Monday, July 30, 2007

Capital vs Operations

Just wanted to point one thing out:

The city's day to day expenses are covered by the operations budget. Under Ontario law, each municipality must present a balanced operations budget each financial year.

Building new stuff comes from the capital budget, which is separate from the operations budget. Unlike the operations budget, municipalities can borrow money in order to balance the capital budget.

So what does this mean about Transit City and other capital projects if the city fails to bite the bullet and raise taxes (assuming that the Move Ontario 2020 doesn't materialize, which would pay for 2/3rds of the cost, leaving the rest up to the feds, or possibly the city if they're desperate)?

These projects still could be built with capital budget money, but there would be no operational funds to operate the projects.

So, while the capital and operations budget are separate entities, they are tied together.

I wrote this post to address future plans in a bankrupt Toronto, but it seems like I've written myself back to where I began.

Labels: ,

Monday, July 23, 2007


We have come to a fork in the road, where one of two chapters in the city will be written. To the left, we find a city which is more expensive to live in, but where we have excellent municipal services provided for us. To the right, we have a city which is more affordable, but where we have to provide ourselves with the services that we used to receive.

The issue of the budget crisis and its effect on the TTC has spawned unprecedented discussion on websites like BlogTO, Torontoist and Steve Munro's Website. Perhaps it is political grandstanding, and using a doomsday scenario to move civic leaders to action, but perhaps, this is the situation we face. We've known for years that the cost of providing city services we use was out-pacing revenue - and that eliminating free coffee at council meetings wasn't going to be enough to solve the crisis.

Truly, we have three clear options, because we cannot gamble on the province offering handouts. The cost of losing that bet is too great. The premier is on record saying that he will not offer any more financial support to Toronto - and although a provincial election looms, this is the devil we know.

That leaves us at service cuts, tax increases or a mixture of both.

It won't surprise you to know that I do not support any cuts to the TTC in particular, and hope that cuts to other city services can be avoided at all costs. We were just starting to build momentum in rebuilding the system, and the proposed action will bring us back to the Harris days. I don't buy the argument that raising taxes will cause a mass exodus into the suburbs. Money isn't the only reason people do what they do, and its not the only reason they live in the city of Toronto.

There is a movement at city hall to reopen the debate about the new taxes. If council is recalled, I hope that the elected officials ignore partisan lines, political gains and personal vendetta, and look deeply within themselves to answer to question: "What kind of city do you want to live in?"

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ontario Municipal Board: Now with free spell checking

Some people see the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) as a body which protects property owners from municipalities unreasonably limiting their property rights. Perhaps that's what was intended when the board was created in 1897. Then again, 1897 featured corrupt municipal officials in almost every major city on the continent.

Today, the OMB has become nothing more than an avenue for developers to undermine municipal planners and decision makers (and I say this as a student of Ryerson University's School of Urban and Regional Planning). Further evidence of this fact, and the need to reform the board, can be seen in the story of the Trump Tower to be built at Bay & Adelaide.

Originally proposed at 70 stories, a classmate of mine told me a few months ago that the tower would be losing 13 stories. According to the Trump officials, it is because of poor sales. According to my classmate, it was actually a strategy used by Trump before where a super-tall is proposed to build hype, while always intending to scale when units are sold. Either way, the city approved the new plan for 57 stories. Then, things took a turn.

Trump has appealed the decisions to the OMB, claiming that they now need 59 stories to accommodate mechanical equipment. That's right - they appealed the city's ruling (which they won), because of an engineering oversight.

So apparently, you don't need to cross your T's and dot you I's when applying for a building permit. You just need to get your kid to sketch a building on construction paper with crayons, throw it at the municipality in a crumpled ball, then appeal to the OMB when they laugh you out of city hall.

The Ontario Municipal Board must be reformed.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Brewery prepard to fund Roundhouse rail museum - Toronto Star

Brewery prepared to fund Roundhouse rail museum
Steam Whistle's $10 million proposal brushes up against plan for Leon's store
July 17, 2007
Dana Flavelle
Jen Gerson
staff reporters

The fight over Toronto's historic Roundhouse is far from over, according to the building's only commercial tenant and at least one Toronto city councillor.

Steam Whistle Brewing, which already occupies roughly a third of the building, said yesterday it's willing to put $10 million toward the cost of converting the rest of the city-owned Roundhouse to a railway museum.

The brewery has the support of Toronto city councillor Adam Vaughan, who has a motion before council this week that would disrupt a private leasing firm's plans to devote part of the 80-year-old building to a Leon's furniture store.

