Thursday, March 25, 2010

O'Brien calls for independent transit commission

Mayor Larry O'Brien has recently called for OC Transpo management to be handed over to an independent transit commission rather than answer directly to city council, is reporting.

On Rogers 22's Talk Ottawa program on Monday night, O'Brien cited declining customer service ratings and the politicization and micro-management of OC Transpo as problems he's come to understand, and he believes an independent commission would help address them. He pointed to the recommendations of his 2007 Task Force on Transportation and also of a report by consulting firm Oliver Wyman in June 2008, both suggesting the city would benefit from establishing an independent commission.

Although O'Brien has yet to publicly say whether or not he's going to be running for re-election, a transit commission may figure to be a key issue in the upcoming municipal elections. Mayoral candidate Alex Cullen, currently Bay Ward Councillor and chair of the transit committee, challenged O'Brien's contention that the current management structure breeds politicization of the issues, and also questioned the accountability of an independent commission.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

City rejects "misleading" critical bus ads

The Ottawa Taxpayer Advocacy Group, a coalition of citizens concerned with transit workers' pay, have been blocked by Ottawa city staff from buying ads that are critical of them on OC Transpo buses.

According to the Ottawa Citizen, the group's initial draft for the e-mail was amended based on the city's criticisms, but was still rejected. The most recent proposal would have displayed the following text:

OC Transpo average wage (salary, wage, overtime, employer benefits, contributions & allowances): up 80 per cent in six years to $74,748. Fed up with rising taxes and bus fares? Join us...
The debate harkens back to some recent advertising controversies, including the Atheist Bus Campaign and Virgin Radio spots, but is markedly different based on the fact that it's directly critical of the city service it's running on, rather than simply controversial based on morals or values.

With regards to the proposed advertisement, the City had opposed the 'average wage' terminology, suggesting that it misleads those who view the advertisements into thinking that was the base salary, while it covers a bit more, according to City Treasurer Marian Simulik (quoted in the above-linked article):

"The figures represent total employer costs, including salaries as well as benefits, pension contributions, shift premium payments, post-employer benefits and other allowances."
The OTAG has taken their case to court, citing concerns that the City is attempting to "conceal the truth" by blocking their advertisements. Whenever a resolution comes, it should be interesting to see.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Otawa fined another $12.5k for failure to call out stops

The Canadian Transportation Agency fined the City of Ottawa $12,500 today for failing to call out stops along bus routes. The fine stems from a decision made back in 2007, where it was found that OC Transpo's failure to announce stop names posed an undue obstacle to the visually impaired, and is the second fine that has been levied on the city since said decision. In July of last year, Ottawa was fined $5,000 for failure to call out stops.

The city had made steps toward retrofitting their bus fleet with SmartBus technology, which would have met the requirements (and offered further technical benefits, including real-time location tracking) for $12M, but that was kiboshed by council when peculiarities in the bidding process raised the prospect of a lawsuit from opposing bidders. Since that October 2009 decision was made by council, nothing further has been done to address the problem. Although the deal was cancelled initially, council ultimately voted in favour of the SmartBus enhancements in order to avoid lawsuits.

Realistically, this situation can not continue. Obviously, it's not desirable to continue being fined by the CTA, particularly given the fact that the fines are increasing. There's also the ethical fact that this failure is posing an undue obstacle to those with visual impairments. The city needs to get serious about one (or both) of two things: Either get serious about installing some automatic system to have stops called out [Ed: or get serious about getting it done quickly], whether that's covered under SmartBus technology or something else; or get serious about ensuring operators are consistently calling out stops. Until one of those is implemented, we're going to continue hearing about this--and continue paying for it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

OC Transpo fare hikes: It could be worse

Users of OC Transpo are now dealing with the most recent fare hike for the service, an average increase of 7.5 per cent for cash, tickets, and passes. It's the second fare hike since July 1, 2009, which city councillors say is a move towards recovering 50 per cent of transit costs from users to balance out the other half from taxpayers.

From the Ottawa Citizen:
Councillor Alex Cullen, chair of city council’s transit committee, said by phone Monday that the fee hike moves the transit system toward a city council goal of having it funding half by property taxes, half by rider fares.

He said the taxpayers’ share is necessary because even people who don’t use public transit benefit from it, citing less road congestion and pollution as examples. Cullen also said investing in transit is much less expensive than the alternative — more roads and road maintenance for more cars.
Not to say that the OC Transpo fare hike isn't significant for users of our local service, it's nothing like the 25 per cent fare increase for NJ Transit; a hike that's coupled with service cuts, to boot. Executives with NJ Transit said the hikes and cuts were necessary due to the "hard economic times" lowering state and federal transit subsidies.


The 25-percent proposed increase would be the highest in the 30-year history of NJ Transit, the nation’s third largest public transit system. Other increases over the years, including the last one in 2007, have been in the 10 percent range.

"We recognize that any increase is a burden for our customers, particularly during a recession," [NJ Transit executive director Jim] Weinstein said. "However, we have worked to keep local bus fares below the regional average and preserved some important discounts for seniors and people with disabilities, as well as for students and others who are among the most transit dependent."

He said that with a reduced state subsidy of $33 million, the loss of $150 million in one-time federal stimulus money, a 4-percent decrease in ridership due to the economic downturn and contract obligations, there was no choice but to raise fares.
So... not many are happy about the 7.5 per cent OC Transpo fare hike, but at least we can be happy we're not dealing with the 25 per cent fare hike down in New Jersey.