Watson puts his future on the line

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Ottawa Citizen

Written by Joanne Chianello in the Ottawa Citizen

Joanne Chianello looks at the political risk the mayor is taking with his transportation master plan

For someone who was very reluctant to climb aboard the LRT bandwagon during the last election, it’s astonishing the degree to which Mayor Jim Watson is hanging his political future on rapid transit.

In an unusually pre-hyped speech Wednesday morning, Watson not only laid out his vision for transit expansion in the capital but signalled what will undoubtedly be one of his major reelection platform planks: expanded rail.

Instead of eking rail service out across the city over the next two decades (or more), Watson opted for the bolder move of extending service to the east, west and south simultaneously in a single $3-billion project he says can be completed between 2018 and 2023.

The results of this dramatic blueprint are twofold. First, a number of communities will be getting rail service years — or even decades — ahead of what was previously planned, a point Watson was eager to make. But building out light-rail and O-Train service ahead of schedule also means that there will be little capital for rapid transit expansion between 2023 and 2031, which the mayor didn’t exactly shout from the rooftops.

There’s nothing wrong with Watson’s accelerated transit game plan, as long as we’re all clear what it means. For example, this current draft of the transportation master plan (or TMP) does not include a proposal to connect the O-Train to our international airport, a definite downside. And there won’t be enough money to add that airport link until after 2031.

Overall, though, Watson’s plan is a brilliant tactical move, not only because it’s actually a great idea to fast-track rail — finally! — but there’s almost no political downside.

Watson can promise big now, but he won’t have to deliver on the financing of this project until near the end of his second term of office, assuming he’s re-elected next year. He needs to convince the provincial and federal governments to pitch in almost $1 billion each for his plan. That might sound like a fortune until you remember that the feds just forked over $660,000 for a three-station subway expansion in Toronto, while the province invested a staggering $1.4 billion in the project. Even if these governments balk at the money, there are federal and provincial elections on the horizons that could bring friendlier folks to the bargaining table.

There are plenty of other political winners around the council table, at least on the transit file. (There is also $725 million worth of road projects sprinkled around the city over the next 20 years or so.)

Chianello: Blais certain to benefit

The most obvious is Cumberland Coun. Stephen Blais. He came to council in 2010 with the express aim of convincing the city to forget building the bus Transitway out to Orléans and go straight to light rail. Mission accomplished. And when that light-rail corridor is built just north of the Queensway, it will likely result in additional capacity on the highway, another of Blais’s goals.

Add these transportation accomplishments to his life-affirming narrative of bouncing back from a near-fatal heart attack earlier this year, and it’s hard to imagine who’d be foolish enough to run against him next year.

Bay ward Coun. Mark Taylor and College ward Coun. Rick Chiarelli will see the LRT run through both their wards, although in instances where the trains are to run through established areas, this isn’t always popular. Still, this plan is generally an upside for both these councillors.

The south does pretty well, too, transit-wise, with the O-Train extension, which will better serve the Riverside, Hunt Club, GloucesterSouthgate and South Nepean communities.

And residents of Barrhaven will also have access to the O-Train’s most southern station — Bowesville — should the Strandherd-Armstrong bridge ever actually be completed.

‘If there is a loser in Watson’s proposal, it is surely Kanata. Watson’s accelerated rail plan sees LRT extended as far west as Bayshore by 2023, which will be of some use to our west-end residents.’

In the south, there might be some disappointment at missing out on light rail. But the O-Train was going to be converted to light rail between 2016 and 2022, with no extension in service.

Under this plan, five new stations will be added — including Gladstone, to serve all those massive condo towers planned for the Carling Avenue edge of Little Italy — bringing rapid transit farther south than anyone had planned for decades.

Sounds like a win, both for the residents and the councillors.

If there is a loser in Watson’s proposal, it is surely Kanata. Watson’s accelerated rail plan sees LRT extended as far west as Bayshore by 2023, which will be of some use to our west-end residents. And the city plans to build a bus Transitway spur from Bayshore to Moodie by 2019.

But extending a dedicated busway into the Kanata community isn’t on the books until after 2025. Only in the west does the proposed rail expansion not break through the Greenbelt.

Yes, more people leave Orléans for work purposes than they do Kanata — 80 per cent versus 66 per cent — but the commute from Kanata-Stittsville to downtown isn’t any picnic. Under this plan, the outer edges of Orléans will have had light rail for two years before Kanata gets a bus Transitway.

One suspects North Kanata Coun. Marianne Wilkinson will have something to say about it.

Can she change the plan? Maybe not before council votes on it over the next few weeks.

But the TMP comes up for renewal every five years. We’ll be having this discussion again in 2018, and who knows what will be on the agenda by then?

Because five years is a long time in transportation planning — and an even longer time in politics.