"This has nothing to do with Leon's," Vaughan said during yesterday's city council meeting. "It's the way we handle stewardship of this historic building... It's not a good way to deal with heritage buildings, to commoditize them and hand them out as rentals."

The leasing firm, State Building Corp., says it's too late.

"A valid lease has been signed," State Building vice-president Michael Clark said in an interview yesterday. "It's a signed deal between the city and us and between us and Leon's."

The issue is expected to come to a head in the next day or two when Vaughan plans to move a motion calling for a temporary halt to State Building's plans while city staff review Steam Whistle's proposal.

Steam Whistle says its plan would see 10 of the 32 "bays" that compromise the John St. Roundhouse developed as an operating railway museum, a vision the brewer has had since first openings it doors there in 2000.

State Building, a developer of high-rise condos, subdivisions and office buildings, says its proposal with Leon's also includes a railway museum.

Clark declined to say how much money his company is prepared to spend on the project, later adding "it would be more than $10 million, considering the rent and the money spent on restoration."

Leon's has said its agreement with State gives it 40,000 square feet of space for a furniture store.

That's nearly half the building.

The dispute has a long history, dating back to the turn of the millennium when the snappy little brewery opened its doors in the then-derelict building, taking over nearly a third.

Built by CN Rail in 1929, the semi-circular building served the steam passenger locomotives at Toronto's nearby Union Station. City council declared it a National Historic Site in 1996.

But the building has remained largely vacant since then.

The brewery says it has been trying since 2002 to persuade city hall to allow it to take over the rest of the Roundhouse, with the goal of developing part of it as a railway museum. At the time, the city expressed doubts about the new brewery's ability to finance the museum, Steam Whistle's president Cam Heaps said yesterday.

In the meantime, the city accepted a plan that would have seen Headline Sports develop a Live Interactive Sport Broadcasting facility in the Roundhouse.

Heaps said yesterday that struck him as a good use of the building because it would have helped draw more tourists to the area. The Roundhouse lies in the shadow of the CN Tower, not far from the Air Canada Centre, and other major attractions.

But Headline Sports abandoned the project before it got off the ground, leaving its partners, O&Y and Tenen Developing, scrambling to find another tenant without success. About 18 months ago, State Buildings Corp. arranged with O&Y and Tenen to take over development of the Roundhouse.

Some retail consultants have suggested Heaps may have another reason for objecting to Leon's.

"It doesn't really help their business. It doesn't generate frequent, repeat visitors," said Richard Talbot, of Talbot Consultants International Inc., in Markham.

But Heaps pointed out that direct sales to Roundhouse visitors account for less than 1 per cent of his company's annual revenue. The brewery is now a successful, mature business, he said, able to help build and operate a railway museum.

Steam Whistle's revenue, which is growing 30 per cent a year, hit $17 million, he said. Most of the craft brewer's sales are though retailers in Ontario and Alberta.
Many people believe that the private sector can run many city services much more efficiently than government workers. I don't trust the private sector, because, as they've demonstrated, finding tenants to make money is more important to shareholders than preserving our heritage. I may be over-simplifying the situation, but public-private partnerships are not partnerships - they are more like a gold-digger praying on an old man with lots of money.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The great Toronto streetcar debate - Toronto Star

The great Toronto streetcar debate
We like to say we love our streetcars, but we never seem to give them pride of place on our roads. Like it or not, that may be about to change
July 15, 2007
Murray Whyte
Toronto Star

A sharp clang rings out on Dundas St. as the worker in the sweaty hard hat swings his iron mallet at the massive metal claw again, again and again.

Thick brown fluid oozes from a rusty joint and dribbles onto a mound of dusty concrete boulders, piled on what was left of Dundas St. here, west of Ossington Ave.

From behind temporary metal barricades, a small crowd had assembled to survey the scene: four city workers tending roughly to the wounded paw of a hobbled backhoe, its roadbed-tearing tasks unexpectedly done for the day.

One man takes a final draw on his cigarette. "Streetcars," he says, tossing the glowing butt into the rubble before shuffling away. "Waste of time."

Careful, now. In a city with few sacred cows, the Red Rocket occupies a particularly exalted place – even when it's been crippled by torn-up tracks in dire need of replacement, like here on Dundas.

"Nobody runs around saying they love the streetcar, until you try to touch them," says TTC spokesperson Marilyn Bolton.

"Then, look out."

