– Transit vision faces same problems that dogged the old plan

Ottawa Citizen

By Mohammed Adam

OTTAWA — Three years ago, city council killed its own plan to build a major new rail-transit system. Now, its even more ambitious replacement is facing the same problems that dogged the old plan: costs that seem to be rising quickly, a city council that’s having trouble explaining its plans, and political interference.

“One of the two things that was disturbing to me about the last plan was that it started as something that was going to max us out, but was manageable. But bite by bite it became bigger, to the point where I didn’t think we could afford it,” says Councillor Rick Chiarelli, who voted against the old plan because he didn’t think it was affordable. “I see those same caution flags emerging on this one. With the number of balconies flying by me, I am getting the feeling I am falling.”

The city’s new 25-year transit plan has been controversial from the beginning.

The plan, which councillors approved last spring, will see a downtown tunnel, an east-west electric rail line from Tunney’s Pasture to Blair Road, a north-south electric rail line from Bayview to South Keys, and extended Transitway lines to suburbs outside the Greenbelt.

Rising out of the ruins of the cancelled $880-million north-south rail project, it divided council and initially met with lukewarm support from the provincial government.

The first phase of construction, with a cost pegged at $1.7 billion, was supposed to be the tunnel, a partial east-west rail line, and extended busways. But recently the city added another wrinkle by giving the provincial government another option as city officials negotiate for funding: the same tunnel and east-west rail, but instead of extended busways, a north-south rail link. The bill for that option is $1.8 billion, including $400 million for the north-south rail.

As it was with the old plan, cost is becoming the Achilles heel of the new plan. Part of the reason north-south rail failed was that even as then-mayor Bob Chiarelli was dismissing claims of cost overruns, the cost was ballooning from $600 million to $880 million. Councillor Chiarelli, who also voted against the new plan, says he can see affordability becoming a big issue again.

After news reports claimed the current project, meant to be the first part of the decades-long master transit plan, is $100 million over budget before it’s even received approval, Municipal Affairs Minister Jim Watson waded in, saying that reported changes to the plan raise serious questions about its affordability.

“There are significant changes, changes to the routing, rail yards and so on and this comes as a surprise because I thought the plan submitted had taken care of these things. Obviously it hasn’t,” says Watson, the senior Ottawa minister in the provincial government. “I am concerned that costs keep escalating… and my message to the city is (to) make sure that when you submit your numbers in October, they are credible and defensible and are not going to evaporate off a page in a month’s time.”

Councillor Alex Cullen, the chairman of council’s transit committee and an ardent supporter of the new transit plan, says the reports of a $100-million cost overrun are “fabricated,” and it is absurd to draw parallels with north-south rail. Nancy Schepers, the deputy city manager responsible for the transit plan, says it is not unusual for cost estimates of major projects to escalate as concepts turn into reality. The city won’t know the exact cost of the project until a final design is approved.

Watching all the to-ing and fro-ing as the transit plan approaches final approval, it seems like déjà vu all over again for former regional councillor Frank Reid.

Reid believes the transit plan is getting caught up in the politics of the day as people who are considering running for mayor use it to position themselves for the race. The same thing happened in 2006, when the north-south project became a political football in the middle of a municipal election: John Baird, the Ottawa West-Nepean Tory MP and then president of Treasury Board, withheld federal funding for the plan that had been promised under the previous Liberal government, turning a done deal into an election issue and helping conservative candidate Larry O’Brien defeat Liberal mayor Bob Chiarelli.

“It is no secret that Jim Watson is thinking of running for mayor and people have to ask the question: is all the protest from the province because of cost overruns or is it because somebody is positioning himself for mayor?” Reid says. “The politics of this thing makes me wonder if everything is to do with the dollar — or ambition. I smell Watson, I smell (planning committee chairman and possible mayoral contender) Peter Hume, I smell politics, politics, politics.”

Indeed, given Baird’s role

in killing the north-south plan, which the provincial Liberals fully supported, some have wondered whether the McGuinty government will ultimately back any plan fronted by O’Brien. Watson dismisses any such doubts, saying both he and the premier represent Ottawa and there is no reason why they’d want the city to fail. Politics, he says, has nothing to do with making sure that a plan that’s pegged at $5 billion is worth the money.

“The premier is very much a big-picture person. We represent the same constituents and taxpayers and it is in no one’s interest to have the city fail,” Watson says. “We want to make sure this is done right and we are not going to rush to meet some artificial deadline.”

Cullen, who is the only declared candidate for mayor in the next election in 2010, acknowledges the plan is expensive and, given its history, understands why people get nervous when the issue of rising costs — real or imagined — are raised. But there’s nothing unusual or alarming about how the city’s transit plan is unfolding, he says.

“In the evolution of a concept to a construction project, you go through the same steps whether it’s in Toronto, Vancouver or some other place. It is an issue we have to address and it is going to be a more transparent process than the previous plan,” Cullen says.

“Planning-level estimates are done for planning purposes and it will come as no surprise to anyone that the numbers that finally come out will be different from the estimates,” says deputy city manager Schepers, herself an engineer.

She says those numbers will be made public in the last week of October. In December or early January, the city will make a formal request for funding from the provincial and federal governments.

The bill for the first phase was estimated in 2007 dollars and two years on, the cost may already have gone up simply because of inflation. Councillor Marianne Wilkinson says if construction doesn’t begin in two years, the price is expected to hit $2.1 billion. That’s not counting costs that were never included in the initial estimate: for property acquisition, including subterranean rights, and design changes discovered to be needed as more engineering work is done.

Wilkinson says it is premature to talk about cost overruns when no firm budget has been established and no contract has been signed with any builder. Still, she believes the city could have done a better job of handling the project estimates. She is also unhappy with the decision to give the province the north-south rail option, because she believes it comes at the expense of busway expansion in her Kanata ward. She believes it is being done for political reasons, to entice the province with a recognizable version of the north-south rail plan the government previously agreed to support.

“Politics is definitely creeping into this,” Wilkinson says.

Reid says a big part of the reason the plan is being pulled apart in different directions is poor communications. For instance, Mayor Larry O’Brien should have been in front of the cameras explaining a $37-million settlement agreement with the consortium that had been contracted to build the original rail line — and how that squared with the city’s proposal to build a north-south rail line after all.

Instead, he allowed others to saddle the city with their own spin and interpretation. And as rumours swirled around cost overruns, he should have been out there quickly and emphatically putting them rest. O’Brien is the mayor, and Reid says that leaving Cullen and others like Hume to lead the way doesn’t inspire confidence.

“The thing that bothers me is that the communication on this has been pathetic. The way it has been handled, the information comes out in dribbles, it comes out as rumours. No one is out there to explain what is going on and pre-empt a lot of the stuff,” Reid says. “The mayor needs to show leadership. He has not done that.”

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