Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Oil money pays for public transit in Alberta

There's little question that, from the environmental movement's perspective, oil=bad while public transit=good. But what happens when money generated from oil revenue goes to pay for massive public transit infrastructure projects, using money from current emissions to help reduce future pollution? It may not work out to an equal equation, but it certainly muddies the picture.

And that's what's happening these days, out west in Alberta.

There's little question that oilsands development, on its own, is bad for the environment. Even conventional oil is difficult, but the more intensive refining process of the oilsands (although getting better thanks to new techniques, oilsands remains a much more environmentally-damaging source of oil than conventional sources) makes for even higher emissions. But as the province's deficit shrinks, thanks largely to oil royalties and related income, that money is being shared with her biggest cities, for public transit--culminating in a $2B funding pledge last month.

With the promise, each of Calgary and Edmonton will receive $800M for their respective transit infrastructure, and other Alberta cities will duke it out over the remaining $400M. Officials in Edmonton are breathing a sigh of relief thanks to the promise, because it means their NAIT (Northern Alberta Institute of Technology) light-rail line will proceed as scheduled, and should be completed in 2014.

And Edmonton will be able to complete more transit projects, as well. From the Edmonton Journal:

The provincial money also gives Edmonton a big boost toward completing LRT lines to Lewis Estates and Mill Woods, but the federal government must also kick in cash, as it has for transit systems in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa, Boutilier said.
So, although it might mean a deal with the devil from an environmentalist's perspective, some good is coming out of the oilsand development in Alberta: upgrades to public transit.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

2010 Election: Cullen on building public transit

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

First up is Alex Cullen, current Bay Ward councillor and chair of the transit committee. During our interview, Cullen talked about nearly every hot topic in Ottawa transit right now, from the LRT plan, the DOTT, Lansdowne Park, and many other topics. Including how to promote public transit, and improve service in order to increase ridership in the city.

Cullen discussed the "modal share" of transit in Ottawa--basically, the percentage of transportation trips on public transit. Currently, it sits at 22 per cent; the city has set 30 per cent as a target, and Cullen acknowledged that it won't come cheap.
That’s going to put continuing pressure on both taxes, and fares, and service for the next 20 years because we’ll need more buses, and we’re going to have to fund this expansion of service. We’ve gone through three years of record fare increases, and that was a struggle to keep the funding ratio at 50/50 between taxes and fares. There is an older target of 55 per cent from fares, 45 per cent from taxes; there is a little inconsistency, because if we’re going to expand service, it has to be paid for, but if we make price a barrier for users, that will run counter to our goal of increasing ridership. So we do have to be conscious and cautious of the role that price pays in attracting ridership.
In discussing that funding ratio, Cullen mentioned the practices of a few other Ontario cities, and suggested he would support a change from the current 50/50 model to one that puts a higher investment from the taxpayer into public transit.
Transit is a public good, so there is an argument to engage the taxpayer in investing in a system that improves quality of life, and reduces traffic on the street; you don’t have to be a user of OC Transpo to be a beneficiary of it. Council’s formula for sharing these costs over the past three years has been 50/50 between users and taxpayers. Other cities use other proportions: Hamilton uses 60 per cent taxes, 40 per cent fares. Toronto is 80 per cent fares, 20 per cent taxes—now Toronto is a little bit different, because they have a much larger ridership base. But those are political decisions. [...] I would support the Hamilton model of 60/40, 60 per cent from taxes, and 40per cent from users. I think that is going to be more successful in helping us reach our goal of 30 per cent of all transportation trips by transit.
Of course, going into an election campaign discussing such possible measures isn't something most taxpayers in Ottawa want to hear--but Cullen understands that, and thinks the way to soften the blow is to underline the positives that come out of a further investment into public transit.
How do we manage our fiscal resources, make it palatable for both the user and the taxpayer to fund this? That takes leadership. You have to go out there and tell people that this is better than widening Carling Avenue, or widening Richmond Road, because the cost of maintaining those roads, or building new roads, is more expensive than this investment. So that’s the challenge.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Ottawa Electric Railway Company

I recently came across this neat photo of Ottawa's old streetcars, running along Rideau Street in front of the old train station (currently the Government Conference Centre). Streetcars were gradually abandoned in Ottawa through the 1950s, and the tracks were abandoned by 1960. Looking back, it would be nice to be building more light-rail transit around something like these, wouldn't it?