Indeed, since it was rescued from certain death in the early 1970s by a dogged citizen movement, the streetcar, like the CN Tower or the Gardiner Expressway, has become one of our few enduring, if not universally loved, urban icons. It's fair to say no one ever got misty-eyed about a bus. But rumbling quietly along city streets, the streetcar represents, for many, a more civilized mode of in-city travel – the romance of the railway, urban-style.

"There's just something about riding the rails," says TTC chair Adam Giambrone.

But it's not all about the charm. Streetcars move more people than buses, last longer (as much as three times longer, up to 40 years), and, thanks to the system's web of overhead electric wires, run cleanly and exhaust-free. TTC statistics show that the Dufferin bus, the city's heaviest-volume bus, carries slightly more than 30,000 people per day; the King streetcar moves almost 50,000.

"The average car in Toronto carries 1.1 people," Giambrone says. "A streetcar displaces 130 cars. We're all citizens. If you assign everyone one value point, that streetcar takes priority."

All that has convinced the TTC commissioner that the future belongs to streetcars and their ilk. The city is shopping around for a fleet of new streetcars, 204 in all, at about $3 million each. Giambrone's long-term plan is a massive commitment to streetcars and light rail, in both the city's core and the distant points surrounding it.

But as the eight-months-long track replacement along Dundas St. (it started in March) shows, love can be hard sometimes.

Track maintenance is extravagant, inconvenient and painful. The Dundas reconstruction, from Howard Park Ave. in the west all the way to Broadview Ave. in the east, is the last in a series of such makeovers since the mid-'90s – tracks on King, Queen and College Sts. were all replaced in recent years. The cost of the Dundas project alone to the cash-strapped TTC: $45 million.

As the reconstruction continues in increments of several blocks, it crimps business along the busy commercial strip (by "25 per cent," guesses Maria Da Silva, the manager of Caldense Bakery at Dundas and Grove Ave., estimating the hit since construction began), clots up other important east-west arteries with overflow traffic, and coats nearby neighbourhoods in a thin layer of fine, white concrete dust.

And even when they are running, streetcars have their enemies. Drivers hate the way they create bottlenecks on major arterials, loading and unloading slowly, their open doors holding back traffic.

For passengers, they can be slow and rigid. Anything in their path – an illegally parked car, construction, an accident – stops them dead, because, of course, they can't go around. The service is unreliable: A petition is currently circulating on Queen St. E., decrying a frequency that, on paper, is promised every six minutes but sometimes stretches out to half an hour or more.

"The service is so bad, we had to do something," says Renee Knight, the petition's creator. "Don't get me wrong – I love the streetcar. This is the only way we can tell the TTC, and the city: `Hey, we care about this. We really care.'"

It's been a long time since Torontonians showed a mass outpouring of love for their streetcar system – at least since activists campaigned for its survival back in 1971.

And it will take a lot of care to restore it to its former glory. Our streetcar system ran on 48 streets in the 1940s. Now it has just 11 routes. As the sales pitch on the transfer slip for the Coxwell streetcar, now defunct, once read, circa World War II, "Your goodwill and support do promote good service."

"Streetcars are staying," read the headline in this newspaper on June 9, 1971. And Sam Cass was fuming. Less than a week before, Cass, the Metro Toronto traffic commissioner, had watched as city council let his dream die: the Spadina Expressway, which would have cleaved the Annex in two with six lanes of onrushing – or, more likely, gridlocked – cars, spiriting drivers from the outer suburbs into downtown and back.

And now this. Transit had long been an irritant for Cass, who loathed the streetcar system because it blocked his downtown traffic initiatives, like one-way streets. "No-one has found a way to get the motorist out of his car," Cass had grumpily professed in the mid-'60s, just as the Bloor subway line was being built. He told a reporter that the city's $136-million commitment to the service was "building ourselves into a box."

Despite Cass's protestations, a few decades on Toronto's contentious decision to keep its streetcars seems prescient, indeed. In Canada, it's the only streetcar system left – a shame, given the current thinking. "There is overwhelming support continent-wide for rejuvenating our heritage streetcar systems," says Amer Shalaby, a University of Toronto public transit expert.

With all of this, a very old circle is finally closing: The streetcar, abandoned as an anachronism years ago, is now seen as the transit mode of the future, along with its modern-day progeny, light-rail transit.

Charlotte, Tampa, Dallas, San Diego, Portland, Memphis, Los Angeles and Minneapolis are only a few of the North American cities re-embracing the streetcar. In Europe, where people have been better at embracing transit than car-crazy North Americans, streetcars never died.

