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LRT is 377 days late and counting. Now what?

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The only good thing that can be said for the latest Confederation Line delay is that it didn’t shock anyone.

After all, Rideau Transit Group (RTG) has failed to deliver the $2.1-billion light rail system four times now. The LRT was originally due on May 24, 2018. It’s now 377 days late — and counting. 

No really, we are literally counting.

So now what? Here are five takeaways from this week’s disappointing, if not surprising, LRT news.

1. RTG doesn’t know when it will finish

According to the contract, RTG was supposed to give the city a new completion date by May 31.

But the consortium asked for two more weeks to figure it out, according to the city’s general manager of transportation, John Manconi.

Apparently, an extra 14 days will give RTG a better handle on how the train repairs were going. This strategy may be an improvement over RTG’s past behaviour.

In early March, RTG CEO Peter Lauch told councillors the system would be ready by the end of the month — something he must have known then was not remotely possible. 

CBC News Ottawa ‘The vehicles are not ready for prime time’ 00:00 00:52 John Manconi, general manager of OC Transpo, says Rideau Transit Group will not be able to hand the LRT system over to the city by the end of June. 0:52

And last month, RTG told the city it was pretty much done the Confederation Line, even though there were dozens of outstanding issues, including brake valves that need replacing and doors that don’t shut as tightly as they should. Oh, and sometimes the power cuts out, stranding the trains on the track.

While it’s obvious why RTG wants the extra time, it’s unclear why the city agreed to it.

RTG is a consortium of heavy hitters including SNC-Lavalin and ACS Infrastructure, companies that should be able to set a realistic completion date.

If they miss that next deadline, the city deducts $1 million from their payments to RTG — something that has happened twice already. That should be RTG’s concern, not the city’s.

2. The city had no Plan B for delay

It’s neither the city’s nor OC Transpo’s fault that LRT is delayed. The blame for that lies squarely with RTG.

But it’s not clear what the city’s backup plan was for a lengthy delay, which — as city officials, including the mayor, have conceded — is not unusual for a project of this magnitude.

In September 2018, OC Transpo reduced service on some routes in anticipation of a light rail system that was supposed to be completed by November. We know how that turned out.

But most of the bus changes went ahead anyway.

Expect bus delays and cancellations to continue until LRT opens. (CBC)

It’s true that bus schedules are complex beasts that are months in the making, but considering the disruption caused, why was there no contingency plan in case of a likely delay?

Those problematic route changes will have been in place for a year, or possibly more, before the LRT is open to the public.

Further, the city retains an independent assessment team that is supposed to assess the progress on the Confederation Line.

It’s not clear why the city didn’t have a better sense from this team, if not RTG, of the chance of a lengthy delay before it altered those bus routes.

3. Transit pain to worsen

OC Transpo riders have known for some time that their commutes were getting worse by the day. And this winter, Manconi publicly acknowledged that OC Transpo was “not a reliable system.”

Expect that to continue, only worse.

There are record numbers of cancellations on some routes and congestion will increase because the LRT construction is overlapping with major construction projects, such as the Elgin Street upgrade, the Nicolas Street ramp and the Innes Road overpass at Highway 417.

Another segment of Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa closed April 1. The southern end of the Centretown entertainment strip is closed until December. (CBC)

There are currently 77 lanes of traffic closed in Ottawa — as opposed to 33 last year — as well as the Chaudière Bridge.

The city was going spend $5.1 million a year to expand 30 community bus routes, and another $7.8 million to buy 12 more buses.

But those improvements aren’t coming until LRT is operating, and we don’t know when that is.

4. Council to debate a fare rollback

Coun. Diane Deans said she is “done with defending” OC Transpo to residents. “It’s indefensible to continue to charge full fare for sub-par system,” she said Tuesday.

Deans wants to decrease fares temporarily by as much as 30 per cent, a gesture of goodwill to long-suffering OC Transpo riders.

“As a member of council, I need to be able to go and say [to constituents], ‘You know what? We appreciate you, we appreciate you sticking with us,” she said.

Coun. Diane Deans said she’s done with defending OC Transpo’s ‘sub-par’ service and wants to temporarily decrease fares as a token of appreciation for riders. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Before the latest LRT delay, OC Transpo was expecting ridership to total 97.8 million in 2019 — more than three million fewer rides than 2012, when the LRT contract was signed.

