Friday, May 27, 2011

Transit issues on Talk Ottawa

On Thursday evening's Talk Ottawa program, public transit dominated much of a program that was about municipal issues in general. Along with myself (Peter Raaymakers), the panel included Peggy DuCharme, executive director of the Downtown Rideau Business Improvement Agency, and David Reevely, News Editor and blogger for the Ottawa Citizen talked about a variety of issues in our city today.

The roundtable kicked things off with a discussion of several issues facing the city's current light-rail transit plan, and especially the downtown tunnel. As is usually the case, cost came up, and the possibility (or probability) of cost increases as we move forward with the plan. The general consensus of the panel was that costs will likely go up, at the very least due to inflation, but that's a fairly normal occurence when projects of this magnitude are undertaken. Reevely suggested that there are options available if cost estimates rise significantly, including shortening the tunnel or finding savings in platform designs, but it would take a drastic increase in cost (a jump to, say, $3.5B or more) for the city to entertain the possibility of scrapping the project entirely. A fair degree of political humiliation would result from a cancellation, Reevely said, and DuCharme pointed out that a second major transit project cancellation in just ten years would seriously tarnish the city's reputation.

Sticking with the LRT project, we also discussed the impacts that will be felt leading up to and during the construction of the tunnel downtown. There was agreement that the impacts would not be insignificant--there will definitely be major disruptions to bus routes for at least a couple years during construction, and likely some street closures during the tunneling process--but, as Reevely and DuCharme both said, the hope is that the long-term benefits will outweigh the short-term inconveniences.

In the more immediate term, we also looked at potential service changes to the O-Train. Given the success of the pilot project-cum-transit spine, the city is seriously looking at increasing the capacity of the O-Train, which was generally regarded as a good idea. As was the possibility of extending the train along mostly-existing train tracks into the growing development of Riverside South, for which the Transit Commission approved a feasibility study.

That latter option, if pursued, would eventually lead to a revamped O-Train meeting the city's major east-west light-rail system at Bayview Station, which would transform that station into one of the city's biggest transfer points for riders. Bayview also happens to be a prime location for transit-oriented development, so the discussion moved on to the possibility of retail, residential, commercial, and other development (including a sports stadium) in or around the station. Members of the panel were fairly excited about the possibility, but all seemed to realize it would still have a long road to travel before coming to fruition.

On the topic of sports stadiums, the city's recent decision to study a potential Coventry Road footbridge across the Queensway connecting the Transitway with Ottawa Baseball Stadium and the developments surrounding it also came up. It's a $1M study into a $9M bridge which spans an area of the highway that will soon be expanded, and the panel seemed to think the City was well on its way to going forward with the bridge--Reevely pointed out that in a city that routinely builds road bridges for tens of millions of dollars, $9M for a pedestrian footbridge isn't an outrageous expense. To the criticism that there's no long-term certainty of the baseball stadium, panellists pointed out that there isn't only a baseball stadium there: There are also many houses, businesses, and the Hampton Inn and convention centre that would benefit from a more direct connection to the city's major transit spine, plus the fact that if the city decides to tear down the stadium, something else will certainly be built in its place. Plus, given that transportation was likely a major factor in the Lynx' struggles at attracting spectators, improving the accessibility of the stadium by putting it along the Transitway and opening it up to more people could go a long way in making it a more viable home stadium for a professional baseball team.

Also discussed were the outdoor water ban in the south end and street name changes, but those didn't have too much to do with transit so I won't go in to too much detail.