By David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen
OTTAWA — City council took its second once-in-a-life-time vote in six years to build a new rail transit system Wednesday.
This time, with all 24 councillors backing the idea and no imminent election to blow up the $2.1-billion plan, they seemed to mean it.
Still, the ghost of rail plans past haunted the council chamber.
“I think the public is pleased with the progress in our city that LRT represents,” said Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans, who chairs the city’s transit commission and whose ward would have been served by the $725-million rail plan that city council approved, then scrapped, in 2006. In that year’s municipal election rail became a central issue: it killed Bob Chiarelli’s mayoralty thanks to attacks from left and right.
“Remember those slogans? ‘Fix it don’t nix it’ and ‘Press the reset button’? Those were very annoying slogans,” Deans recalled, sounding like someone who had a stronger word than “annoying” in mind. The first was candidate Alex Munter’s; the second was that of Larry O’Brien, who won the mayor’s chair from Chiarelli and replaced his predecessor’s plan with his own.
A modified version of that one is what council approved, one filtered through current mayor Jim Watson’s brain trust and designers from Rideau Transit Group, the city’s chosen contractor to finalize the design, build the 12.5-kilometre system and maintain it for 30 years. The consortium led by ACS Infrastructure, SNC-Lavalin and EllisDon can expect to make an addition $2 billion on the long-term maintenance component.
The theme of the day was the sheer bigness of the project councillors were approving, and how it will define Ottawa for generations.
“Today we start a process of change and a process of growth … from a small-medium-sized city, to a big city,” Alta Vista Coun. Peter Hume said.
““This is a project for our city. It’s a project for my kids, and for their kids,” Knoxdale-Merivale’s Keith Egli said. He invoked The Little Engine that Could children’s story: Ottawa is going from “we wish we could” to “we think we can” and he looks forward to “we knew we could,” when the so-called Confederation Line and its 13 stations open for business in 2018.
The politicians do have their concerns and their hobby horses. Several suburban councillors emphasized that the line between Tunney’s Pasture and Blair Road is just the first step. Planners are working on what route a second phase should eventually take to get to Baseline station, and even on whether it would make more sense to extend the line east to Orléans first. Kitchissippi’s Katherine Hobbs wished for more public art. Somerset’s Diane Holmes asked to be reassured that trucks working on downtown construction sites in the wee hours will have flagpeople guarding them as they back up rather than emitting the more usual loud beeps.
In a quick update before the meeting, though, the Rideau Transit Group sent a note to councillors saying its planners have considered concerns raised in a previous meeting about whether 300 bicycle parking spots across the whole system will be enough and decided to double that number for opening day (a reckoning of how many spots will be at which stations is still lacking).
Hume pointed out what a pleasure it was to be debating the details of bike parking rather than whether the city needed a rail system at all. Even at its peak, the last project got only about two-thirds support from the politicians of the day and never finally secured federal funding — which, for this project, arrived mid-meeting in the hands of Ottawa-Orléans MP Royal Galipeau, who bore two copies of a funding agreement signed by Transportation Minister Denis Lebel.
“You’re going to be proud that we have helped create a transportation system that will be the envy of many cities around the world, not just Canada,” Watson told his council.
Construction is to begin in February.