Opinion: Ottawa's transit strategy has gone off the rails

Politicians – especially local politicians – are a shortsighted, blinkered bunch. That’s the best explanation for the near-complete failure of city politicians to deal with Ottawa’s growing transportation woes in recent decades.

Will it be any different with the new city council? I doubt it. No member of the new council – certainly not new mayor Jim Watson – has shown much vision in how to solve transportation problems that have escalated with Ottawa’s population growth.

Ottawa councillors, old and new alike, appear to be pinning their hopes on a new light-rail system that should ease traffic congestion downtown, yet will be of limited benefit to suburbanites.

Light rail is a newfangled word for streetcars, which the city scrapped in 1959 because they were uneconomical to run and did not serve people living in new neighbourhoods with no streetcar lines.

Even if light rail is built as fast as proponents hope, there will be less service in the city by 2031 than was enjoyed by streetcar users more than a hundred years ago.

The Ottawa streetcar system was in its heyday in 1929, I discovered on a recent visit to the Ottawa Room of the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library.

In those days, streetcars served every part of the city – from Britannia in the west to Rockcliffe Park and Main Street in the east, to Sunnyside Avenue and the Central Experimental Farm in the south, and almost every point in between.

By 2031, if things go according to plan, Ottawa will have one light rail line extending from Baseline Station on Woodroffe Avenue in the west to Blair Road in the east, and another from just west of LeBreton Flats to the new community of Riverside South, near the Ottawa airport.

Ottawa’s three most heavily populated new suburbs – Barrhaven, Kanata and Orleans – will have no light-rail service by 2031.

And, as far as I know, there are no plans to extend light rail to these neighbourhoods.

Some Ottawa editorialists decry what they call “urban sprawl” – a loaded term that, in the Ottawa context, appears to mean any new housing outside the Greenbelt.

The term is used callously when applied to vast new neighbourhoods in Barrhaven, Kanata and Orleans, where homes are squeezed together as tightly as possible, and where backyards are often smaller than those of older homes inside the Greenbelt.

Many homeowners outside the Greenbelt are fortunate to have good jobs, but cannot afford the $600,000 or more that it costs to live in the Glebe, Westboro or other high-priced neighbourhoods inside the Greenbelt.

Will these suburban neighbourhoods outside the Greenbelt be better served by public transit, once light-rail starts operating? Can pigs fly?

The city plans to launch light rail in 2019. Trains would then run from Tunney’s Pasture, west of downtown, through a downtown tunnel and out to Blair Road, in the near east end. The cost of that very limited light-rail service, extending about 12.5 kilometres, is estimated to be $2.1 billion.

It makes no difference that the federal and Ontario governments have agreed to put up a big chunk of that money. The cash will all come out of the pockets of Ottawa taxpayers. I figure it will cost us about $2,000 each.

And that’s only the first stage of light rail. By 2031, if the line is extended west to Woodroffe Avenue, and if the existing O-Train line is converted to light rail and extended to Riverside South, the cost will be much higher.

I live in the Kanata neighbourhood of Bridlewood. If I had a job downtown, I could board an express bus within a five-minute walk of my house that would take me all the way there. I’d have two routes to choose from – the 61 and the 66 – with buses running at about six-minute intervals in the morning and evening rush hours. That’s wonderful service (though the buses are often crowded, and standing room only is the norm).

It seems inevitable that express-bus service will be less frequent and less convenient once light rail begins. Perhaps there will be express-shuttle buses to the nearest light rail station. From Kanata, that would mean a bus ride most of the way downtown, and then boarding a streetcar (excuse me, train) at Tunney’s Pasture. Honey, where’s the car keys?

Ottawa needs an integrated transportation strategy. It doesn’t seem to have one. If it does, it’s a joke, and the blame is shared by Ottawa councils over the years, and by us, the electorate, who should be demanding such a strategy.

Larry O’Brien, in a late, vain bid to hang on to his job as mayor, suggested during the recent election campaign that we should build a ring road around the southern fringe of the city, to ease traffic congestion downtown. It seemed to be a poorly thought out idea. In any case, why had he not pushed for such a city bypass during his term as mayor?

The naysayers sneered at the thought of a ring road, or city bypass. It would just encourage urban sprawl, they said.

But, actually, we already have a highway partially around the city. Two of them, in fact. One is the 416. The other is the 417, running south from the split until it veers east towards Montreal.

Sooner or later, Ottawa council will figure out that a highway link between the 416 and 417 – crossing the Rideau River near Manotick – would be the best way to get through traffic out of the city.

City politicians also seem to be taking a do-nothing approach to truck traffic through the heart of Ottawa, en route to and from Quebec. They have left the National Capital Commission, a federal government agency, to study where a new bridge across the Ottawa River might be built.

The NCC won’t make a recommendation for at least another three years. In the meantime, will the new city council do anything to speed the day when one – or preferably two – new bridges are built over the Ottawa River, so that we can get inter-provincial truck traffic out of downtown? On past form, it’s doubtful.

What a mess. Will someone on the new council prove me wrong by making it easier to get around in this city?