Photo from Dave's Rail Pix.

O-Train to close July 12-August 14 for upgrades

Just a heads-up for commuters who use the O-Train: The system will cease operations for a five-week period from July 12-August 14, 2010 for $5.11M worth of upgrades. According to OC Transpo's press release (.PDF), the repairs will be done to the "track infrastructure, the signal system, trains and the Rideau River Bridge".

Until regular O-Train service resumes on Sunday, August 15 (barring any delays, of course), a bus route parallel to the train will be available.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Is Watson's tune changing on LRT affordability?

An artist's rendition of LRT trains emerging from an overpass. © City of Ottawa

Ottawa mayoral candidate Jim Watson has been questioning the affordability of Ottawa's light-rail transit plan, and specifically the tunnel portion, virtually since the plan was approved. Dating back to when he was a MPP to more recently, once he'd announced his candidacy for mayor, Watson's been concerned with the city's ability to commit to the tunnel based on the quality of estimates made so far and the propensity tunneling can have in incurring cost overruns.

More recently, though, his tone on that affordability may be changing. In discussing Watson's recent pledge to keep tax increases at or below 2.5% per year over the next four years if elected mayor, the Ottawa Citizen's Randall Denley suggested that Watson seems to be coming around to thinking that the $2.1B is indeed affordable for Ottawa, without putting undue strain on the city's taxpayers.

From the Citizen:

Perhaps the most important point in Watson's tax and spending announcement was the candidate's quiet acknowledgement that the city actually has the money to fund its light-rail project and it isn't going to bankrupt the taxpayers. The city can even afford a debenture if the project goes over budget, Watson says, just so long as the cost doesn't soar by something like $800 million. It was an attempt to climb down from the policy that has defined the early part of Watson's campaign. Smart move, maybe a little late.
If Watson is indeed dropping his opposition to the light-rail plan, that means at least two of the front-runners for mayor (Watson and Alex Cullen)--three if you include incumbent Larry O'Brien, who has yet to announce his candidacy--are on the same page in terms of light-rail transit implementation.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Philadelphia selling transit station names; should Ottawa?

A while back, I talked about using increased business partnerships, in the form of transit station name-sponsorships, as a possible way of increasing revenue for OC Transpo. With US-based transit agencies facing difficult budget cuts, the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are considering heading down that road, too.

Sports fan will soon be taking the subway to AT&T Station in order to see the Flyers, Eagles and Phillies.

SEPTA [Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority] is poised to sign a five-year agreement that would give AT&T the naming rights to the Pattison Ave. station on the Broad Street Line.

As part of the deal, SEPTA will change every reference to Pattison Station throughout the system and online.

The agreement was announced at a SEPTA Board committee hearing Thursday and will net SEPTA and Titan Outdoor LLC, which has a contract to manage advertising for the authority, more than $5 million. Of that, about two-thirds, or more than $3 million, will go to SEPTA. It’s part of ongoing efforts by SEPTA to raise revenue through non-traditional means.
In 2008 when the idea was entertained in Ottawa, there was a shortage of interest from potential sponsors (although it's unclear how much soliciting was done to attract them). It's difficult to say whether the potential windfall from such an arrangement would offset how annoying it would be to go to 'Rogers Station' instead of 'Bayview Station', or whichever the case may be.

Would anyone object to privatizing station names, or should we embrace any opportunity to raise funds for public transit?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Environmental impact of Ottawa's downtown tunnel: The common snapping turtle

Among the many different effects the Downtown Ottawa Transit Tunnel (DOTT) and its construction might have, as published recently in the environmental assessment (which is available for perusal here), is the potential impact it could have on certain wildlife species-at-risk along the proposed route. One of those species-at-risk is the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina).

