Friday, July 16, 2010

Grey: Tunnel a "transit disaster"


In his weekly column on Wednesday, Ottawa Citizen writer Ken Gray attacked the city's current transit plan, saying that an underground tunnel is too expensive and that it won't help commuters quickly enough to justify its cost. The 12.5km plan is currently estimated to cost $2.1B, and includes light-rail from Tunney's Pasture through a four-stop, $735M downtown tunnel to Blair Station in the east.

From Gray's column:
The current plan, certain to be an election issue over the coming weeks, is not even mediocre. Ottawans, you're massively overpaying. You're buying a Volkswagen with a BMW price tag.
[...]

Ottawans need to stop spending big dollars for projects that don't work. The commuting traffic problems in Ottawa are now, not in 2018. And the biggest problem with the current light-rail plan is that is does nothing to solve the problem of commuting. Too much money on a tunnel, not enough line. That's a stupendous miss after spending billions.
Instead of the plan that's on the table today, Gray suggests he'd like to see surface rail through the downtown core, and using the savings from cancelling the tunnel towards extending the line further east, west, and south.

Gray isn't the first person to question Ottawa's current transit plan. Former mayor Andy Haydon criticized the plan in its entirety, saying that bus-rapid transit is better than light-rail for Ottawa. And mayoral candidate Jim Watson--along with a number of other candidates--has been wondering about the affordability of the plan, and the tunnel in particular (although his tone seems to have softened lately).

In cautioning about cost-overruns, Gray may have reason; the plan was originally thought to cost $1.8B, but that number climbed to $2.1B as the estimates were refined. Still, mayoral candidate Alex Cullen is confident that the estimates of city staff are sound, and said that the $2.1B price tag leaves enough buffer room to avoid threatening the city's finances--but staff have been asked to save money wherever possible, in an effort to come in on or even under budget.

It's easy to get scared of cost-overruns when discussing transit mega-projects (the Big Dig always comes to mind), and it's difficult to assuage that fear in Ottawa given the... mixed results our city has had, particularly in recent memory. But what do you think: Can Ottawa afford its current transit plan?

6 comments:

Dave said...

Honestly, I think it's more a question of can we afford not to? While Ken Gray is an excellent columnist, I vehemently disagree with him on this issue: he's lost sight of the fact that the LRT line is to be the backbone of our future transit system, and (at the risk of overextending the metaphor) without a strong back, the whole thing could break.

The difference between surface LRT and a tunnel is that a tunnel is a surefire longterm transit solution, while surface LRT might be. We may find ourselves needing a tunnel in twenty years anyway if we don't build one now, but the reverse scenario will never be true.

In my mind, the tunnel is absolutely critical to Ottawa's transportation future.

Spezzal Teams Playa said...

I fail to see how surface LRT could work downtown.

Does it run along Albert, causing all north-south streets to end at Slater, turning Queen into a pedestrian mall? Do you then build an ugly overpass on Elgin, forcing all cars to cram into that space? Surely nobody is suggesting level crossings.

The only viable route seems to be a tunnel that begins at the NAC, dives under Elgin, and emerges west of an elevated Bronson, with westbound vehicle traffic rerouted via a ramp that extends Laurier down to Scott St.

Four underground stations seems extravagant, but by placing an outdoor station just west of the current Albert/Slater/Bronson intersection, there would be no need for more than a stop east of Bank and a second one at Lyon.

The notion that people can't walk from Bank to Kent or from Bank to Metcalfe is ridiculous, especially if you consider multiple entrances for each station.

Dwight Williams said...

Indeed.

I'll stand with those arguing that we can't afford to put off this part of the work of city-building any longer. The last time we tried to restore surface rail to the downtown core triggered a rebellion of business owners against the idea, regardless of how much sense it made. It would not surprise me to see the rebellion start anew if Grey's proposal gained any traction.

Caio Vinicius said...

There's a good book with maps and info of all transit systems in the world:
http://www.amazon.com/Transit-Maps-World-Mark-Ovenden/dp/0143112651
There are dozens of systems, most of which have underground portions. In some cases, they are entirely underground. Not sure why it's such a big deal. We just have to make sure it's doable in terms of engineering. 2.1 billion over a few years for something that will last 100 years or more, I don't have a problem with that. 1 billion for a useless 3-day G20 meeting, then I can see a problem.

I think for rapid transit and to transport a high number of people, the tunnel is ideal. Above ground, we could have a smaller system, like a tram system just for local downtown trips.
Again, this is phase I, the backbone of the system. After that the system can be expanded to the suburbs.

Pete said...

There is lots of talk out there about cutting the tunnel and spending that money on a surface route... but you won't just save $700+ million from cutting the tunnel. You'll still have to build the downtown tracks, stations, signalling, etc. The savings are closer to $500 million... 9-10 KM additional track. And that's if you keep the budget it at $2.1 billion, bringing it down to $1.8 billion would mean even less additional track versus the current plan.

Anonymous said...

There is no room above ground for all the cars and now trains to co-exist. Stop and go stop and go, etc, etc. It will be WORSE. End of story.

What is so hard for them to understand about that?

A tunnel is the only solution.

If buses cannot get through the core fast enough, neither will any these else above ground.