Ottawa’s new Light Rail Transit. PHOTO: CITY OF OTTAWA

By Clive Doucet

“If you don’t understand the past, you are doomed to repeat it” is an old saw but a true one. Like it or not, the past matters both for good and ill. The first step for Ottawa in 2020 will be understanding what happened with the LRT and why. The second will be understanding how past decisions will affect future choices.

It would be difficult to design a transit project for Ottawa that would cost more ($7 billion plus) and do less. The LRT is a replacement system. It simply replaces a rapid-bus system (the Transitway) that was highly regarded. After 20 years of planning and billions of dollars spent, Ottawa transit has actually contracted, with fewer bus routes, fewer drivers and more transfers.

This service disaster started with planning. The western LRT extension may be convenient for the mayor’s commute, but the choice of the western parkway and a winding route through the leafy western suburbs of Westboro and west Ottawa was incomprehensible. What city chooses to put its premier, high-density service at the fringes of where people live with a broad river on one side and lightly populated suburbs on the other? It should have gone along Carling Avenue. Carling is a direct, straight route to Kanata. It has had rail on it before. It was entirely owned by the city and consequently involved no expropriation costs. There were no trees to cut down. The route served hospitals, shopping malls and about a third of the city’s population. It was what the NCC wanted instead of the parkway. It was the obvious choice. What happened?

The LRT planning disaster continued with the engineering choices. The sink hole at the corner of Sussex and Rideau happened for a reason. The station was a bad engineering choice. Sussex and Rideau is the lowest point in the Rideau River watershed. Water collects at this point from two directions – the south Rideau watershed and the underground drainage pattern of the Ottawa River which flows around the southern edge of the Parliamentary Hill promontory following exactly same underground route as the LRT tunnel. Why was the higher ground at the original Parliament station switched by the mayor to the lower ground at the Rideau/Sussex station? What happened?

The LRT mess continues today with disputes over finances headed for the courts where they will be fought out for years. All of this will have consequences in 2020 because the billions spent on the LRT project have drained the city’s piggy bank. Every city expenditure is going to be held hostage by LRT debts. This means the Go Train system (modelled on Toronto’s) proposed during the last election will become not just more attractive but also more necessary because of its lower cost ($2 million a kilometer.) It also means surface routes like Carling will happen faster than presently anticipated today.

Most important, the “deal-of-theday” mentality that has occupied City Hall needs to be replaced by a coherent, sustainable vision for the city. For 15 years, there hasn’t been anything more than a series of deals brokered by the mayor of the day, and that hasn’t worked. Some examples: the Chateau Laurier extension approval by council was reversed by the committee of adjustment; the LeBreton Flats spot rezoning from 30 to 65 stories irrevocably blew apart the LeBreton Flats plan; the reversal of the Tunney’s Pasture option for the Ottawa Hospital’s new site in favour of the political choice of Dow’s Lake, in spite of increased costs and geological and access problems; the Lansdowne financial sink hole; Kilmorie House in Cityview. The list is longer than we have space for here.

To have a city that’s different from the one we have today, you need to imagine more than a series of deals with powerful developers. It starts with faith in your residents and their ideas about how they want their city to grow and look. Developing that vision starts with listening and respecting the city’s own public consultations; if the city had done that, Ottawa would look very different today.

We would have a real park instead of a mall at Lansdowne. We would have a surface rail system across the entire city and Gatineau. We would preserve the national heritage landscape around Dow’s Lake instead of building the new hospital nearby. There wouldn’t be a mega men’s shelter in Vanier. There never would have been a long, difficult struggle over the Chateau Laurier extension. With different decisions, we could have created a different kind of city – a greener city with effective, surface transit that animates communities instead of reducitions in green spaces and gathering places. And we would have less debt so more of our taxes would be coming back to the community instead of going to the banks.

It’s worth remembering all this because the future of our city is going to be more of the same until we are able to elect a mayor and councillors who put the city and its people first, not developers and real estate deals. A new, real deal at City Hall will start there.

Clive Doucet is an author whose most recent book is Grandfather’s House: Returning to Cape Breton. He served as a city councilor for Capital Ward for four terms. Doucet and Mayor Bob Chiarelli were the founders of the O Train.

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