Here is what the EA had to say about the common snapper:
The common snapping turtle is an aquatic species that inhabits the Rideau River. The species searches for nest sites in sandy areas in June and may wander into the construction zone. Silt fencing placed near the river as part of the sediment and erosion control program should prevent access to the construction zone by this species. If a snapping turtle is found during construction, the Ministry of Natural Resources, Kemptville District should be contacted.
Similar to the milksnake, the snapping turtle isn't on the IUCN red list--meaning that the population at large is likely not endangered. However, the species is one of special concern to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as of November 2008. The reason for this classification is because the population is particularly susceptible to urban encroachment, which can quickly cause a severe drop in population. COSEWIC also cited the general downward slope of the population, and in their 2009 assessment and status report (.PDF available here), noted that snappers have unusually high rates of nest and egg predation due to the density of 'subsidized predators' like raccoons, skunks, opossums, and coyotes (and a lack of larger predators [like wolves and cougars] to keep those mid-level predator populations in check) in urban areas.

Two other species were also brought up in the EA: The peregrine falcon and the eastern milksnake.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

NCC looking for input on interprovincial transit in capital region

As a part of the National Capital Commission (NCC)-funded project looking into an interprovincial transit strategy for the National Capital Region to integrate Ottawa and Gatineau, a series of public consultations are scheduled to solicit the public's opinions on what form public transit should take between the two municipalities.

The press release is available here (.PDF), but the real important stuff is really just the dates for the two events:
  • Ottawa
    Tuesday, July 6, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
    Ottawa City Hall (110 Laurier Avenue West) – Jean Pigott Hall
  • Gatineau
    Wednesday, July 7, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
    Gatineau Maison du Citoyen (25 Laurier Street) – Agora Gilles-Rocheleau
The meetings are the fourth phase of the NCC project, which started in mid-2009 and is hoping to establish something new for Ottawa-Gatineau transit--by 2031, anyway. Some of the options that will be discussed at the consultations are increased bus service, surface light rail across the Prince of Wales, Chaudiere, and/or the Alexandria Bridge, and a tunnel through Ottawa--whether the DOTT, or a new one.

The preferred option, according to McCormick Rankin engineer Sean Rathwell as quoted in Metro Ottawa, is a light-rail loop across bridges to the west and east of downtown, with a tunnel under Ottawa. Similar, perhaps, to the illustration at the top of the page, taken from a May 2010 column by Randall Denley talking about 'the loop' (as it's become known).

The loop above appears to run across the Chaudiere and the Alexandria Bridges, but also runs west to include the War Memorial--it might make more sense to run the western leg along the Prince of Wales Bridge, in order to link up there, serve more of Gatineau, and also connect with the O-Train. But time will tell; if the NCC is taking the lead on this, the presence of federal support is virtually assured.

I hope to be at the Tuesday open house, and will post information I find on the site shortly afterwards.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Environmental impact of Ottawa's downtown tunnel: The milksnake

Among the many different effects the Downtown Ottawa Transit Tunnel (DOTT) and its construction might have, as published recently in the environmental assessment (which is available for perusal here), is the potential impact it could have on certain wildlife species-at-risk along the proposed route. One of those species-at-risk is the eastern milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum).

The EA explained the risk posed to the milksnake:
The habitat for milk snake is primarily old field meadows. The fields surrounding the proposed Hurdman Station is the only potential habitat for this species. Restrictive fencing around the construction site will mitigate the amount of old field habitat disturbed and limit access to the construction zone. If a milk snake is found during the construction, the Ministry of Natural Resources, Kemptville District should be contacted.
The milksnake doesn't appear to have been evaluated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), it was designated as a species of special concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in May 2002 due to "anecdotal information" which indicated its numbers are small, even if its population is widespread.

Overall, there seems to be little in the way of reliable data surrounding the milksnake--in Canada in general, and the Ottawa area specifically. It is reportedly prone to roadkill, and that won't likely change with LRT implemented--in fact, it may improve as fewer buses go any farther towards downtown than the station. Still, according to the Opinicon Natural History blog, road traffic is one of the risks facing the population, along with "habitat loss due to urbanization, road building, and habitat modification, land use practices such as forestry and agriculture, persecution (as they are often mistaken for venomous snakes), [and] predation (especially by feral and domestic cats and dogs)".

