Everyday transit costs up to cities
Federal, provincial ministers at transportation summit tell mayors they’re on their own
Two Ottawa-area cabinet ministers cautioned Eastern Ontario mayors yesterday that they should not dream up costly public transit systems that municipalities can’t afford to operate.
Federal Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, the MP for Pontiac, said it’s one thing for municipalities to get capital dollars together to build pricey transit systems, but once they are constructed, local taxpayers must foot the bill to run them.
He noted that the Outaouais chose to build a rapid-transit bus system rather than rail due to its lower cost. (Rail systems are more costly than bus systems, but are generally more economical if they’re carrying a lot of passengers.)
Mr. Cannon was addressing Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien’s second summit on transportation for the region, held to explore ideas such as an Eastern Ontario version of Toronto’s GO Train, to bring commuters in and out of Ottawa.
Ottawa West-Nepean MPP Jim Watson, Ontario’s municipal affairs minister, echoed the concern about affordability, saying municipal leaders cannot count on the provincial government to keep handing over additional funds, especially in the next couple of years as the economy slows.
“It’s great to dream about these big new plans, but you have to be able to operate them,” he said.
“We don’t have a limitless supply of money.”
Mr. Watson said his concern is that municipal politicians not try to establish expensive rail lines only to have the trains travel half-empty because there aren’t enough commuters in the communities they serve.
Specifically in Ottawa, Mr. Watson said he wants to see the pricing and project priorities for the city’s new urban transit plan, which includes a downtown tunnel.
The provincial minister said the $200 million Ontario has committed to Ottawa transit is “the first instalment,” but the province must know that the plans are “realistic” and good value for money, since Ontario will end up paying a third of the bill.
Mr. Cannon brought no news of new federal funding for more public transit for the capital region, although he noted the federal government is committed to contributing $35 million for another road project, the StrandherdArmstrong Bridge in south Ottawa and road approaches to it.
Mr. Watson said that project is one instance where the Ontario government disagrees with the federal government, because the bridge and its roads are “a pet project” for MP Pierre Poilievre in his Nepean-Carleton riding.
While the conference was supposed to be focused on building mass transit in Eastern Ontario, many of the mayors attending seemed more interested in widening highways east and west of Ottawa so that automobile drivers can get in and out of Ottawa more easily.
Clarence-Rockland Mayor Richard Lalonde said he was “shocked” that Ottawa council recently turned down millions of dollars from the provincial and federal governments to study expanding roads to the east of the city when thousands of commuters use them daily. Ottawa refused the money because the city didn’t want to further fuel its congestion woes by building a bigger freeway for cars.
Mr. Cannon said transportation solutions don’t always have to be big transit systems. He said Ottawa should consider following the example of Paris, France, by setting up a service that allows residents to use 21,000 bicycles for free in trips around the central part of the city. Mr. Cannon said Montreal is already moving on such a project and he wants to see the National Capital Commission and municipal officials consider it for the capital region.
Mr. O’Brien called the cycling suggestion “a great idea,” but his main focus yesterday was on attempting some tentative first steps with the other mayors to get some kind of transit system planned to serve the whole region.
The mayors issued a communiqué saying they want a regional transit network along the lines of GO Transit and will try to get money from the federal and provincial governments to study the project.