Is Ottawa group’s plan the rail deal?

Con­sor­tium be­lieves in pro­posal for pri­vately owned rail ser­vice in cap­i­tal re­gion

Ottawa Business Journal - - Front Page - BY DAVID SALI david@obj.ca

Crit­ics may scoff, but some lo­cal ob­servers say Moose Con­sor­tium can make solid busi­ness case for 400-km route

He might be riding his pro­posal for a pri­vately backed com­muter train into uncharted ter­ri­tory, but that hasn’t damp­ened Joseph Potvin’s sense of op­ti­mism.

Mr. Potvin is di­rec­tor gen­eral of Moose Con­sor­tium, a group of 12 mostly lo­cally owned busi­nesses push­ing to build a train that would link six ru­ral On­tario and Que­bec com­mu­ni­ties to down­town Ottawa us­ing 400 kilo­me­tres of ex­ist­ing track.

No one in this coun­try has launched a rail­way us­ing noth­ing but pri­vate money in more than a cen­tury, a fact the Chelseabased econ­o­mist is well aware of. But he be­lieves there’s no time like the present to re­vive such a con­cept, and he thinks his group has just the plan to do it.

“Every study that has been done in North Amer­ica and the world on metropoli­tan-scale pas­sen­ger rail shows that there are sig­nif­i­cant prop­erty value im­pacts,” Mr. Potvin says, ex­plain­ing that his con­sor­tium won’t ac­tu­ally build the sta­tions – which would num­ber as many as 50 in the group’s long-term plan – it­self.

In­stead, Moose – a short­ened form of the con­sor­tium’s orig­i­nal name, Mo­bil­ity Ottawa Ou­taouais: Sys­tems and En­ter­prises – will turn the task of de­vel­op­ing sta­tions and their sur­round­ing lands over to other pri­vate en­ti­ties.

Mr. Potvin is bank­ing that com­mer­cial en­ter­prises will want to set up shop near the sta­tions and be­lieves home­builders will tar­get nearby lands for fu­ture de­vel­op­ment. Moose would then split prof­its from any long-term prop­erty value gains with its sta­tion part­ners and col­lect a fee for pro­vid­ing the tracks and trains.

“If there’s not enough (de­vel­op­ment) po­ten­tial in a lo­ca­tion, then there won’t be train ser­vice there,” he says. “It’s re­ally quite sim­ple.”

As busi­ness plans go, it has its mer­its, says Ian Lee, a pro­fes­sor at Car­leton Univer­sity’s Sprott School of Busi­ness.

“We should en­cour­age pri­vate-sec­tor so­lu­tions over gov­ern­ment so­lu­tions when­ever pos­si­ble,” he says, ar­gu­ing gov­ern­ment has more press­ing things to do with tax­pay­ers’ money than sub­si­diz­ing a re­gional com­muter rail­way. “I cel­e­brate it for that rea­son alone.”

Un­der Moose Con­sor­tium’s plan, the rail­way would stretch its ten­ta­cles in all di­rec­tions, ex­tend­ing as far as Arn­prior, Smiths Falls and Alexan­dria on the On­tario side of the Ottawa River and to Bris­tol, Wake­field and Mon­te­bello in Que­bec.

Moose would lease the tracks from a host of part­ners, in­clud­ing the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau, VIA, Cana­dian Pa­cific Rail­way and Cana­dian Na­tional Rail­way.

Sta­tions would be built an av­er­age of eight kilo­me­tres apart, and pas­sen­gers would travel on dou­ble-decker diese­l­elec­tric trains that would even­tu­ally hook up with Ottawa’s light-rail ser­vice to de­liver com­muters down­town.

“We can send peo­ple to the moon and bring them back safely, but we can’t trans­port them to the cap­i­tal city of Canada,” says Bill Pom­fret, a Kanata-based safety man­age­ment con­sul­tant who is also a part­ner in the con­sor­tium.

“I’ve never met any­body who, when they’ve have had the facts ex­plained to them, are not ex­cited about it.”

The group has ap­plied to the Cana­dian Trans­porta­tion Agency for a cer­tifi­cate of fit­ness to al­low it to move for­ward with its plan and hopes to gain the nec­es­sary ap­provals by this fall. Trans­port Canada would also have to sign off on the plan, and there are 15 mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments who all want a say in a pro­posal in­volv­ing trains pass­ing through their bound­aries.

