Monday, June 30, 2008

The trio that is driving transit ... into the ground

Imagine my surprise when I opened the City section of today's Citizen. My surprise was perhaps multiplied because I had actually spent money to buy this edition, Bridgehead's copies having been filtered away.

Crossing five of six columns on the page C1 was the image of three City managers--Mona Abouhinedy, Vivi Chi, and Nancy Schepers--in a Transitway station. They are dubbed "Three Wise Women of City Hall".

The article, which continues on the second page, rotates between patting these women on the head for being successful, reassuring the reader it's not a gender thing (cough cough), and offering unrelenting worship for their meticulousness.


I've come to expect the Citizen's reporting to fall short of where I'd like it go, but such a one-sided story seems to be an endorsement of an apparent flawlessness in the City's Transit "vision". What room is there to criticize the plan if Staff have looked at every detail?

I use the word "vision" loosely, despite the media's relentless reference to a Transit "Plan". A plan, however, would contain detailed costing, timelines, and ridership estimates. In acknowledgement that this is absent, City of Ottawa Press Releases--and even our dictaphobic Mayor--refer to it as a "vision". Which is like calling it a "daydream".

The closest thing to criticism in this article is for the trio's predecessors, who are referred to only as "two white guys" (Rajean Chartrand and Peter Steacy). Bay Ward Councillor Alex Cullen, who chairs the City's Transportation Committee, praises the ladies, saying they differ from their predecessors in that they are not "'over-controlling' of information surrounding their plan, particularly on controversial matters." Indeed, they're not.

These three prefer to merely ignore information they don't like, lest they be accused of controlling it. Council complicitly refuses to insist they provide it.

I speak not of hyperbole. I spoke at length with Vivi Chi at one of the many Open Houses on Transit which have earned these three praise for "openness" in the article. Interestingly, and to their credit, both Nancy Schepers and Alain Mercier had taken the bus to this Open House at Lansdowne Park (I have yet to find a reference to Vivi Chi ever stepping on a bus). Mercier complained at how difficult the transit connection was from OC Transpo headquarters, though I don't think he went so far as to realize that this might be the reason only eight members of the public had been at the Open House there a few days prior.

Now, never minding that the alleged "openness" did not extend to allowing alternate options from being presented at these Open Houses--leaving Councillor Wilkinson to be treated like a blasphemous traitor for parting from canon, despite her proposed map being nearly identical to one of the maps on Staff's own easels.

No, my beef with Ms. Chi--as with most of Council--has to do with buses. Thankfully, the Citizen has started to refer to this proposal as a "bus and rail plan", instead of blindly parroting the popular myth that it suggests that four billion dollars to be spent on rail.

I saw early on that this transit "plan" calls for 63 kilometres of bus Transitway ($900 million), plus $600 million in buses and other bus-related infrastructure. This would be built in the suburbs, to the far reaches of Kanata/Stittsville, Barrhaven and Orleans. When Staff presented the four "options" to Council, they mentioned this bus investment once, briefly, then said they would not raise it again because it was common to all four "options"!

The various reports provided by Staff scarcely mentions this bus investment. One reference in section 3.2 early of one report is explicitly referred to as a "planning assumption" (i.e. not justified; the conclusion of no logically-explained argument).

So I asked Ms. Chi about the blue lines on the map which represented the unbuilt bus Transitway, playing stupid. She told me that Transitway is cheap because all you have to do is lay down some asphalt and you're done. Cheap? Nine hundred million dollars is

I asked why we couldn't simply do today with buses what she plans to do with rail--namely, turning express buses around at Hurdman and Lebreton and forcing people to transfer to a platoon of Transitway buses. She said she was convinced that people will endure a transfer if and only if it is to a "higher order" mode. That is, people will transfer from the Transitway to a Light Rail train because the train is "higher order", but a bus-only trip requires a single-seat ride.

