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Ottawa city council extends transit fare freeze until after LRT opens




One week after learning the Confederation Line would miss its June 30 deadline, Ottawa city councillors on Wednesday voted unanimously to delay a scheduled OC Transpo fare increase once again, this time until after the light-rail train has opened to riders.

A majority of council, however, refused to entertain a proposal to reduce transit fares for that period put forward by one councillor, a request that triggered a heated and lengthy debate around the council table.

Council had previously approved a transit fare freeze until July 1, 2019, after finding out the $2.1-billion LRT system wouldn’t launch in 2018.

The builder of the east-west line, the Rideau Transit Group (RTG), has since missed two other handover dates. No new deadline for the train — delayed now for more than a year — has been announced.

At city council’s meeting on Wednesday, Coun. Allan Hubley, who chairs the transit commission, put forward a motion proposing that the city implement the 2019 fare changes “on the first day of the month following the opening of O-Train Line 1 to transit customers.” Mayor Jim Watson seconded Hubley’s motion.

WATCH (March 4, 2019): Ottawa city councillors, staff invited to experience LRT simulator
Continuing the fare freeze until August 1 would cost the city about $328,000, according to the text of the motion; pushing it until September 1 would cost the city a total of $616,000.

The city will initially use funds from the municipality’s transit capital reserve to foot that bill, but the motion also directed the city manager try and recoup the costs of continuing the fare freeze from RTG.

Councillor’s request to explore fare reduction triggers heated debate; proposal defeated

Coun. Diane Deans proposed an amendment to Hubley’s motion, asking staff to look into and report back on the feasibility of reducing OC Transpo fares beginning on Sept. 1, 2019 and deducting the cost of that fare reduction from the city’s cheque to RTG.

“The fare reduction should be commensurate with the reduction in service reliability and remain in place until such time as Phase 1 LRT is fully operational,” Deans’ motion read.

The LRT delays have strained Ottawa’s bus system, leading to widespread delays and cancellations throughout the winter. A number of route changes and detours were implemented in anticipation of the LRT’s launch.

Deans argued that OC Transpo riders aren’t getting what they’re paying for right now and the city needs to “show some respect”  to its “severely inconvenienced” transit customers.

“When I go to the grocery store and buy a pound of grapes, if I only get half a pound, I don’t expect to pay for a pound. And it’s the same principle. If I’m not getting the full service, I don’t expect to pay for the full service,” she told reporters after council’s meeting.

A quarter of city council backed Deans’ proposal, including councillors Rick Chiarelli, Theresa Kavanagh, Shawn Menard, Rawlson King and Catherine McKenney. Carol Anne Meehan, who called the state of the city’s public transit system a “disgrace,” expressed some support for Deans’ idea but didn’t vote in favour in the end.

Other members of council fervently opposed a fare reduction, including the mayor. Watson claimed that reducing fares by 30 per cent would cost taxpayers $29 million over six months and argued that the city won’t improve its bus service by lowering fees while it waits for LRT.

Hubley said the city would be “gambling” if it reduced fares at a higher cost with no guarantee that RTG would agree to foot that bill. Coun. Keith Egli, for his part, described the proposal as “a shell game.”

“It’s a sham. It’s not going to fix the problem,” Egli said. “It sounds really good but at the end of the day it doesn’t fix the issue, which is people’s frustration with the service.”

Deans’ amendment was defeated 6-18.

“I don’t think it goes far enough just to say, ‘I’ll tell you what, the service is so unreliable we won’t charge you more for it,’” Deans told reporters.

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Residents fear Lincoln Fields revitalization will be just another suburban mall





Plans are taking shape for the future of Lincoln Fields: demolishing the aging shopping mall, building a new Metro grocery store in the near future and hundreds of rental units in residential towers somewhere down the road.

Neighbourhood groups say they have no problem with intensification, but they want redevelopment done in step with the city’s plans to revitalize Carling Avenue and a new LRT station that will turn the neighbourhood into a transit hub.

“We want it to be pedestrian and transit-friendly,” said Jonathan Morris, president of the Britannia Village Community Association. “This is about a third of the size of LeBreton Flats and it’s also on the LRT. We should give it some serious thought.”

There’s no dispute that Lincoln Fields is a dying shopping centre sitting on 16.2 acres of increasingly prime real estate. The mall first opened its doors in 1972. A Loblaws store departed in 1984. Walmart arrived in 1994, occupying 120,000 square feet, and departed in 2016. That space remains empty. A Wendy’s restaurant located just outside the mall was demolished following a fire in November.

The city’s plans for the Lincoln Fields area include converting bus rapid transit lanes into light rail. The Lincoln Fields station is scheduled to open in 2025.

