From today's Citizen:
Stop this runaway train going south
Randall Denley, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Thursday, September 18, 2008
Federal election candidates have been quick to criticize Ottawa's new transit plan. The opportunity to echo what ill-informed people are telling them must be irresistible, but the politicians couldn't be more off base.
The real problem is not that light rail might run along the Ottawa River Parkway or that it won't go to the far reaches of the suburbs, as candidates have said. The big deficiency in this transit plan is that staff are pushing councillors to extend rail south, just the kind of approach that voters rejected in the last municipal election. Look closely at the city's own numbers and you will see that the east-west rail line that voters favour is strongly supported by the facts.
Buried deep on the city's website are all the numbers that one needs to make a rational choice, but the city has done nothing to draw attention to them. Federal candidates should check these numbers before they commit themselves to positions they will regret if elected.
City staff favour a plan that would extend rail to Blair Station in the east and lightly-populated Riverside South. It would include a downtown tunnel. The prime competitor is an east-west line that would go from Blair to Baseline station by way of the downtown tunnel. This plan would also serve the south, with an O-Train extension.
The numbers strongly favour the east-west plan. It would attract the most riders, five million a year more than east-south. The extra ridership means a 10-percentage-point increase in the amount of total transit cost borne by riders. The east-south line gives just five per cent. That's important because it reduces the operating subsidy for the transit system each and every year. The east-west line would carry 25 per cent of all passengers, while the other line would carry only 13 per cent.
East-west has a 50-per-cent lower capital cost per passenger kilometre. It also generates $90 million a year in operating cost savings because it takes more buses off the street. The east-west plan would remove 90 per cent of buses from Albert and Slater streets, twice as much as east-south.
Environmentally, east-west wins hands down. Because it relies more on electric rail, it produces nearly 50 per cent more greenhouse gas reductions. The east-west line also fits within the city's goal of delivering the high-cost rail service inside the Greenbelt, where most of the riders live. That plan would put 86 per cent of new transit infrastructure inside the belt, versus only 48 per cent for east-south.
Given all of that, one would have to ask why staff want to start with the southern route and delay the western leg for another decade. The answer is simply because they can build it now. Most of the studies required are done and the city could gratify those who want instant action.
Deputy city manager Nancy Schepers admits that the southern extension is the "lowest volume line," and calls going against the inside-the-Greenbelt philosophy "an anomaly." What Schepers is really doing is thinking like a politician and trying to please the crowd instead of making a rational recommendation.
The city is also concerned because there is not yet an agreement with the National Capital Commission to permit rail to use 3.5 kilometres of the Ottawa River Parkway. The parkway plan was roundly condemned by all three major Ottawa Centre candidates, who can enjoy the luxury of opposing the western extension and still getting rail in their riding.
To listen to politicians talk, one would think the parkway was a virgin forest. Have they noticed that it's a four-lane road loaded with buses? Switching to trains would eliminate the buses and improve the parkway. The proper way to do it would be to take two of the car lanes and devote them to transit. That would reduce the existing traffic volume on the parkway even more.
The NCC, quite rightly, wants to be persuaded that its property is the best route for a rail line west. That doesn't mean the argument can't be made, and won. The idea that this wrinkle means that people in the west shouldn't get rail until the second decade of the plan is absurd. That's what federal candidates in the west should be talking about.
The east-west line is the top choice in ridership, cost effectiveness, benefit to customers, benefit to the environment, reducing downtown congestion and supporting a compact city. The only areas where it runs second are ease of implementation and conformity to council's confusing transit guidance.
The fact that Ottawa's new transit plan is out for public consultation in the middle of a federal election is rather unfortunate. It invites even more politicians to sound off about a project that has always suffered from an excess of political thinking and a shortage of rational examination. See the facts for yourself at http://www.ottawa.ca/residents/publi.../transit/phase
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Contact Randall Denley at 613-596-3756 or by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
© The Ottawa Citizen 2008