Two other species were also brought up in the EA: The peregrine falcon, which I discussed earlier in the week, and the common snapping turtle, which I will discuss next week.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Environmental impact of Ottawa's downtown tunnel: The peregrine falcon

Among the many different effects the Downtown Ottawa Transit Tunnel (DOTT) and its construction might have, as published recently in the environmental assessment (which is available for perusal here), is the potential impact it could have on certain wildlife species-at-risk along the proposed route. One of those species-at-risk is the peregrine falcon.

The peregrine falcon was once an endangered species internationally, but since the pesticides which challenged their populations were banned, the species has rebounded very well. Breeding pairs have been seen in many major North American cities, and Ottawa is no exception: A recurring nest has seen pairs return yearly to the Crowne Plaza hotel regularly, and their sightings have been chronicled by the Canadian Peregrine Foundation.

Here are the comments made in the EA about the peregrine:
The peregrine falcon has nested in downtown Ottawa for several years and hunts birds throughout the City of Ottawa. During the summer months (June-July) the young peregrines leave the nest and test their hunting and flying skills near the nest site. At this time the young birds have been known to land on the ground near or on roadways and near office buildings. If a peregrine is found in construction zones, the Ministry of Natural Resources or the Canadian Wildlife Service should be contacted.
Although the peregrine is no longer endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) red list (they are classified as a species of least concern), they are specified as a species of 'Special Concern' by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) because pesticide contaminants continue to be found in the tissues of the falcons.

It's not likely that the peregrine will be overly effected by the construction of the tunnel, given how low it will be boring, although the vibrations may end up negatively effecting unhatched nests or even pairs looking for a place to nest. Also, Ottawa's urban peregrine population is not likely a significant portion of the species' overall population. Still, with all the talk about financial costs the city will have to deal with, it's at least worth mentioning that there are other costs, too.

Two other species were also brought up in the EA: The common snapping turtle and the milksnake. I'll discuss those two in the coming days.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Chernushenko running in Capital Ward

With Clive Doucet having announced his retirement from municipal politics (correction: from Capital Ward; Doucet is running for mayor), Ottawa's Capital Ward is going to have a new representative for the first time since 1997. Bob Brocklebank, Mano Hadavand, Ron Le Blanc, and Isabel Metcalfe have all submitted their candidacy papers, and today news has broken that David Chernushenko will be running in the ward, as well.

While Brocklebank doesn't seem to have laid out a platform beyond his opposition of Lansdowne Live, Hadavand hasn't revealed any plans, Le Blanc gave his opposition to the downtown tunnel a passing mention in his plan, and Metcalfe just has information about her public affairs counsel, Chernushenko has talked about transit in Ottawa on this very blog.

Back in 2008 when Ottawa was still deciding which plan to move forward with, Chernushenko suggested that the tunnel was "a waste of money":
"I think the subway alternative is a complete and utter waste of money. I think it’s the wrong approach, unless Ottawa is going to have a subway system—and I don’t believe we’re big enough to merit a subway system at the moment," he said.

Chernushenko added that although business support for the tunnel is currently high, the affected streets above ground are in for an overhaul that could affect revenue.

"It’s going to be one hell of a massive dig. It’s going to be a couple of years of major, major disruption. And I don’t think they thought through that," he said. "[Streets] are as blocked off above as they would be if it were entirely surface-length [rail] that was going in."
Of course, those comments were made two years ago, and before the elected council voted to support the plan. We'll surely find out how he feels about the plan as it stands today over the course of the election campaign.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Citizen's Gray laments the cancellation of the north-south LRT line