But Mayor Jim Watson called the idea of a fare rollback “unrealistic” and said it was “pandering” to the public. He’s all for extending the fare freeze that was supposed to expire July 1, but not a reduction.

Among other things, Watson said that a freeze is affordable, costing a little more than $300,000 a month, while a temporary discount could cost as much as $5 million a month.

Both Watson and Deans say RTG should be charged for the lost revenue from lower fares, although it’s not at all certain RTG will agree to either plan.

Councillors will hash out what to do about fares at their meeting next week.

CBC News Ottawa Fourth delay of LRT system ‘not acceptable,’ mayor says Mayor Jim Watson says he’s called a meeting with the heads of Rideau Transit Group and Alstom to discuss the delays and push for a solution. 0:40

5. Delay to cost tens of millions

At the end of last year, the city treasurer estimated that the LRT delay was costing the city $25 million, but that was assuming it was finished by March 31.

The total will be significantly more once this is all said and done.

Additional costs come from keeping buses on the road longer than planned — as well as paying drivers incentives to stick with OC Transpo — extending bus detours and keeping the O-Train construction office going.

The city plans on sticking RTG with the costs related to the delay. The city still owes almost $260 million for the massive project, and plans to subtract the delay-related costs from that total bill.  

Does RTG know about this plan?

“They know about it,” Manconi said. “Doesn’t mean they are going to agree with it.”

Considering RTG is not taking responsibility for the costs related to the June 2016 sinkhole, it’s likely there will be a lengthy dispute over costs, which could even end up in court.

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Ottawa Book Expo Author Boot Camp: What’s in it For You?

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Would you love to attend a writers’ book camp? If yes, then check out this upcoming boot camp on meetup.com organized in conjunction with the Ottawa Book Expo. The boot camp seeks to boost the commercial success of authors while providing a convivial atmosphere for social networking among authors. There you would learn what you need to do to boost the sale of your book. The goal of the group asides social networking is to empower authors to make money while also saving money.

What’s in it for you?

Whether you are a new writer who hasn’t published any books yetor you are a veteran writer who has been publishing for decades, a writers boot camp could still be extremely beneficial to you in a couple of ways. There, you would get to meet other writers, you would be motivated to start up your book or continue your writing journey. Ways you can benefit from a writers boot camp include:

  • You get to ask questions and have your questions answered.

The book camp is not just a place to make new friends and link up with old ones; you also get to learn new ideas. You could ask questions about any topic on writing and have these questions answered by professionals. You would also get to see other writers ask their questions, and learn from them. Your questionsare more likely to be answered directly by someone who knows their onion in the field.

  • Network with other writers

At the boot camp, you would get to make friends with other writers who would be in attendance. A lot of writers are introverts who would rather not make small talk; however, you have to remember that putting yourself out there, is what’s going to help you sell your books. You could also come along with a business card that has your name, what kind of author you are, and the links to your social media. Networking with other writers is definitely worth the time and money you’re spending at the Expo.

  • One last thing

There’s no better way to gain some exposure as a writer than starting local. The boot camp would feature experts on all types of writing. This is one of the most efficient ways to connect with other local writers who would are likely to keep in touch with you through social media or in person, you can also connect with your fans and readers who would be likely to purchase your books. If you’re thinking about attending a writers’ festival, start local, with the Ottawa Book Expo.

The event is open to all writers and publishers locally and internationally. The Expo is a grassroots-oriented author, publisher, bookseller and literary services festival which supports authors and publishers who seek to promote marginalized voices such as those of different cultural backgrounds, gender and LGBTQ communities.The Expo would hold at the Horticulture Building in Lansdowne Park on the 20th of October 2019.

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Virtual farmer’s market comes to Ottawa

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Ottawa first-ever virtual farmer’s market has begun delivering food from local farms straight to people’s homes.

Farm to Hand is making it easier for people who cannot access their local farmer’s markets to find local, fresh organic food by bringing ordered food right to their doors. 

“The difference between us and the farmers market is really just the convenience and the on-demandness,” Sean Mallia, the co-founder of the business, told CBC Radio’s In Town and Out.

