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).

The after-effects of the cancelled O-Train extension raise their head

The arguments for cancelling the north-south extension of the O-Train are well-understood by this point: Questions about the suitability of surface-rail downtown; questions about the bidding process, and what was costed where; questions about the rapidly rising pricetag; and questions about whether to start north-south instead of east-west were all brought up, and all have their own merits.

Similarly, arguments against cancelling the project are well-known by this point, and have merits of their own: A development built around transit, instead of the other way around; a project that would be done by now; a fixed-price contract that would have controlled costs; and other infrastructure (the Strandherd-Armstrong bridge, in particular) also being done by now.

The immediate repercussions of the cancellation was a lawsuit from the consortium hired to build the project, which was eventually settled for about $37M when all was said and done. But the repercussions of the planning decisions that had been put in place with an understanding of light-rail south towards Barrhaven and Chapman Mills weren't all cancelled with the project, and they continue to be seen today, as demonstrated in an article in Saturday's Ottawa Citizen about a traffic light in Chapman Mills, but which is really about more than that. From the Citizen's article:
“This community was being built while the LRT contract was being signed, and it was built with the LRT at the centre of it. It really is a community that is now haunted by the decision to cancel the LRT,” [councillor Steve Desroches] said. “That said, we have to pick up the pieces and move on.”
The area in question, Chapman Mills, is an interesting development. [Full disclosure: It also happens to be where I live, although I moved in with full knowledge that the train had been cancelled.] A triangle of land bounded by Fallowfield Road to the north, Prince of Wales Drive to the east, and Woodroffe Avenue to the west, it's different from older 'traditional' suburban development thanks to a fairly high population density, with terrace and townhomes at least as common as single-family homes. And nowhere will this stark difference be more apparent than in the forthcoming Ampersand development by Chapman Mills, billed as "urban development in a suburban setting" by representatives of the developer. The area is still well-served by bus infrastructure--and the new Southwest Transitway Extension through the Riocan Marketplace will only improve that--but one can only imagine how positive a light-rail line from the area right into downtown would be for the residents, as well as for the environment (courtesy of a few thousand single-commuter vehicles or a few hundred buses off the road).

And given the work that's already been done securing rights-of-way from Bayview to the area, it seems like a prime candidate for the second phase of the current light-rail project.

Monday, October 11, 2010

2010 Election: Scharf 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.

One of the main questions Jane Scharf has about the current transit plan is why Ottawa is moving forward with the Downtown Ottawa Transit Tunnel (DOTT). Scharf claims that there is a tunnel in place right now in downtown Ottawa, and that should be able to handle rail for the city. She also feels that rail should go across Alexandra Bridge into Gatineau, and that Byron Way should be looked at for an O-Train extension.
I think that there are a few questions we need to investigate before proceeding with this LRT tunnel deal. They would include: an investigation of the feasibility of putting the O-Train across the Alexandra Bridge, and the train link; investigating the use of the Byron right-of-way, we could have a streetcar on it; and a proper explanation of why the existing tunnel can’t be used.

I suspect that they don’t want to use it because there’s a plan to extend the congress centre across the area where the train would come up, you know, where Union Station is there?

There’s no reason, I don’t see any reason [why this tunnel isn't used], and I’m not getting any answers. I discussed this at length with Alex Cullen, and I have it on e-mail, the e-mail discussion, on my blog.
While talking to Scharf about these ideas of hers, a number of questions came up. Chief among them was her claims of a tunnel in downtown Ottawa; as far as I can tell, this 'tunnel' is the small opening at the former Sapper's Bridge downtown, underneath Wellington Street. This is the tunnel Alex Cullen describes in the e-mail discussion he and Candidate Scharf had. Scharf maintains that "one existing tunnel is enough", which is true, but this is hardly a tunnel, and even if it were, the question of getting trains to it and from it raise more questions.