Forty per cent of European commuters take transit, whereas in Toronto, the figure is only 18 per cent, yet it still stands as one of the highest on this continent.

Last year, total streetcar ridership here went up by 10 million, to 52 million-plus. And this year, the federal, provincial and civic governments have promised $6.1 billion to the building of 120 kilometres of new light-rail lines in Toronto by 2021, linking distant suburbs and the airport to the city centre (the Feds have agreed in theory, but have yet to write the cheque). When all the new lines are open, they'll carry an additional 175 million people per year.

While the new trains are not exactly streetcars, they'll function how streetcars are meant to: on their own, dedicated rights-of-way.

The systems have not been without their critics, most prominent among them the late John Kain, a Harvard economist who in 1965 co-authored one of the most influential modern tomes on public transit, The Urban Transportation Problem, a study that famously attacked rail transit's economic practicality.

Dubbed "the rail-basher's bible" by those in the field, Kain's stance didn't soften in the intervening decades. "With few exceptions," Kain wrote in a study for the Brookings Institute in 1999, "academic studies of the cost-effectiveness of alternative modes of transportation have found that some form of express bus system ... would have lower costs and higher performance than either light or heavy rail systems in nearly all, if not all, U.S. cities."

Kain would have supporters on St. Clair Ave. Witness the great hue and cry there recently, where a vociferous gang of local merchants pushed back hard when told their street would sacrifice a parking lane for a dedicated streetcar right-of-way. "They thought, `This will destroy the area,'" recalls local merchant Gino Cucchi.

Cucchi, who came to Canada in 1958 and started the menswear shop Gino Fashion, has watched St. Clair flourish, and then, as suburban malls became a retail force, make a long, slow decline.

As vice-chair of the area's Business Improvement Association, Cucchi took it upon himself to advocate for the streetcar right-of-way in the neighbourhood. "The idea, for me, was to keep the customers here, not send them to Yorkdale Mall," he says.

The best way to do that, he believes, is with fast, reliable transit. "In a year, St. Clair will be beautiful, clean, alive again, and it will be because of the streetcar."

He can steer them to Spadina Ave., where opposition to the streetcar right-of-way began in 1973, when it was first tabled, and remained entrenched until it opened in 1997, and proved all the opponents gloriously wrong.

"The loss of parking was fought tooth and nail," recalls Steve Munro, who runs a website,, devoted to transit issues. "The theory being that, without parking, Spadina's commercial aspect would wither away to nothing. But look at the number of people on Spadina every day, shopping. They didn't get there by driving."

Munro, 58, was one of the activists who saved Toronto streetcars from certain death in 1971. Though he's never worked for the transit commission – he's a technology services manager with the Toronto District School Board – he speaks about it with a degree of ownership. He refers to transit initiatives as "we" – "We already run a streetcar on King every two minutes, at least on the schedule" – and recently drafted a paper on how that King car, besieged by burgeoning ridership from rapid west-end development, ought to function, which the TTC is reviewing. "Transit City," the name of the TTC's rail plan for 2021, was Munro's phrase.

He knows the system has fallen a long way from its apex. "There was a real sense then of people – I wouldn't quite say loving the streetcar, but being very fond of them," he says.

"These days, the feedback I get on my site from people who hate streetcars has nothing to do with the streetcars themselves. It's that it represents, for a lot of people, crappy, crowded, unreliable service."

Before the city renewed its commitment to streetcars in the mid-'90s, the service was shedding routes, cars and ridership while the tracks deteriorated in shoddy, short-term concrete beds.

Since then, the TTC has been playing catch-up. Replacing ailing track beds, patched in the '80s on the cheap, and running the lines – badly, most say – on a near-impossible budget has cost the city not just millions of dollars, but the confidence of riders. And Giambrone knows it will be a chore to earn it back.

"`Do something about King!' – I hear that all the time," he says. "Well, what do you want me to do about it? If I add another streetcar, it just gets eaten up in traffic."

Giambrone knows a way to stop that from happening: giving all streetcars their own right of way, like on Spadina, but also giving operators the power to change the traffic lights in their favour.

In other words, in Giambrone's world, if you drive, you can wait. "That's what being a `Transit City' is all about," he says. "This is why we have to advance the debate."

To that end, an experiment: Giambrone green-lighted a temporary right-of-way on King St. later this year between Yonge St. and University Ave., wiping away taxi lanes and street parking – for a few weeks, at least. "People will see that the world doesn't end," he says. "And then we'll talk about expanding it."