I then asked her why we couldn't build these suburban connections as rail instead. I can't remember which of the common excuses she recited, but the two I've heard before and since were "it's too expensive to build rail to the suburbs" and "there isn't enough density".

But that aside, I asked for her justification for building 63 kilometres of Transitway in the suburbs. What is the cost-benefit? Why were the existing reserved bus lanes insufficient? What is the need? How is busway justified, when the population "isn't dense enough" for rail?

I asked this because of the City's clusterfuck on Woodroffe. Some time ago, a good chunk of Woodroffe Avenue was widened from two lanes to four, with the outer lanes being reserved for bus traffic. As this was a bus facility, these lanes were built with Transit money.

Then, in 2004, for some reason unknown to me, the City built segregated Transitway lanes along the stretch of Woodroffe from West Hunt Club to Fallowfield. This, of course, was also built with Transit funding. Bus riders noticed few differences: the buses along this stretch went no faster than they had been going before (as there was no less non-bus traffic than on the reserved bus lanes), the people who accessed the #95 at the stop in the middle of this stretch could no longer do so, and about 30 seconds were shaved off by the Eastbound bus ride by no longer having to cross at Fallowfield.

Suburban car drivers, however, noticed a vast difference. They now had four lanes, not two, to sprawl through the greenbelt into Downtown.
All paid for with Transit infrastructure funding!

The $900 million investment in Transitway is really a misdirection to repeat the Woodroffe Effect in all our suburbs, making our beloved Staff's "Transit vision" into a "rail and bus and road-widening" plan. Councillors Doucet and Chiarelli acknowledged elements of this argument as they voted--rightly--against it.

But I did not take this for granted that this was a singularly malicious and intentional action on Staff's part. I assume that Staff had done their homework and had come up with a good excuse for this. After all, the
Citizen article says that this trio are "unassuming, exceedingly meticulous and professional", they are praised for "openness, frankness and honesty" and for having "provided as many details as possible at this stage of the process, including costs"--not counting what the women say about themselves.

So, in her defense, what did Ms. Chi's workbook have to say in defense of this busway investment?

We figure," she said, burning those two words into my mind, "that people in the suburbs would want to upgrade to a Transitway in the next 25 years." I was floored. The last bit is paraphrased, but I assure you that nine-hundred million dollars of infrastructure investment is being justified with "we figure."

She wasn't even going to give me the courtesy of some bullshit brushoff excuse, like a reference to Chamin Appuhamy, the baby who was killed when the car carrying him was struck by a bus while stopped in a bus lane. Well, credit that to her "openness and honesty". And credit must go to Council for being so explicitly and willfully blind to not notice this!

Councillor Cullen still says it will cost another $4 billion to convert these currently-unbuilt busways to rail, despite Staff having since focused the estimate to $1.5 billion since the $4 billion figure was first floated. No estimate, however, has been provided for the cost of building rail to the suburbs without first building busways. Councillor Leadman had produced an easy-to-follow report (which seems to have disappeared from the internets) for which she sought out these details for herself, despite Staff's insubordinate refusal to assist her in its preparation. (To top it all off, Staff have told Councillor Leadman that they plan on building these bus connections in the first five years of the plan,
before solving the downtown mess!)

After a community association meeting, I asked my councillor, Diane Holmes, why she wasn't following Councillor Leadman's lead by insisting that Staff provide a costing out of extending rail to the suburbs. Councillor Holmes said that it would cost too much to build out that far. Funny--how does she know this when
staff hasn't provided Council with a cost estimate? I mean, they looked at a fucking bus tunnel, for crying out loud! How can rail to the suburbs be less worthy of consideration than that?!?

All this to say that these women's success is most certainly not a "gender thing". These three women--"two of whom are visible minorities", as the politically-correct article helpfully points out--are clearly able to pull the wool over Councillors' and citizens' (and Citizen's) eyes not only as good as, but much better than the "two white guys" who came before them.

Taxpayers, unfortunately, will be left with nothing but a Mess Transit Plan.

- RG>

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