re supposed to be responsible for, and one of them isn’t determining what the bus routes should be in the city of Ottawa. That’s all about service, and I think that should be far, far away from politics. That should be a decision as to how a city works well, not who’s got the best arguments for adding four routes in their ward.
Under O'Brien's model, the transit commission would have some city council presence, but would be made up mostly of independent professionals.
I think it’s primarily independent, with, just like the hydro board where we have three or four councillors on it. Instead of being on a transit committee, they could be on the transit commission. They would be our representatives on the board, and the balance of the board—the majority of the board—being outside people. Perhaps somebody from the federal government, and also people who are professionals in terms of running a transit system.

Monday, October 18, 2010

2010 Election: Furtenbacher on the transit plan

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

Mayoral candidate Joseph Furtenbacher is among the candidates who's received the least media attention, but he's still got his thoughts on public transit in Ottawa. On his blog, Furtenbacher stated his belief that "our present transit rationale contains holes big enough to drive a light rail train car through".

Furtenbacher believes that the current plan, or any which includes a downtown tunnel, is more the result of wanting to keep up with other big cities than trying to most effectively solve our transit problems.
I prefer light-rail down the 417-174 corridors and down the O-Train/VIA rail corridors. Not all at once, you know. That seems to make a lot more sense, starting off doing that, than by digging a tunnel that’s going to be a status symbol.
Later this week, we will offer a bit more information on Furtenbacher's alternative light-rail proposal.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

2010 Election: Watson's transit commission

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

One of the changes mayoral candidate Jim Watson would like to bring to the governance of public transit in the City of Ottawa is the re-establishment of a semi-independent transit commission to run OC Transpo and the O-Train. He thinks it would help keep politics out of the transit debate, and would mean that councillors whose wards aren't affected by the decisions--such as rural councillors--out of the decision-making process.
When I was first elected in 1991 I was also a regional councillor, and we did have a transit commission—OC Transpo had a transit commission, and I was a member of that. It gives a certain degree of autonomy to those members of the commission to actually run the bus company by doing the right things, as opposed to the political things. The minute decisions start coming up to everyone at the council table, many of whom at the council table do not have transit in their wards because they’re in the rural parts, yet they have a say at the table.
Those councillors not on the transit committee would have some say in public transit, in that they will be a part of the budget process determining the money given to the transit committee and would vote on capital projects and transit plans, but they wouldn't be responsible for the management of the transit utility.

Watson sees the committee as composed mostly of elected city councillors, which he thinks would bring accountability to the commission, as well as a few members of the public. He describes it below:
I think it’s important that we have a commission that’s made up primarily of elected officials, from an accountability point of view, but a minority of people on the commission who are actually not from the ranks of the politicians. I’d envision probably 5-6 members of council, and probably 2-3 members of the public. And you’d probably want to supplement your commission with those individuals that perhaps have strengths that the councillors don’t bring to the table.[...] A bus rider, someone who uses the system; a novel concept, but I think we should have people who understand the system and some of the frustrations of it. Someone who has some expertise in transit planning; Ottawa often acts as a great place for people who have retired from other cities to live here, and they bring great expertise.

Friday, October 15, 2010

2010 Election: Doucet on high-speed rail

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

High-speed rail is something that's come up periodically on this website, but it's been fairly quiet in the mayoral campaign this year. Perhaps that's because implementing it would probably have to be pushed by federal and provincial governments primarily, but there's no doubt that a supportive mayor would go a long way in getting something done--and mayoral candidate Clive Doucet is certainly supportive of putting Ottawa on a high-speed rail corridor.
I will work with Mayor [Richard] Lalonde, the mayor of Quebec City, and the mayors of Montreal, Kingston, and Toronto to make high-speed rail between our cities a reality. I won’t run away from that obligation the way the present mayor did.
In his platform notes, Doucet noted that he wanted to "put Ottawa 'on the map' for business people and travelers", and that he feels high-speed rail would offer a more environmentally-friendly way to do so.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

2010 Election: O'Brien on the transit plan

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

Larry O'Brien, the incumbent in the 2010 mayoral race, is a stranger to no one in Ottawa. And his unwavering support of the current $2.1B (first-phase) of Ottawa's light-rail transit plan is equally well-known, so it should come as no surprise that his campaign this year includes a commitment to continue moving forward with it. The big reason for his support, according to O'Brien, is that the current plan will take Ottawa through this century and into the next.
This term of council, we’ve reinvigorated the transit plan, and concluded fairly clearly, and with a fair amount of oomph, that light-rail east-west with a tunnel through the core of the system is the best way to start building a transit system that will enable the city to grow through the balance of this century. And I think that’s a key issue. What we’re doing right now with the light-rail investment is making an investment that will form the basis by which we will be able to expand our mass transit light-rail system over the coming 60, 70, 80 years. When you’re mayor, you have to the responsibility of not just dealing with the issues based on a day-to-day basis, you also have to think about the long-term solution. And I think we have in place now a long-term solution that, in fact, will be a driving influence in the way the city grows over the balance of the century.
In O'Brien's mind, the city's bus-rapid transit system has served us well so far--but that the city has outgrown it, and he thinks it's time the city moves on.
We all knew we had to go to rail when the city got to a million people, and by the time we have this system built, we’ll hit that number. I think it’s a very exciting time, and our timing on this is bang-on perfect.