Speaking of world endings, back amid the rubble on Dundas St., Binh Tran, owner of Kim Jewellers, regarded the proceedings with a shrug. "What can you do?" he said. "It's bad for business, sure. It's bad for everybody. But it's not like they do it every year. We just hope they do it quickly. When it's over, we'll be fine."

Tran cited the gain, for all the pain: less pollution, more eyes on the street. "People can see the businesses as they pass and, maybe next time, they'll stop and buy something. We need the streetcar. I really believe it helps keep us alive."

Endnote: streetcars

In researching this story about Toronto streetcars, I came across an old radio clip in the CBC's online archives. On Sept. 15, 1955, Mayor George Edward Sharpe of Winnipeg delivered an address to Winnipeggers as he accepted the city transit commission's proposal to retire the city's streetcar system in favour of diesel buses.
"I know I speak for all citizens when we wave goodbye to this final streetcar that we know another big step has been taken in the progress of our city," he said. He wouldn't live long enough to be proven wrong – he died in 1985 – but I can assure you he would have accepted it graciously.

I say this with some certainty because George Sharpe was my grandfather, and a kinder, more humane person you could scarcely imagine. He, like so many municipal leaders of the time, chose to do away with the streetcar system because he sincerely believed it was not the better way.

That belief has, of course, been proven wrong-headed by the enduring efficiency of streetcar systems in Europe and the more recent re-implementation of modern streetcar systems across North America.

And there's a poetry to it, really, as the circle closes – this old form, abandoned long ago as archaic, resurging as the wave of the future. It's a poetry I know he'd appreciate, were he here to see it.

To listen to the clip, go to type "Sharpe" and "streetcar" in the search window.
Like the CN Tower, the islands and multi-culturalism, the streetcar is an icon that Toronto is better for having. May they ply our streets for decades to come.


Time to switch to head tax - Brampton Guardian

Time to switch to head tax Time to switch to head tax
Thursday July 12 2007

In the July 11 edition of The Brampton Guardian, Don Joshua and John Rossetti both complain about neverending property tax increases.

I know how they feel because in the 18 years I've lived in Brampton, I've never seen anything but a higher property tax rate every year, be it two per cent or six per cent.

There is a very simple solution to this intolerable situation, however, it requires our spineless provincial government to make a decision that is fair, but politically unpopular amongst their most fervent supporters.

The provincial Liberals would never take a stand on an issue like this, and even if they did, our local politicians would be too terrified to support it. What we need is a head tax, not a property tax. What does that mean?

It means homeowners pay taxes based upon the number of people living in a residence, rather than the supposed value of that residence. Think about it: if you have two people living in a home why should they pay an extra percentage every year even if they're consuming the same quantity of services? If you have four people living in a home one year, but eight the next year (for whatever reason), why shouldn't your taxes double?

You're using twice the amount of services, so why not pay twice the taxes?

Isn't that 'democratic'? Isn't that 'just'?

Of course this was the suggestion that doomed Margaret Thatcher's term as Prime Minister of Great Britain. However, that does not mean it isn't fair.

I am fully employed and I can 'afford' the irrational tax increases to which I am exposed, but why should a 75 year old widow who can hardly get by on a fixed income be forced to pay for the increasing pressures put upon our infrastructure by seemingly unlimited population increases and new development? I believe this notion could improve Brampton immeasurably, what do you think?

Ian McVay, Brampton

Some readers may consider what I am about to say as being a racist opinion. As a member of a visible minority group, I believe I see this issue from a point of view which is more sensitive to racial issues than the average person. I will not entertain comments and accusations that I am a racist.

Continue reading at your own risk.

Most taxes are fair. Income taxes are calculated based on the amount of money you make - those who have lower-paying jobs pay less than those with high-paying jobs. The more you consume, the more you pay in sales tax. The more you drive, the more you pay in gas tax. If you count municipal services, the more water, gas and electricity you use, the more you pay. Even transit is fair. In general, the longer you have to travel, the more you pay. However, property taxes are less-than-fair. As the article points out, it is mainly external factors that dictate how much you pay for property taxes. A quiet neighborhood with small, inexpensive housing might experience a real-estate boom, and suddenly property values jump, taking property taxes with them, sometimes out of the range of what residents can afford.

