The elation didn’t last long.
Last week, the federal government finally announced a commitment of $600 million — or about half the going rate for a G8/G20 weekend — for Ottawa’s light rail and tunnel project. With a matching contribution from the province, that leaves Ottawa to cover $900 million.
Almost instantly, mayoral front-runner Jim Watson began warning of big potential cost overruns while his rival, Alex Cullen, argued that a certain amount of budget bloat is preferable to cancelling and “starting from square one.”
This has been the pattern so far — Cullen, also head of the transit committee, four-square behind light rail, and Watson, while not explicitly coming out against the project, consistently tossing out reasons, whether fiscal, physical or jurisdictional, to throw its feasibility into question.
While there’s plenty to argue over, I can’t shake the impression the debate is less about the merits of light rail than about two candidates striving to differentiate themselves from one another. With a queasy sense of déjà vu, I fear light rail will become a political football for the second election running, resulting in yet another own goal against public transit.
There is much to settle before bidding on the contract can even begin, and if there’s too much chaos on the light rail front, it could endanger the federal and provincial funding. It was the federal government that froze the funding for the last light rail plan, helping Larry O’Brien to campaign against it and into office.
The current project won’t even start until 2013. The first passengers would travel the first phase, the Blair-Tunney’s Pasture line, in 2018, an estimate moved back from an earlier, more optimistic one of 2016. The full system wouldn’t be in operation until 2031.
If we keep ripping up the current plan in favour of a new one, which will in turn be ripped up by the next council, I’m going to go out on a limb and say it will take even longer than that. Remember, our still-to-be-built central library was once slated for completion in 2006.
At this rate, if Ottawa is ever to get 21st-century transit sometime in the 21st century, maybe we need to host some huge, expensive global sports hootenanny to get the deal done.
After all, Vancouver got its light rail Canada Line last year, in time for the Winter Olympics. Last week, Johannesburg, South Africa, host of the World Cup, debuted its new high-speed rail service.
Maybe it would be easier to get our house in order if we knew company was coming.
– Steve Collins lives, writes and walks in Ottawa; email@example.com