Light Rail

Mayor readies transportation plan

Expect political intrigue as council grapples with conflicting visions of who gets what

Hashing out the city's transportation master plan might sound like the world's driest bureaucratic proceeding, but it could very well turn into the biggest political - and most substantive - debate of this city council's term.

As the name suggests, the transportation master plan (known as the TMP) is a multibillion-dollar blueprint for how the city plans to roll out transit, road and pathway networks across Ottawa over the next five, 10, 20 years. This is the stuff of citybuilding, and it matters.

In fact, Mayor Jim Watson is giving his most important speech of the year next Wednesday morning, when he's expected to outline his transportation vision for Ottawa, hours before the draft TMP is to be tabled at a special joint meeting of the transportation committee and transit commission. (That'll be one busy day at city hall: there's a full council meeting tucked between the mayor's early morning talk and the special committee meeting.)

The contents of that speech will likely form part of Watson's re-election campaign - one of the reasons next week's breakfast event is so widely anticipated.

But Watson's transportation concept for Ottawa - which will presumably be reflected in the draft TMP - might set off a political battle among councillors as they understandably argue for projects in their own communities. Indeed, there's conflict inherently built in to this process: if the city is going to spend money on one part of the transportation system, then it won't have the funds to address some other part of the network.

So what might we expect next week, keeping in mind that the mayor is being very tight-lipped about his plans?

Cumberland Coun. Stephen Blais has made no secret of wanting to extend light rail to his ward, skipping over the planned in-between step of building the bus transitway first. Actually, there are two Cumberlandbound branches on the books right now: one would generally follow Highway 174, east from Blair Station to Place d'Orléans and beyond; the second would connect Blair to Navan Road and run south of Blackburn Hamlet.

Neither is supposed to be converted to light rail until beyond 2031. That's just good money after bad, argues Blais, and he has a point.

And he might have won his case. The draft TMP (it's updated every five years) will likely call for a compromise: the city will build light rail out to Orléans, but it can have only one transitway, not two. Which one? There are benefits to each route. The more northern option would service already populated areas, while the southern one would allow the city to truly plan a transit-based community, as that area is not as developed.

But building LRT instead of bus rapid transit will cost more money. Considering there isn't an unlimited amount of infrastructure capital flowing Ottawa's way from other levels of government, if more money than previously planned goes into LRT for Orléans, will something else have to be delayed?

That has other councillors, such as Kanata North's Marianne Wilkinson, a little worried. In the west end, they're still waiting for the bus transitway to be extended from Bayshore to Moodie Drive, although at least that project is "already in the system." Wilkinson points out that the regular old transitway won't make it out to Kanata until 2031, as the plan stands now. The veteran councillor also gets a little weary of hearing about the commuter traffic on the east end of the city.

"Have you ever been on the 417 eastbound in the morning?" she says. "It's no picnic."

So we might see a west versus east battle in the TMP. Expect loads of stats to be thrown around. Take this nugget, for example: A major transportation survey undertaken for the city in 2011 shows that the folks in Orléans not only take more workrelated trips per day than Kanata-Stittsville - 48,000 versus 42,000 - but more people travel outside of Orléans to get to work than their counterparts in the west end (80 per cent versus 66 per cent).

And Orléans residents appear to be bigger users of transit for work. About 12,500 work-related trips are made between Orléans and the inner urban core, but only 7,500 between Kanata-Stittsville and the core. But even if Orléans does use transit more than Kanata-Stittsville, does that mean a bigger portion of the transit investment pie should go to the east end at the expense of other areas of town?

And what about the southern end of the city? Gloucester-South Nepean Coun. Steve Desroches thinks extending the O-Train relatively soon (instead of electrifying it way down the road), isn't just a good idea because it would take pressure off the south-north congestion, but it's also "a practical and affordable solution."

Desroches says he doesn't know what will be in the draft TMP, but he clearly thinks some of the plans being bandied about aren't realistic because the provincial and federal governments are strapped for cash.

Then there's the general talk in the hallways about the city being put on a "road diet" - the expectation that the TMP will have less emphasis on roadwork, with more on transit. Many of us think that's great, but there are 32 failing intersections in Ottawa. How will these traffic nightmares be resolved?

That's the debate we look forward to having over the next few weeks. The political stakes will be high: with the election just next year, each councillors will want to be able to boast about her or his ability to get a local project on the books.

But the discussion around the TMP will be fascinating because it won't be just about political intrigue, but about city building and vision. Finally, a discussion at city hall that's actually a big deal.

Copyright © 2017 Stephen Blais