On his The Bulldog blog yesterday, Ottawa Citizen columnist Ken Gray eulogized what he called the 'tragic' cancellation of the 2006 north-south light-rail line, citing a large number of reasons outlining why he thinks the move was a mistake:
  • The first project would have cost $884 million with the Siemens consortium paying for any overruns. The current plan is expected to cost $2.1 billion or as much as 25 per cent more if overruns occur. The city is unlikely to be able to stick the builder of the project with overruns because of possible expensive difficulties with the tunnel
  • Four lost years of planning
  • The first project ran from Barrhaven to the University of Ottawa. The new project runs from Tunney's Pasture to Blair Road ... 12.5 kilometres or one stop west of where the north-south plan would have done
  • The first project would be operating now. The new plan is expected to be completed in 2019
  • The environmental assessment for east-west rail would be completed or near completion now, putting east-west rail farther ahead today than it is with the current plan
Those are just a few of the many points Gray outlined, before he began outlining some reasons he believes the downtown tunnel is a mistake. And, as long as the construction went as scheduled, every point he's made there is correct. The north-south line was to include 29km of surface rail through downtown (8km of which is existing O-Train service), while the current plan calls for 12.5km, including a tunnel downtown. Obviously, the distance traveled is a significant difference, but proponents of cancellation have consistently gone back to their suggestion that a tunnel downtown represents the only solution to the current congestion there.

Still, opponents of the cancellation have plenty of good arguments of their own--the most powerful being the fact that had we gone through with it, we would now be looking at adding an east-west portion to the north-south line that would be running today.

The process of cancellation was a complicated one, still shrouded in a fair bit of mystery. In the inaugural issue of the Journal of Public Transit in Ottawa, I tried to offer some clarification in the process, but it remains difficult to fully comprehend. The quick version is that many were put off by the secrecy surrounding the process, and many others opposed surface rail in the core; when a truncated line leaving the downtown portion out, the Ontario government refused to support the different plan; when it was restored, the federal government wasn't prepared to re-commit their money. So the plan was cancelled, and the process of building a new one began.

Whether you agree with Gray in seeing the cancellation as a mistake or not, there comes a point where re-hashing the same old arguments over and over again is no longer constructive. The plan was cancelled four years ago, and perhaps we all need to take the lessons from that plan, and focus on ensuring that the current plan doesn't fall victim to the same mistakes.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A glimpse of what Ottawa's tunnel stations might look like

On Wednesday afternoon, I took a trip to the Main Branch of the Ottawa Library to check out the Ottawa Room and read the recently-released environmental assessment (EA) of the Downtown Ottawa Transit Tunnel. If you're interested, you can read the massively massive document online at the Ottawa Light Rail website, although it's difficult to read on a computer screen. There were a huge number of interesting details in the document, some seemingly irrelevant (did you know that harbour seals used to come as far south as Ottawa, before the Ottawa River was damed?) and others quite enlightened, but there was no shortage of them.

Among the many assessments and suggestions the EA made was one about tunnel station design. The image below (click to enlarge) shows the four possible configurations, with various pros and cons to each one. Based on six objectives, it was decided that the first configuration (Fig. 8-21) was the

I've got to say, the centre platform seems to be the most rational choice of the group, even if it limits space for small retail outlets in the transit station. Still, there would be enough room for a convenience store and news shop, so it's got what commuters will need.

I'll try and offer more posts regarding the details presented in the EA in the coming weeks. If there are particular questions you've got about it, feel free to e-mail me, contact me on Twitter, or post a comment here and I can try and look into them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

LRT Affordability on Talk Ottawa

On Monday's Talk Ottawa program, transit was once again the topic of discussion. Notably, we discussed how affordable the $2.1B light-rail plan is for the city. Along with myself (Peter Raaymakers) on the panel were David Jeanes of Transport Action Canada and Rideau-Rockcliffe Councillor Jacques Legendre, with Ottawa-West Nepean MP and Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities John Baird chiming in over the phone.

With his government's recent announcement of $600M in funding to support the transit plan, Baird's comments offered some strong insight into the meaning of the pledge. The most notable comment of his was that this funding is not necessarily tied to a tunnel; the government has given $600M for Ottawa to spend on this upcoming transit plan, but if they decide to revisit the tunnel (as mayoral candidate Jim Watson has suggested he might do), the funding won't necessarily be affected--the only time the feds would revisit it would be if the plan was altered so radically as to bring the bottom line below $1.8B or so. And although Baird wouldn't comment on municipal election issues, he did pose the question of why Watson (at the time Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing) and the provincial government offered their $600M for a plan he now has questions about.