It is not only the resident who gets the short straw if property taxes are calculated based on property values. Although there exist maximum occupancy laws, there is little enforcement. Effectively, there is nothing stopping a family of eight from residing in a home designed for four. This is a drain on the municipal services, because the house is assessed and taxed for the family of four - effectively, the extra four people are receiving municipal services for free. For this very reason, you cannot fund a city on property taxes alone.

Here's the part of this blog post that may seem controversial:
In many cultures, it is customary to have large families and to have those large families (often several generations) live in one house. An argument can be made that this is a lifestyle choice. We live in a country, where for the most part, an adult has a choice when it comes to participating in a group and its traditions. For example, I am a member of a visible minority group, but my choice in lifestyle (including the music I listen to, the friends I keep, the ways I spend my spare time) is not defined by that group. Because of this belief, I place the choice in having large families on par with the choice between living downtown or in the suburbs; between driving an SUV or a small car; between driving everywhere and taking transit. I'm not saying that having large families is a bad thing - I'm saying that for a society to work, everyone must contribute their fair share.

This idea is a political non-starter, mainly because there is a significant number of people who (either due to individual choice or cultural value) have large families and would pay more taxes. However, I'm glad that others are voicing their opinions and encouraging public debate on the subject.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Street Meats & Eats

Sometimes it takes a really stupid comment for me to weigh in onto an issue that I would otherwise let pass by.

I am in favour of more diverse foods being sold from street venders, as the province is now allowing, as long as the food safety can be guaranteed.

To the lady who called in to City News' phone-in show, City Online:
  • Just because you can't walk and eat a salad at the same time doesn't mean I shouldn't be permitted to.
To the other lady who called in to City Online:
  • Just because they introduce new foods doesn't mean they won't take hot dogs off the menu. Your beloved capitalism will ensure you still get your fix of street meat.
To the gentleman who called in to City Online:
  • You asked about how vendors would handle money and food at the same time. Obviously, they manage to do this now, so what's the problem?
I don't mean to sound arrogant, but almost every criticism to the new rules that I have heard can be addressed by simple common sense.


Thursday, July 05, 2007

OC Transpo: a capital experience

I believe every Canadian should spend at least one Canada Day in Ottawa. This past weekend, I accomplished it along side my closest friends, who truly made the trip memorable.

My day began on Saturday morning at 6:00 AM at the Metro Toronto Coach Terminal. The 6:45 Greyhound departure was oversold, but we managed to get onto an advanced departure. A Voyageur (partially owned by Paul Martin, under contract to Greyhound) MCI D4500 was our coach, and departed closer to 6:30. Our route was the 401 to Belleville, highway 37 through Tweed to Highway 7. Our rest stop was at a small place named The Log Cabin Restaurant in a community named Actinolite (named after the mineral mined nearby, which you might know by its less P.R. friendly name, Asbestos).

Our coach is in the near right, with the second section behind us and a Toronto bound coach on the left. Being a Greyhound agency, this restaurant was able to handle the snack, drink and washroom needs of the coordinated arrival of 165 passengers within 20 minutes. Soon, we were back on our way east on Highway 7, through Perth and Carlton Place before signs of Ottawa's rural annexations came into view. The final leg of the trip along the 417 was smooth, and we pulled into the Ottawa Bus Central station early. Liz, our host for the weekend, picked us up and shuttled us to her apartment in what I can best describe as midtown Ottawa, just across the street from the Transitway station.

More on the Transitway later, but it being Ottawa's rapid transit system, an apartment that close would be coveted and expensive if in Toronto. The first stop on the day was the ByWard Market, an open air market and tourist destination. The Chateau Laurier was next, followed by the Parliament building, where due to Liz and her boyfriend Ben's connections to the government, we got a VIP tour. I had been to Parliament years ago, but never when velvet ropes and pedestrian barriers did not apply to me. At one point, security guards chased us down for entering off-limits areas, only to excuse themselves upon seeing our credentials. As we left, we heard Grégory Charles and Eva Avila rehearsing for the concert the next day - leading to inside jokes that continue to this day. The rest of the day was spent catching up with Liz and Ben, who we hadn't seen since the winter.

The next day, Canada day, we went back to the market to shop for "knick knacks" and "cheesy Canada Day stuff", ate world famous Beaver Tails, and saw the Renoir exhibit at the National Gallery. As darkness approached, Ben, the Ottawa native, led us to an excellent spot to view the fireworks. As the night went on and the crowd became impatient for the light show, I heard faint singing in the distance. A small group was singing "Oh Canada", and just as they sang the final word, the first explosion of the best fireworks display I had ever seen began. It was a moment, never to be duplicated, where I had never felt more Canadian, and which moves me to tears as I write this. Stranger and friend, child and senior, drunk and sober - we were one nation, one people.