Second is the possibility of using Alexandra Bridge for an O-Train extension. I thought Scharf had mis-spoke and, in fact, been referring to the Prince of Wales Bridge--which seems an obvious extension of the existing O-Train, and has been suggested by many in the past. But Scharf maintained that Alexandra was her desired spot for a river crossing, but she failed to outline how the train would get across downtown from where the O-Train arrives at Bayview to the Alexandra Bridge, which is to the east of the city's centre--although I assume the small tunnel under Wellington would be part of her explanation.

Finally is the suggestion of using Byron Avenue and the City's right-of-way there as an extension of the O-Train. This seems like the Western leg of the current transit plan and, as far as I understand, Byron will be one of several possibilities (also including the Ottawa River Parkway and Carling Avenue) investigated.

Scharf's main problem, though, is that she doesn't feel these possibilities have been suitably explored.
But they haven’t even investigated it, that’s my point. I’m not saying this is my transportation plan, but I’m saying that all viable options haven’t been investigated.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The importance of fair comparisons and accurate numbers

There are all sorts of reasons for someone to take issue with Ottawa's current transit plan. You can pose questions about the cost. You can question the need for a tunnel at all. You can ponder the cost-benefit ratio of light-rail transit compared to bus rapid transit. All of these, in fact, have been questioned in the current election. But in doing so, you have to be fair in your comparisons and accurate in looking at the numbers behind the plan before reaching your conclusions. Otherwise, you're deceiving yourself, and if you're running for mayor, you're deceiving the people you hope will vote for you.

The most recent example of inaccurate comparisons has come in the aftermath of the cancellation of NJ Transit's Trans Hudson Mass Transit Tunnel (also known as the ARC tunnel) project. As costs for the tunnel climbed at untenable rates, New Jersey governor Chris Christie decided (very controversially) that "[t]he only prudent move is to end this project" to at least contain the costs. And, of course, this made Ottawans nervous about our transit tunnel--for good reason, because tunnel projects to have a habit of exceeding their estimates. By a lot. And it's come up on the election trail, too, as Clive Doucet used the ARC tunnel example to support his argument for surface-rail through the city. From CTV Ottawa:

While the numbers in Ottawa are smaller, one mayoral candidate predicts a similar story. Clive Doucet is for light rail but against the downtown tunnel.

"Typically tunnels run, on average, 60 per cent over," says Doucet. "So, say it's budgeted $2.1 billion … you're looking at $3 billion."
Fair enough, cautioning about costs for transit plans is prudent for someone running for public office. I'm not sure where the 60 per cent cost-overrun figure comes from, but it's entirely conceivable that Ottawa's tunnel could generate a number in that range, especially considering the issues that have arisen with the University of Ottawa's excavation work for a new building on campus.

But it's important to be clear about such cautions. Doucet is projecting a 60 per cent overrun for the CAD2.1B price tag, but that's not the cost associated with a tunnel; that's the whole transit plan, including surface rail for the vast majority of the span. The actual tunnel portion is currently estimated at CAD735M, so even a 60 per cent cost overrun would bring that cost up to CAD1.176B, pushing the total project up to CAD2.541B overall. Which is definitely more than the city and citizens would prefer to pay, but certainly isn't enough to push the city into bankruptcy.

And comparing Ottawa's tunnel with the ARC tunnel project is a precarious comparison, at best. Ottawa's tunnel is to be a 3.2 km distance, under downtown Ottawa. The Trans Hudson project was a 5.6 km tunnel under the Hudson River. The New York Times called the ARC tunnel "the largest transit project in the nation"; Ottawa's project is a rather humble starting point, in comparison. The class-D (+/- 25 per cent) cost estimate of Ottawa's tunnel is CAD735M, and the total project is $2.1B; the total initial cost estimate for the ARC tunnel was USD8.7B, which had climbed and was expected to end up between USD11-14B when all was said and done. Fairly big difference in scope between the projects.

For the last few weeks, Andy Haydon has been making claims about the inferiority of LRT compared to BRT, and cautioning that proceeding with the current plan could bankrupt Ottawa. Almost post-for-post, David Reevely has blasted holes through Haydon's claims, offering counter-points to Haydon's "cherry-picked" facts and expanding the number of comparison cities to offer a more representative sample.