Baird also said that, although this funding represented the last of the Building Canada Fund Ottawa would benefit from, that doesn't mean it's the end of transit funding for the foreseeable future. He said that, once this phase is well on its way and the City has its next stage in the overall plan ready to go, he and his government would be more than willing to sit down at the table and talk about funding the project again.

For his part, councillor Legendre pledged his confidence in the city's plan without wavering. His exact words, in fact, were that this plan is "not even close to unaffordable" for the City to handle. He cited the contingencies built in to the current budget, discussed the potential ways to offset the costs of the plan (development costs, station partnerships with towers downtown, et cetera), and said that this plan was not only good for the city, but necessary.

Jeanes offered quite a bit of insight into a number of issues, from the cancellation of the 2006 north-south rail line to the reality of Ottawa's commuter system inevitably changing and the end of the no-transfer ride. What he was most passionate about, though, was that whether or not this plan is affordable isn't our most pressing question: He said that the 12km of light-rail track in this plan pales in comparison to the 120km of rail track his organization (Transport Action Canada, then Transport 2000) recommended back in 2003. He recommended the city find some way to better stretch the funding they've secured in order to get more kilometres per dollar.

A number of viewers called into the show, with varied comments or concerns. One memorable question was how the LRT as proposed would help people waiting at suburban stations (the example used was those at Baseline) who are forced to watch full buses drive right by them. The response, from Jeanes and echoed by Legendre, was that buses will now be able to turn around at the start of the LRT line (in this instance, Tunney's Pasture) and turn back instead of having to crawl through the downtown logjam, essentially doubling their capacity to move people.

Monday, June 14, 2010

TransitOttawa discussing light rail on Rogers Talk Ottawa tonight

Any transit enthusiasts in the Ottawa area might want to tune in to Rogers cable 22 tonight at 7 p.m. for Talk Ottawa, where the panel will discuss public transit in the city. On the table are discussions about the city's upcoming light-rail transit plan, the $600M in recently-announced federal funding for it, and whether or not it's affordable overall.

On the panel will be Peter Raaymakers, executive director of and Rideau-Rockcliffe Councillor Jacques Legendre. Ottawa-West Nepean MP and Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities John Baird will also join by telephone.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Looking at high-speed rail between Ottawa and Toronto

The S500 Shinkansen, a Japanese high-speed bullet train.

On Wednesday, Richard Florida--renowned author, professor at the Rotman School of Management, and director of the Martin Prosperity Institute--spoke with a number of editors at the Ottawa Citizen about the many possible benefits of building an intercity high-speed commuter train line linking Canada's political capital with her financial capital--Ottawa and Toronto. The Citizen penned an editorial about the meeting, and how much sense high-speed rail would make:
Toronto has the economic infrastructure, while Ottawa has the political infrastructure. No doubt Toronto bankers would like to be just down the street from federal regulators, while the public service often needs the expertise of those in business.
High-speed commuter rail is something we've talked about on Transit Ottawa before. Some of Florida's colleagues at the Martin Prosperity Institute wrote and article about it in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Public Transit in Ottawa, looking at the pros of linking mega-regions together with high-speed rail and how cities can integrate the regional line with their local transit systems. We've also looked at the benefits of high-speed rail, including expanded opportunities and reduced costs.

High-speed rail might seem a little foreign to most Ottawans or Canadians--isn't it a Japanese thing, where bullet trains have been around for decades? But that wasn't always the case; Canada was at one time a leader in the development of high-speed rail when we piloted the TurboTrain. A year ago, The Walrus took a look back on Canada's history with high-speed rail, why the country has fallen behind in the field, and author Monte Paulsen argues that Canada needs to catch up to maintain competitive in the world today.

And high-speed rail is gaining traction around the world. Japan has been shopping their high-speed rail technology for some time now, looking to export it along with their expertise in the field around the world. And in South Africa, a $3B project to link Johannesburg's airport with soccer stadiums for the 2010 World Cup finished just in time (despite many obstacles), and the Gautrain will be bringing soccer fans to games for the first kick-off. Closer to home, a coalition of pro-rail organizations in the United States recently launched the website, looking to get the US government to invest $4B in high-speed rail development in 2011.

