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From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Here's what's wrong with city hall
CLIVE DOUCET

It took Colonel John By six years to build the Rideau Canal from Ottawa to Kingston. It has taken the City of Ottawa six years just to plan its new north-south rail line. Those six years included 55 separate votes of City Council, a tripartite contribution agreement with the federal and provincial governments, a successful international competition, the contract signed, construction ready to begin -- and then the whole thing fell apart. Not building it will now cost the city more than building it would have.

If you're looking for what's wrong with Canadian cities at the beginning of the 21st century, you don't need to look further than Ottawa's light-rail project.

It was an audacious plan, a 30-kilometre line running from the most distant suburbs to the heart of the city. Like Colonel By's series of canals, dams and bridges, it was cobbled together on hopes and dreams as much as money. Using an old rail line that dated back almost as far as Colonel By, the project began with a pilot project by converting a little-used freight line that had some extraordinary infrastructure still intact -- a tunnel under Dow's Lake, a long deep rock cut, bridges across rivers and creeks, and all of it out of sight but close to the centre of the city. The pilot project won a national sustainability award; ridership exceeded expectations and the procurement process that resulted in the final contract also won a national award.

What happened? How could a project that the city's master transportation plan, its Official Plan and its clean-air aspirations all depended upon, be stopped by the 56th vote of council?

Colonel By never had to deal with the Canadian federal political system. Ottawa City Council did.

John Baird, the Minister of the Treasury Board, swung into action at the start of this fall's municipal election with a letter saying the federal government's share of the project ($200-million) would not be honoured until the new council also had the chance to vote positively on it. His letter turned a done deal into open season. The project became a media and political feeding frenzy as old arguments were rethreaded into the sound bites of a municipal election.

"Can't fix an east-west problem with a north-south solution." "Get back to diesel." "Save the pilot." "Can't mix streetcars with buses in the downtown -- a tunnel or nothing."

The political supporters of the project were tied up fighting their own elections and we were tired. We had fought though all of these questions many times as we had moved through the various stages of project definition and approvals. The north-south line was chosen because we wanted to grow the south end of the city around light rail, not more roads; because it would slow the commuter dump from the south into our east-west routes headed downtown, and it was doable -- now. East-west had no obvious route and would cost at least twice as much.

None of these arguments gripped the public's attention. The sound bite: "Can't fix east-west with a north-south solution" held in the public's imagination.

Electric light rail was chosen over diesel because it is clean, silent and uplifts land values instead of depressing them as diesel does. We already had several hundred million dollars in construction on the books committed to build over our stations -- $70-million in my ward alone. But the sound bite, "electric is too expensive," held. The weirdest part of the whole story was the "save the pilot" folks, who trumpeted that the success of the pilot was a reason "not to build" the north-south line because the pilot had become too important to close during construction.

The logic of its success was inverted.

But it was Mr. Baird's various interventions that were the coup de grace. Mr. Baird leaked the light-rail contract to the press and accused the incumbent mayor, Bob Chiarelli, of "hiding" behind confidentiality agreements, which he had had no trouble breaking -- so why couldn't the mayor? And that's the way it looked to the public also. The reality was that Mr. Baird had not behaved appropriately. Nor has the new mayor been able to release the contract.

And it just got dirtier and dirtier. The new council also approved the project, but in a separate motion delayed the implementation of the surface link in the downtown until a tunnel study was completed. This created both a federal and provincial caveat; now two to three months of "due diligence" would be required to study the "changed" project. But there was no time left. Twelve councillors versus 11 voted to kill the project. It had all become just too messy.

Cities need issue-based parliaments, not partisan-based parliaments -- that was one of the many things this long experience has taught me; that and a great deal of sympathy for Colonel By who died in disgrace for overspending his budget.

Clive Doucet is a writer and Ottawa City Councillor. His next book, Urban Meltdown, Cities, Climate Change and Politics as Usual, is scheduled for spring publication.
 

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what's wrong is they're scared of putting money into transit in this province and country. of course the people making that decision don't use transit, so it makes sense.
 

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Sounds like a lot of whining to me. I've been to Ottawa and rode their buses (this was around 1999-2000) and they were much better than any other city I had lived in. Came much more often, shorter waiting time. Also Ottawa has some beautiful bike paths. It might not be perfect but it's far better than most cities.
 

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The problem? They cost 2.25 to ride and only come every 30 minutes on this route. :(

If I lived one block away I'd be able to get a bus every 5 minutes, but noooooo, we had to live on OLIVER road. Pffft.
 

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The problem? They cost 2.25 to ride and only come every 30 minutes on this route. :(

If I lived one block away I'd be able to get a bus every 5 minutes, but noooooo, we had to live on OLIVER road. Pffft.
Consider yourself lucky. Our city council had the grand idea that the best way to increase ridership is by making the buses run on time. Rather than realign routes or add more buses though, they decreased the frequency from 30 minutes to 40 minutes on all routes. Now half the buses get back to the terminal after 25 minutes and just sit there and the other half are still late. Plus to add insult to injury they raised the price of fares to $2 even for everyone from 3 and over.
 

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Well here people under 8 can get on free... Evenings and Sundays the routes are on a 40 minute schedule here, though, so I know what you mean when the busses 'sit for 25 minutes'. Route 7 Hudson has a run time of only 24, minutes, so even on the 30 minute schedules it is always the last to leave and the first to get back to the depot. On Evenings, Holidays and Sundays, it waits almost 20 minutes before leaving the terminal, and is always the first back. :p Luckily, I don't take that bus.

My route (11 John) becomes the infamous '11 John - Jumbo Gardens' stretching its run from 27 minutes to almost 40, by bypassing the high school (since its late or a weekend and no one is there) and going around the suburbs instead (Taking over for 3 Memorial - Jumbo Gardens)

Does Pete's bus system have interlining or evening/Sunday schedules?
Or have they spared you? :p It's like torture to have to remember the damn times.
 

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With the decrease from a once per 30 minute schedule to a once per 40 minute schedule they at least threw Sunday service into the mix. Of course, it's 40 minutes no matter what day or time during the day the bus is running, so that's not hard at least.

Actually, if they had gone through with all the changes they had planned for last summer/fall, I wouldn't be complaining nearly as much. They were going to increase some of the busier routes to 20 minute service and keep buses running until 12:40 on weekdays and Saturdays. They never got around to that though.

We don't have interlining here either, but having lived in Thunder Bay for a couple years (I went to LU) I sort of liked it. I never bothered trying to memorize the schedules though. Most of the time I'd have to check the bus schedule before I left, which was probably the reason that I'd often end up late for class...
 

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I am not at all surprised by Ottawa's studies only to cancel it.
I went to Carleton and Ottawa is THE most beaurocratic city I have lived in.............its truly bizzare.
 

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I am not at all surprised by Ottawa's studies only to cancel it.
I went to Carleton and Ottawa is THE most beaurocratic city I have lived in.............its truly bizzare.
... well as with all things in life it's safer for civil servents to do nothing than do something...

Canada is now run on people trying to save their jobs at any cost. And we all pay the price for that.
 
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