Re­cently, the group un­veiled a plan to spend $50 mil­lion to over­haul the aban­doned Prince of Wales rail bridge con­nect­ing Ottawa to Gatineau. The 135-year-old struc­ture is owned by the City of Ottawa, which would need to ap­prove the retro­fit, and tech­ni­cally falls un­der the ju­ris­dic­tion of the Cana­dian Trans­porta­tion Agency be­cause it crosses an in­ter­provin­cial bor­der.

Mr. Potvin con­cedes that not all mu­nic­i­pal politi­cians the group has spo­ken with are fully on board with the plan. Some res­i­dents who live near the pro­posed lines have ex­pressed con­cerns about noise and safety among other is­sues, he ex­plains.

But Smith Falls Mayor Shawn Pankow is one of the be­liev­ers, say­ing a com­muter train could help at­tract new res­i­dents and com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment to the town of 9,000.

“We have a large num­ber of peo­ple who com­mute to (Ottawa) for work, and en­abling peo­ple to get there quicker, more ef­fi­ciently, more cost-ef­fec­tively cre­ates more de­mand for peo­ple to move to our com­mu­nity,” he says.

“I think, when we first heard about this a few years ago, it seemed a lit­tle bit piein-the-sky at the time. They’ve come a long way to get to where they are to­day. They’re sort of on the last dash to the fin­ish line. They’ve got a cou­ple of hur­dles to get over be­fore they get there, but I think … it will be very much sup­ported.”

While Mr. Lee is also en­thu­si­as­tic, he cau­tions the group still must nav­i­gate through more red tape be­fore it reaches its goal. He also notes it faces an­other ma­jor

“We can send peo­ple to the moon and bring them back safely, but we can’t trans­port them to the cap­i­tal city of Canada. I’ve never met any­body who, when they’ve have had the facts ex­plained to them, are not ex­cited about it.”

BILL POM­FRET, KANATA-BASED SAFETY MAN­AGE­MENT CON­SUL­TANT AND PART­NER IN MOOSE CON­SOR­TIUM hur­dle – con­vinc­ing au­to­mo­bile-lov­ing com­muters to ditch their ve­hi­cles and hop on the train.

“They’re not com­pet­ing with buses, they’re not com­pet­ing with other trains – this con­sor­tium is es­sen­tially com­pet­ing with the au­to­mo­bile,” he says. “The fact re­mains, the car is over­whelm­ingly the No. 1 choice of trans­porta­tion in Canada.”

Mr. Pankow thinks that bar­rier can be over­come.

“Peo­ple even­tu­ally get con­di­tioned to new ways of oper­at­ing,” he says. “You can be pro­duc­tive while you’re in the train. You can en­joy a cof­fee, have your break­fast, you can do some work, you can catch up on your so­cial media, you can read the pa­per. I think once peo­ple get used to those life­style and pro­duc­tiv­ity ben­e­fits of be­ing on a train, I think some of the ben­e­fits of sim­ply go­ing from point A to point B in your car become less im­por­tant.”

Be­cause so many part­ners are re­quired to in­vest in in­di­vid­ual sta­tions, Mr. Potvin is re­luc­tant to put a to­tal price tag on the pro­posal. He knows there are still a train­load of skep­tics, but he re­mains un­daunted.

“It’s not like a megapro­ject where we can say, ‘It’s a $3-bil­lion project,’” he says. “It’s not that straight­for­ward. It’s not a sin­gle project – it’s a collection of projects. It’s ex­per­i­men­tal from a busi­ness model point of view, and we’re not shy to say that.

“There’s a strat­egy and a method­ol­ogy to getting through it. We’re quite happy with how it’s go­ing so far. Those who have is­sues with el­e­ments of it … there’s an­swers to all of those things. Ev­ery­thing in its time.”

PHOTO BY MARK HOLLERON

Joseph Potvin, a Chelsea-based econ­o­mist and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Moose Con­sor­tium, says stud­ies prove the group’s pro­posal is vi­able.

PHOTO BY MARK HOLLERON

Joseph Potvin is di­rec­tor gen­eral of Moose Con­sor­tium.

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