In Canada, there's certainly an appetite for high-speed rail. Decades have passed since the first report on a rail corridor from Windsor to Quebec City, which could certainly be a commuter train with stops in Ottawa and Toronto. The City of Calgary's 10-year economic development strategy suggests a high-speed rail linking Calgary to Edmonton and Fort McMurray. And Vancouver may be linked into a high-speed rail line linking the Pacific Northwest Corridor along the coast of Oregon and Washington states.

The bottom line? Rail is gaining popularity once again, after briefly falling out of favour in North America. The current administration in the United States is investing heavily in intercity passenger rail, and Canada would be wise to look into doing so, as well. If the governments of Canada, Quebec, and Ontario can come together to build a rail linking their biggest cities, the national, provincial, and municipal governments all stand to benefit.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Federal government gives their $600M for LRT

After months of anxiety over when (and perhaps whether) the federal government was going to pledge their share of Ottawa's upcoming light-rail transit plan, citizens can breathe a sigh of relief: John Baird committed their $600M share of the project this morning in a press conference.

From the Ottawa Sun:
"This historic investment in Ottawa's public transit infrastructure demonstrates the Government of Canada's commitment to building sustainable and healthy communities," said Baird in notes prepared for the announcement. "With this funding, I expect that the City will work towards a practical and affordable plan to serve the needs of the residents of Ottawa."
The pledge comes six months after the Ontario provincial government committed their $600M share, meaning the City has funding for $1.2B of the $2.1B project--and now needs to find ways to fund the remaining $900M on its own. Some councillors--including Transit Committee chair and 2010 mayoral candidate Alex Cullen--are confident that the contingencies in place mean that won't be a problem, but another mayoral candidate (Jim Watson) continues to question whether or not Ottawa can afford the downtown tunnel that the plan is built around.

The $600M federal and provincial funding pledges were based on preliminary cost estimates of $1.8B, which has gradually risen to the current estimate of $2.1B. Although some had hoped that the federal commitment would help Ottawa fund that overrun at least to some degree, it is still reassuring that the city now has both funding partners on board with a true pledge that carries a dollar figure with it.

New York City isn't that far ahead of Ottawa

An artist's rendering of First Avenue's offset bus-only lane, painted terra cotta brown. © City of New York.

Or at least New York City isn't that far ahead of Ottawa everywhere. In fact, the city is just now beginning implementation of a bus-only lane along the east side of Manhattan, northbound on First Avenue from East Houston St. to E 125th St., and southbound on Second Avenue with opposite start and end points--basically, a significantly longer version of Ottawa's downtown Transitway along Albert and Slater streets.

From the New York Times:
Starting in October, buses will be granted an exclusive lane to speed up travel on those avenues from Houston Street to 125th Street, a trip that can last an hour and a half — the length of an Amtrak ride from Pennsylvania Station to Philadelphia.

Tickets will be sold at sidewalk kiosks, allowing passengers to board without stopping to fumble for change or a MetroCard.

Riders will be on the honor system: passengers will not have to produce a ticket unless asked. (A $100 fine awaits the dishonest.) And the buses will be equipped with three doors for quicker boarding and exiting.
Not at all unlike Ottawa's Transitway, in what the Times calls a movement towards "European-style rapid-transit buses" (I had no idea BRT was so cosmopolitan... ). To put the distance in perspective, the BRT lanes along Manhattan's East Side will be a similar length to the Transitway from Lincoln Fields to the Rideau Centre. Or, to put it in other terms, along Bank Street from a bit past Hunt Club right into Parliament Hill (and then back again, on some as-yet unconstructed parallel road):

All this to say, although Ottawa doesn't have anything in the way of a subway system (at least not yet), the city is fairly well advanced in terms of our bus-rapid transit system. At least conceptually speaking.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Municipal 'smart cards' in the works

City councillors have been talking about implementing a 'Smart Card' service so that citizens can simply use their pre-paid card to access any number of municipal, and perhaps even private' services--including bus fares--perhaps as soon as 2012.