“We’re all excited about the redevelopment. It would be better than what is there now. But we don’t want it to be another Centrum, just a bunch of big box stores,” said Annie Boucher, president of the Lincoln Heights Parkway Community Association. “What’s missing is the city’s vision for how this huge hub will connect to the LRT.”

Two weeks ago, representatives from owner RioCan and Metro met with representatives from six community associations and outlined plans for the shopping centre. A new Metro and Rexall will be built on the site to replace stores in the mall. Wendy’s will also rebuild and Pizza Pizza will remain in its current location, said Terri Andrianopoulos, RioCan vice-president of marketing and communications.

Phase 1 of Lincoln Fields redevelopment. RIO-CAN Rio-Can

Demolition is expected to start in November, although the city has not yet received a demolition application for the mall, said Derrick Moodie, the city’s manager of development review.

Alex Cullen, president of the Belltown Neighbours Community Association, said residents wanted to see “main street frontage” where stores were street-oriented, not separated from the street by parking lots.

Although the number of parking spots will be reduced, there will still be room for hundreds of cars. The two parking lots near former Walmart will lose 103 parking spots, leaving 487. The parking lot in front of the new Metro will have 270 spots, an increase of 30, while the lot near the old Wendy’s will lose 44 spots, leaving 276.

RioCan’s draft master plan shows the two new retail buildings could fit into a larger mixed-use development with high rise apartment buildings and ground-floor retail space, but that’s intended only to illustrate possibilities, Andrianopoulos said.

“This will be determined by the city’s secondary plan process. We will work with the city to explore additional opportunities for growth, but we will not finalize our future intensification plans until their review process is complete.”

The city’s planning policy staff is undertaking the process of creating a secondary plan. The current draft boundary is from about Richmond Road/Maplewood Avenue at the west, Ancaster Avenue to the east, Regina Street to the north and the southern edge of Woodroffe High School to the south, Moodie said.

The study will identify appropriate built form, building heights and density and orientation, specifically frontages along the main roads, and general land uses. “We will examine infill development, differentiating between stable areas and candidates for significant intensification. The study also includes analysis of the transportation network to identify opportunities to enhance the pedestrian environment, safe cycling, and connections to the O-Train station,” said Moodie. He expects consultations will begin this fall, with the plan to be adopted on the same timeline as the new official plan in 2021.

Kathy Vandergrift stands in the Lincoln Fields shopping centre parking lot. Jean Levac / Postmedia News

Residents consider the site to be a barrier to be crossed, said Kathy Vandegrift, vice-president of the Queensway Terrace North Community Association and chairwoman of its planning committee. The shopping centre’s parking lot is a “wasteland,” she said.

“We’re all eager to see revitalization,” Vandegrift said. “The tension now is in the shape of that and how it relate to the neighbourhood around it. It’s a missed opportunity if we don’t do this well.”

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Rideau Canal’s new Flora Footbridge to open Canada Day long weekend





Residents and visitors will have another option for walking or biking across the Rideau Canal starting this weekend, with the opening of the Flora Footbridge. 

The pedestrian bridge connects Clegg Street in Old Ottawa East to Fifth Avenue at Queen Elizabeth Drive in The Glebe.

Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson were on hand for the announcement, Wednesday. 

The $21-million bridge was originally scheduled for completion in the fall of 2019. Money for the project came through a funding partnership between the Government of Canada, the Province of Ontario, and the City of Ottawa, under the federal Public Transit Infrastructure Fund and the Ontario Municipal Commuter Cycling Program.

Along with improving safety and connectivity between mid-town Ottawa neighbourhoods, the new crossing is expected to shorten commute times and offer a dedicated active and sustainable transportation route to schools, work, entertainmentand shopping sites, such as Lansdowne in The Glebe. 

“By connecting our neighbourhoods and helping people get around Ottawa on foot, by bike or on transit, we are making our communities safer and healthier, supporting local businesses, and protectingour environment,” said McKenna. “After years of planning, community involvement and coordination among the city, the province and our government, it’s great to see the Flora Footbridge becoming a reality for people living near or travelling along the Rideau Canal.” 

The bridge will also link up with pathways connecting to Ottawa’s O-Train Confederation Line at Hurdman and Lees Transit Stations. 

“The whole community has been eagerly anticipating the completion of the Flora Footbridge,” added Watson. “Thanks to the great work of City staff and Pomerleau construction crews, we are able to open it ahead of schedule, providing a new way for residents and visitors to cross the canal without using a car, and making it easier for everyone to get out and experience Ottawa to the fullest.” 

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LRT is 377 days late and counting. Now what?





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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