The next day, we ate lunch at a 50's style dinner in an area outside downtown, reminding us that Ottawa is more of a tourist destination. We said goodbye to our friends and were dropped off at the coach terminal, where despite a long lineup and annoyances within the line, we boarded a Voyageur Prevost H3-45 for a trip though Actinolite, Havelock & Peterborough. We arrived at the Metro Toronto Coach Terminal on time, and a quick subway ride to a car lest at Kipling brought us home from an unforgettable vacation.

While in Ottawa, OC Transpo, with its red-and-white "Canada Buses" was out chariot. The backbone of the transit system is the Transitway, a network of transit-only roads and lanes radiating in four directions from the downtown core. Three routes provide the base Transitway service, using D60LF and D40i buses, but many other routes use the Transitway at some point in their journey. This fact can create confusion, as novice riders may board a bus on the Transitway, only to discover it is turning off before their stop.

The stops themselves are either large transit terminals, or concrete structures build under overpasses. Downtown stops, where buses operate in mixed traffic, are often simple shelters. However, I found the stops to be poorly signed, and needed to count the stops from a landmark in order to find my way around. An automatic announcement system is being implemented, and this should help those not immediately familiar with their surroundings. The fare structure is simple, with adults, children and express riders using different quantities of a standard ticket. Though the cash fare is much higher than anywhere in the GTA, the price using tickets or monthly passes is a bargain. A 90-minute transfer is time-stamped and issued with each fare.

My exploring of the OC Transpo network began at Lees station, where Jennifer and I took the 95 Orleans to the Ottawa VIA Rail station. Though build in 1966, it is a federally protected heritage railway station - and I wanted to know why. As soon as I stepped inside, it came to us - it felt like an airport terminal. The 1960s was the waning years of passenger rail travel in Canada, and the Ottawa railway station was designed to give passengers the same feel as if they were flying to their destinations.

We took the 95 Barrhaven, doubled back, and headed downtown. Though usually congested, the downtown, mixed-traffic section was quiet on the holiday Monday, and we cruised through to Bayview station, where we got off to transfer to the O-Train, the pilot project for Ottawa's failed LRT plan. Built on inconveniently-placed but existing railway corridors, using barely-modified equipment from Germany, the O-Train seems out of place in the bus-based network, but it offers an experience not seen elsewhere in the city. The route travels from Greenboro, near the airport, to Bayview, just outside of downtown. The line uses Bombardier Talent DMUs - three-car diesel units designed for regional service in Germany. On the outside, they are sleek and stylish, while the inside features VIVA-style seas and not much else. Automated announcements keep track of the stops (all five of them), and interestingly enough, the doors are controlled by passenger on the inside and on the outside. There are three trains in the fleet, though only two are used to provide the 15 minute weekday service, and none are guaranteed to have women as beautiful as those pictured.

The route was through the forest, and unlike Toronto, we were not subjected to the sights of the back of factories. Aside from a bridge over the Rideau River, a tunnel under the canal, and a few level crossings of road and rail, the line was mostly trees and stations. The only sign of a city was passing through Carlton University. Though only a fifteen minute trip to Greenboro, it was relaxing. At the terminus, we boarded a 97 Bayshore for the trip back up to Lees. The longest stretch of Transitway proper we experienced, it was fast and felt fast, allowing us to enjoy the scenery.

It is doubtful that buses in reserved lanes on city streets can ever reach speeds that Transitway buses reach, but Ottawa's experience is clear. BRT is not a poor-man's rapid transit. It is a viable solution to the problems of gridlock that plague cities across the world, and I commend them for their foresight in constructing the network. Though Toronto is my home, I'm glad to know that there are other cities in Ontario where transit is just as fast and frequent.

So here's to our nation's capital - a city where friends, festivals, "Canada buses" and unforgettable memories (including the Bye-Bye Kid, Dionne turning heads, Parliament security, the "cat" colony, and Liz being Liz) come together to make something beautiful.

...and the fish-hat, which I regret not buying...

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Transport Canada willing to consider task force proposal to share rail lines - Ottawa Business Journal

Transport Canada willing to consider task force proposal to share rail lines
By Roman Zakaluzny, Ottawa Business Journal Staff
Wed, Jul 4, 2007 3:00 PM EST

So far, it's full steam ahead for an idea that could result in millions of dollars in savings if Ottawa proceeds with its light rail project.