From an article in the Ottawa Citizen:
By the year 2012, Ottawa residents should be able to buy their morning coffee, hop on the bus, borrow library books, and go for a skate in a community arena, all using the same pre-paid smart card, says College Councillor Rick Chiarelli.
Hey, that sounds kind of familiar. If fact, if I were to drop the 'pre-paid' and 'smart' adjectives before talking about this futuristic card, it sounds like something I already use all the time, to pay for public and private services: A credit card.

In fact, taking advantage of existing card payment technology, New Jersey and New York transit agencies (all three of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority [MTA], the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey [PATH], NJ Transit [NJT]) have partnered with MasterCard to install the PayPass tap-and-pay system on certain buses and trains in the area. From the official press release announcing the pilot program:
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PATH), NJ TRANSIT (NJT) and MasterCard Worldwide today announced the launch of a six month pilot program in which MasterCard PayPass will be accepted for fare payments on select train and bus routes throughout New York City and New Jersey. Today's announcement enables riders of the three transit systems to purchase fares and transfer between transit systems simply by tapping a single type of contactless credit or debit card or device.


"The technology that we're testing will make life easier for our customers and help reduce our cost of doing business at the same time," said MTA Chairman and CEO Jay H. Walder. "By using an open network we'll break down regional barriers and let people travel across the region with a card that's already sitting in their wallets. We're thrilled to be working with the Port Authority, NJ TRANSIT and MasterCard to test these innovations for our customers."
A deal like the above one with MasterCard or some similar arrangement could provide certain benefits over installing an unique O-Card system, first and foremost being the existing infrastructure for payments already in place. It would also place the management of the system on the shoulders of a company whose primary responsibility is management of these types of payment systems; no matter how competent any city might be, few have any experience with this industry. It would also offer citizens from outside Ottawa a very simple way to pay for transit in the city, rather than having to purchase a pre-paid O-Card.

On the other hand, there are significant obstacles a personal credit-based MasterCard when paying for city services. Primarily, the fact that not everyone can actually have a credit card (based on their personal credit ratings), while every citizen should be able to access municipal services. And perhaps more importantly, the pre-paid nature of the O-Card would preclude interest charges, while a credit card virtually promotes them. So there are distinct and inherent differences between the two models.

Somewhere in the middle there may be a solution which blends the benefits of each style. Whether it comes through a partnership with some payment company, or the incorporation of certain practices into a city-managed pre-paid card, but there are ample possibilities for making the system as effective and cost-efficient as possible.

UPDATE: Transit Toronto recently had a blog post about that city's pilot project using Presto cards for tap-and-pay fare payments.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Scheduling 'efficiencies' proving elusive

Remember how one of the most contentious issues during the city's winter 2009 transit strike was scheduling, in an effort to reduce overtime and other avoidable labour costs? According to the Amalgamated Transit Union local 279, the new scheduling format isn't really working as well as had been anticipated.

The schedule took effect last month, and the transit union says shifts aren't being filled, which is affecting service and driver morale. Scheduling was also the main reason for the 53-day transit strike.

"A lot of guys are refusing overtime because of their frustration, and a way to show their frustration is to stop working overtime," said Mike Aldrich, the transit union vice president.

On the other hand, Transit Committee chair and mayoral candidate Alex Cullen points out that the scheduling is working fine--and that the vast majority of routes are run on time.
From 580 CFRA:
The chair of Ottawa's Transit Committee insists the new scheduling system for OC Transpo operators will allow the city to introduce transit service at a lower cost in the future.


Cullen says over 99 per cent of OC Transpo's nine-thousand trips a day go as scheduled.
It doesn't seem surprising that a scheduling system isn't working to full effect if certain operators are intentionally obstructing the effectiveness of the scheduling system by not showing up for shifts, which ATU 279 vice-president Aldrich suggests. After the long and unforgiving winter strike, though, it's similarly not surprising that some operators are lashing out against what they see as an inequitable measure.

Still, the key point in the 52-day strike was scheduling, and we have yet to see any proof of those oft-cited 'efficiencies' that were apparently the basis for the City's unrelenting stance. It's to be expected that there will be some adjustment period before the savings start to appear, but until they do, the strike appears more and more like a strikeout for the city.