Thursday, October 19, 2006

Ottawa: Council is pissed

Ottawa has an extensive bus rapid transit network, where buses run along bus-only roads from the outer areas of the city to bring passengers into the centre of the city. Like VIVA and Translink's B-Line network in Vancouver, it is one of Canada's BRT success stories. In Ottawa, like in Vancouver, bus rapid transit exists alongside rail-based transit. OC Transpo, the public transit agency serving the nation's capital, runs a light rail line between Bayview Station, on the Ottawa River, just west of downtown, to Greenboro Station, just northwest of the airport. Along the way, Carlton University is served.

The O-Train was always designed as a pilot project, so it was built fairly inexpensively - only $21 million. The trains, which are Bombardier Talent DMUs, run on an active freight railway, so money was saved by not having to lay tracks. Interestingly enough, the platforms are retractable so that wider freight trains can use the line overnight. Also, the Talents themselves were built for Deutche Bahn of Germany, weren't repainted due to their scheme already being close to Ottawa's, and even still have their toilets installed for German service (though I would recommend against trying to use them). Despite arguments that it goes from nowhere to nowhere, it carried around 10,000 people daily.

Recently, Ottawa voted to replace the current O-Train line with a full-fledged light rail line operating from the downtown core, over the old line and beyond to the airport and Barrhaven Town Centre to the southwest. The new plan calls for the line to be electrified, unlike the diesel-powered Talents, and will use Siemens S70 Avanto trams. Construction was set to begin soon, with buses replacing the O-Train starting in April. The line would be ready in 2009. The city had even gone as far as tendering for the sale of the Talents. But, the feds found a way to screw it up.

The city of Ottawa had already budgeted for the project, and the province had promised and delivered their share. The federal government had promised their share, and the city was only waiting on the Treasury Board to release the funds - keep in mind that the contracts have already been awarded. What happened next came out of left field.

The Treasury Board of the government of Canada, had approved the money, but there was a condition. A condition that I've never seen before, and one that might even be illegal. The Treasury Board promised to deliver the money, but only after the municipal election, and only if the incoming city council debated and re-approved the project.

First of all, the federal government has no moral business meddling in the affairs of a municipal government. The conservatives rose to power on the argument that the liberals were corrupt, and were no longer responsive to the wills of the Canadian people. The city of Ottawa elected a council, and that legally elected council voted to build a light rail line. They did not defraud the citizens. Simply because you don't like the council and the mayor (allegations that the Mayor and the president of the Treasury Board are still bitter from their time as adversaries at Queens Park have been made) does not give you the right to ignore their decisions. I cannot ignore the law and argue that my leftist views allow me to ignore a law passed by a conservative government. Secondly, the federal government has no legal business meddling in the affairs of a municipal government. The constitutions established that municipalities are "creatures of the province". Therefore, only Queens Park has legal standing to apply such conditions. If the feds have approved the money, they must deliver.

Essentially, Ottawa is screwed. Without the money, they cannot pay the contractor to start. If construction doesn't start before mid-December, then contractor will be in a position to sue for breach of contract. This gives the new council about 15 days to make a decision. It's a tense political situation, which infuriates me in particular. It just goes to show you what the Harper government really thinks about big cities in this country.

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1 Comments:

At 11/04/2006 5:10 PM , Blogger Ottawa said...

Hi Andrae,

Interesting and well informed article (for an out of towner!). Things here in Ottawa are not quite as bad as they might seem however.

First, John Baird is not so off-base as it might seem. Under the terms of the funding federal MOU, and the program source of the funds, he had every responsibility to provide a sober evaluation. Because the city's environmental & transit business case for the proposed LRT replacement was so weak popular support from the project has plummeted. The final straw was that Mayor Chiarelli had specifically timed everything so that the presumed rubber stamp from Treasury Board was due right in the middle of his re-election campaign. No matter what Baird would have chosen (approve or not) it would be political. In the course of things, it became clear that Chiarelli had made politically motivated misrepresentations about contract dates, penalties (not), and the nature of what work would need to start before spring 2007 (virtually nothing).

Second, deep flaws with the new LRT project and the city's process leading up to the Council vote to approve have been exposed.

Third, a new and much more compelling LRT alternative plan has come to light.

To learn more, have a look at:
http://friendsoftheotrain.blogspot.com
http://ottawalrt.blogspot.com
http://saveourgreenspace.blogspot.com

 

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