The bus-rapid transit system was designed by a visionary by the name of Andy Haydon, but he was clear all throughout the documents in the ‘70s and ‘80s that the system had to, eventually, be converted to light-rail. And we’re just delighted to be, now, fully loaded in terms of money: We have $1.2B from both other levels of government, we have our own money well under control, and it’s time to take action. Time to get on with it. Time to start building a transit system for the 21st century.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The hazards of 'transit fatigue'

More than two years ago, I mentioned the fact that the seeming omnipresence of public transit in the city's news seemed to be building up some level of transit fatigue among citizens in Ottawa. And despite a whole new transit plan, it still seems basic questions about public transit are still being hashed out by local politicians through the media.

And this year's election has done nothing to help the situation. An article on CTV Ottawa had local citizen Liz Bernstein sum up what is likely a common thought pattern among city voters when it comes to the transit ticket:
"Let's just get to it," she says.

"Get something done so people can get out of their cars and and into public transit, whether it's bus or train, going underground or not, so we can get around more easily."
I'll admit, it's something I've thought up before: We've been waiting for so long to see something big happen on public transit, any progress will have to be a step in the right direction. But when public transit has become such a tired issue to the electorate that they've given up trying to have their say for fear of further setting back the process, it's a bad thing for everyone involved.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

2010 Election: Watson on the DOTT

Over the course of the 2010 Mayoral Election campaign, Public Transit in Ottawa will be sitting down with as many mayoral candidates as are available, discussing their platforms and thoughts on transit in this city, and what they hope to achieve during their mandate, if elected mayor.

Although mayoral candidate Jim Watson was reluctant to support Ottawa's current transit plan, and especially the downtown Ottawa transit tunnel, while a member of provincial parliament, he says that a closer examination of project and the numbers behind it have eased his mind--to some degree. Watson's reluctance, he says, was due to the city's inability to properly commit to a transit plan in the past, citing in particular the cancelled north-south O-Train expansion.
When the previous council had approved the north-south plan on a fixed-price contract, and I was a part of the cabinet that secured $200M for the province’s share, then the feds came on board, and that project was set to hit the rails--and unfortunately because of the election it was derailed. And that frustrated me, as a taxpayer but also as a provincial MPP who represents Ottawa, in many instances. First, our credibility suffered in the eyes of commuters, people bidding on the project, other levels of government; it didn’t look like we had our act together. And secondly, it cost us close to $100M—which is a lot of money—both for the lawsuit and all the ancillary costs involved over years of getting to the north-south route.

So I came at the next plan that they proposed with a fair degree of scepticism because of their track record of flip-flopping on one plan, literally, within one month, as the mayor supported it, and then he didn’t support it, and it died, all in that first month after he was elected. So I took the time to talk and get briefed by people in the transportation industry both inside and outside the city on what, exactly, the new plan was all about, whether it would meet our needs as a city, what it would cost, what the estimates were, and how accurate those estimates were.
After this, Watson announced his support for the plan--with two caveats: First off, the procurement process, in his mind, should be run through Infrastructure Ontario (IO), an arm's length crown corporation of the Government of Ontario. The corporation manages numerous projects from across Ontario, one local example being the expansion of the Queensway-Carleton Hospital. Watson thinks the credibility that IO carries will be positive for the process, and also thinks the skills and knowledge IO possesses will benefit the process.
I’m suggesting that [IO run the procurement] for a number of reasons: One, the city lost a lot of its credibility when they went forward with the [north-south O-Train extension] tender and then cancelled it, and we ended up with the $100M in costs to taxpayers; and, secondly—no disrespect to staff—but this is a massive undertaking, and we need to make sure that the tendering process is done properly and we don’t find ourselves in a situation like we did before, when we flip-flop on a decision and the companies are just not going to bid. And I’ve talked to a number of the companies that are interested in bidding, and many of them have said they would be very reluctant to bid if the city was running the procurement process. So Infrastructure Ontario gives them some level of comfort.
And the second caveat Watson wants is an independent, voluntary, private board of management running the construction process, to avoid the temptation of city council jumping in and making changes that might force a delay or overrun in the project.
Once the council has approved the winning bid and has awarded the contract, my view is there should be a private board of management who is accountable to council that actually runs the construction process. Not running the trains once it’s up and running, but the actual construction phase. I suggest that for a couple reasons: First of all, I think we need the kind of high-powered expertise around that table to make sure the project stays on time and on budget; and secondly, it prevents political interference from members of council meddling once the contract has been let. Because the greatest friend of contractors are change-orders. That’s where they make their money. And if you start making a whole bunch of changes to a $2.1B project, guess what: The price goes up. So I want to take away the temptation of politicians to sit down, after they’ve decided on what the plan is going to be, to say “Let’s just move that station over, under this building”, or “Maybe we should have a couple of extra elevators over at this site”, and contractors are more than willing to accommodate those needs, but they’re also more than willing to hand you a bill to do it. So the board of management would actually run the construction of the project, and once it’s over, the city and OC Transpo run the system.
Watson envisions the council-appointed board being composed of different professionals--people with expertise in construction, procurement, business, project management, finance, and law--as well, perhaps, as former bureaucrats (he mentioned in particular former auditors general as a possibility).