You expect mayoral candidates to enter a race running through plans with a very fine-toothed comb, simply as due diligence. And it's entirely possible that both Doucet and Haydon have sound arguments to support their alternative transit plans. But they're both hurting their arguments by presenting weak supporting "facts" or estimates for them.

Friday, October 8, 2010

2010 Election: Doucet 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.

Most mayoral candidates are looking at some way to re-organize OC Transpo into what they think would be a more efficient structure, and Clive Doucet is no exception. His idea, though, is different from any others: Break it up into branches, and have them compete with one another for the city's transit funding.
I want to divide OC Transpo into three divisions: A community division, a commuter bus division, and a light-rail division. Right now, the Transitway is running everything, and if you’re on the Transitway you get fabulous service, and if you’re in a community that’s not [then your service isn't as good.] We have no light-rail experts, really, whatsoever. We’ve got to break that monolith up into three divisions, and I want to see them competing to give us great service, not telling us how we all have to fit into the same shoe.
In Doucet's opinion, the change would improve the service across every level of OC Transpo. And rather than having a review to examine the re-organization, Doucet thinks it should happen right away, and each level will be responsible "to come forward to council and explain to me how they’re delivering better service each year".
Our Transitway is already recognized as one of the best in the country, and is an example to other cities around the world. But our local system leaves a lot to be desired. We need to improve our community level service, and we need to do it now—not in 20 years. Right now, we have two levels of service in the city, one for those who live near the Transitway, and one for everyone else. I want to change that by making community service a priority, and providing small buses for community service. I’ve heard from many people they don’t like these 60-, 90-foot buses rattling around small streets; we’re going to change that.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The proposed Ottawa subway, in perspective

Subway system of Seoul, South Korea

Subway system of Berlin, Germany

A few weeks ago, I saw a link (via Treehugger) to a set of to-scale illustrated renderings of the subway systems from major cities around the world. Above, you can see the subways of Seoul and Berlin. On US-based artist and urban planner Neil Freeman's website, you can see dozens more.

For the record, Ottawa's proposed 3.2 km subway would look something like this (although perhaps not as straight) when placed on the same scale:


It looks kind of funny on this scale, doesn't it?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Seems like a bad idea...

A very bad idea.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

2010 Election: Scharf's transit idea

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.

Rather than propose this possibility as a 'transit alternative', mayoral candidate Jane Scharf has presented it as a possible idea for council to consider--she feels the mayor's role is to "keep the process operating" rather than proposing a pet-project "to ram down everybody’s throat". Her idea? Aerial gondolas, positioned around downtown Ottawa and across the river into Gatineau, to complement existing transit infrastructure.
I like the idea of putting some gondola. Ottawa would be very suitable for that. Like the one they’re proposing for Montreal, to go over to the island; it’s seven miles long, and the stats on it are that it can move 5,000 people in an hour, and it goes roughly 60 miles an hour. Seven miles in seven minutes. It’s electric, there’s no drivers, you can get two-seater or four-seater—just like the ones they use to ski—they’re very cheap to put in, they’re one-third of the cost to install and one-third to operate. And, of course, no direct pollution, because it’s all electricity.
As Scharf mentioned, Montreal had plans to run an aerial gondola (the MAG) for seven miles over the St. Lawrence River, connecting the city's Old Port with Île Notre-Dame and Île Sainte-Hélène. The project seems to have hit a snag with the Old Port Corporation (similar, in a way, to the NCC), but the $100M privately-funded project was expected by some to bring in an extra $120M in tourist revenue per year, and was popular with some residents. According to Scharf, it could be a good fit for Ottawa:
I was thinking we could put them around downtown, and during the day or during rush hour it could help with congestion. But other than that, it’s worth it. And that’s what they’re saying in Montreal, they’re expecting it to be a world-class tourist attraction. So it’d be on the list of something to do when you come to Ottawa, and you could put those across the river, too, very easily.