The mayor's transportation task force reviewed shared railway operations in jurisdictions other than Ottawa, including San Diego and New Jersey in their research to answer just that, and found them to be practical, cost-efficient and safe.

"Even in Ottawa, diesel freight trains operate on the southern portion of the O-Train line with a minimal but safe time separation from LRT trains," the report read.

"Task force consultations with Transport Canada railway safety officials were fruitful, and indicate that there should be no regulatory impediment to mixing freight and light-rail passenger trains."

So who would be sharing lines with an expanded Capital Railway (or O-Train) network? A mix of private companies and former Crown corporations, it turns out, including Canadian Pacific Railway (CP), Canadian National Railway Company (CN), VIA Rail, and a small local short line operator, the Ottawa Central Railway Inc. (OCR).

Transport Canada, which oversees rail operations from coast to coast, doesn't see a problem with track sharing, said Mike Coghlan, the department's director of engineering at its rail safety branch, as long as safety rules are followed and some differences are ironed out.

"There may be some issue with running light rail equipment with heavy equipment," he said.

"That would have to be evaluated, depending on what the proposal was . . . For example, (in) a collision between a (light) rail car with something that is much, much larger, the damage could be substantial."

Differences would have to be sorted out to Transport Canada's liking, he said, which follows the standards of the Association of American Railroads.

Mr. Coghlan said Transport Canada requires two-man crews for every train, one for backup in case something were to happen to the principal operator. Light rail O-Trains, however, use one-person crews, combined with a system of signalling switches, to bring a train to a stop should something happen to the operator.

One of the longest proposed train arteries in the plan is the proposed east-west "cross-city corridor," from Arnprior (and Carleton Place) to Cumberland, running past a number of hub stations in Ottawa for downtown connections.

To be built in stages over a few decades, it will necessitate ligh-rail travel on rails owned by at least three different firms.

Besides OCR, which said it is in favour of sharing track, the separate parts of the corridor are owned by CN and VIA.

CN communications director Mark Hallman said he could not speculate on track sharing arrangements before Capital Railway issued a formal request.

"We don't have a firm proposal that has been endorsed or produced or sanctioned by council," he said. "If we were to get one . . . we would certainly take a look at it."

Besides the east-west corridor, the majority of track in Ottawa is jointly owned by CN and CP, he said. "That extends from a junction in the east end at Hawthorne (Road), running through the VIA station, all the way to a point just west of (Fallowfield). However, CN manages and dispatches the trackage in this area on behalf of the partnership."

But while those two big companies own most of it, only two firms actually run trains through town: OCR and VIA.

VIA trains arrive from Montreal and Toronto five times daily, and depart for both cities five times daily.

Catherine Kaloutsky, senior officer of media and corporate communications for VIA, said that while the tracks through town belong to CN, the tracks going on to Cumberland are its own, and that it would study a sharing option if one were proposed.

"VIA Rail is open to looking at requests regarding regional rail service," she said in an e-mail. "Naturally we would have to ensure that VIA's intercity passenger rail services were protected."
As the name suggests, light rail vehicles are much lighter than regular railway equipment. The safety concerns are genuine, but I do believe that the success of the O-Train has proved that mainline railway trains and light rail vehicles can co-exist. If the federal government does nothing else for transit, at least let cities save money by using existing railway corridors for fast and frequent transit services.

Special thanks to Stephen Rees for this story. A review of Ottawa's transit system is coming soon.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The heritage of the city

I don't need to write a long post about this issue, but it must be made clear.

Business interest are destroying the heritage of this city.
  • Sam the Record Man - City council has to step in to save the sign from being auctioned off to whomever bid highest.
  • The Rogers Centre - Didn't the taxpayers build that stadium? Where was the public debate in its new name?
  • The building formerly known as the Hummingbird Centre - Another public building with naming rights sold without public debate.
  • The John Street Roundhouse - a vintage 1948 locomotive must be moved or scrapped to make way for a furniture store.
  • Walnut Hall - demolition by neglect, a condo tower to follow.
  • CHUM CITY Building - The new owners are removing every last vestige of the previous tenants, including the famous news truck on the wall.
There need not be any more losses of heritage structures. I propose legislation to give the city the power to declare certain structures as tourist attractions which cannot change names unless approved by council in public debate. I only hope we don't see something horrible before we are moved to action.