“[Often times a] person wants to make the purchase but they don’t have the time on Saturdays to go to the farmers market. Everyone wants to eat local … so when it’s easy for them to do it, it just happens.” In Town and Out No time to drive to the farmer’s market but really want to eat local?

Connecting farmers with people 

The online platform allows farmers to list all their own products, and buyers can have the goods delivered. 

“What we really are trying to do is build that connection between farmer and consumer,” Mallia said. “When people fill up a cart … they’re not just filling a cart full of food, they’re filling a cart full of farmers and farms and their stories.”

Mallia said the aim is to connect people to the “vibrant food ecosystem” around them, and to local support farmers.

The virtual market is currently limited to the Ottawa area as a pilot project, but Mallia, 21, said the company is looking to expand.

“[We chose Ottawa because] Ottawa really cares. Ottawa really thinks about local [food] and thinks about sustainability,” he said. “It just made sense to come out of Ottawa.”

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Denley: Stonebridge and Mattamy show compromise is possible over development in Ottawa

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In Ottawa, development proposals too often end up in acrimony and trips to the provincial planning tribunal. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see Mattamy Homes and residents of the south Nepean suburb of Stonebridge work together to resolve a dispute in a way that’s likely to lead to a victory for both sides.

A little over a year ago, Mattamy created an uproar in the golf course community when it announced a plan to build 158 new homes on golf course lands and alter the Stonebridge course to make it shorter and less attractive to golfers. To residents, it looked like the first step in a plan to turn most, or all, of the course into housing.

It’s easy to see why residents were upset. When people pay a premium for a lot backing onto a golf course, there is certainly an implication that the lot will continue to back onto a golf course, but without a legally binding guarantee, it’s no sure thing.

Mattamy’s situation was understandable, too. This is a tough time to be in the golf course business in Ottawa. There are too many courses and not enough golfers so it’s no surprise that golf course owners would find the idea of turning a course into a housing development to be attractive, doubly so when the golf course is owned by a development company.

This is a tough time to be in the golf course business in Ottawa. There are too many courses and not enough golfers so it’s no surprise that golf course owners would find the idea of turning a course into a housing development to be attractive.

In the face of the local opposition, Mattamy withdrew its development application. When things cooled down, the company, the neighbours and the city started to work together on finding a solution that would satisfy everyone.

With the city-sponsored help of veteran planning consultant Jack Stirling, they came up with an unusual idea that will still let Mattamy develop its desired number of homes, in exchange for a promise to operate the course for at least 10 years and redesign it so that it remains attractive to golfers.

At the end of the 10 years, Mattamy can sell the course to the community for $6 million. To raise the money, the community working group is proposing a special levy to be paid by Stonebridge homeowners starting in 2021. The amount will range from $175 a year to $475 a year, depending on property values.

If the deal is approved by a majority of homeowners, Mattamy gets its development and a way out of the money-losing golf business. Homeowners get certainty about no future development. They can choose to keep the course going or retain the 198 acres as green space. It’s not a cheap solution, but it keeps their community as it is and preserves property values.

If a majority of homeowners backs the deal, both the levy and redevelopment will still need to be approved by the city, something scheduled for late this fall.

Stonebridge Community Association president Jay McLean was part of the working group that prepared the proposal and he’s pleased with the outcome. The community’s number one goal was preserving green space, and the deal will accomplish that, he says. Mattamy division president Kevin O’Shea says the deal “gives the community the certainty they are looking for.”

As useful as this deal could be for Stonebridge residents, it doesn’t provide a template to resolve a somewhat similar dispute in Kanata North, where the owner of the Kanata Lakes golf course wants to work with a group of local developers to replace the course with housing. In Kanata, a longstanding legal agreement saying the community has to have 40 per cent open space strengthens residents’ situation. In Stonebridge, there was no legal impediment to developing the whole course.

Golf course communities have become an anachronism in a city intent on intensifying within the urban boundary. Redeveloping those lands for housing is in sync with the city’s planning goals, but it’s not politically saleable to homeowners who thought they had a deal. If it goes ahead, the Stonebridge plan shows there is a reasonable middle ground.

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