Thursday, April 30, 2009

City reveals what we knew all along

So I attended the City's media events on the Downtown Ottawa Transit Tunnel study, where they "revealed" their recommended alignment.

I got there late for the photo op under the Plaza bridge, but I wasn't too concerned because that's mostly politicians giving a glossy version of what Staff would be explaining in much better detail later on back at City Hall.

Surprise, surprise, Transit Committee Chair Alex Cullen was behind the microphone. Mayor Larry O'Brien is standing aside. I'm sure he gave some awkward platitudes earlier in the session.

Also on hand were Planning and Environment Committee Chair Peter Hume and Transportation Committee Chair Maria McRae, who kept calling for Councillor Cullen to stop talking so everyone could move on to the next part of the event back at City Hall.

She almost got her wish, until Councillor Jacques Legendre asked from the scrum why the event was held here. Cullen replied, "right here will be an entrance to one of the stations--the Rideau station."

This inspired members of the media to ask other questions. One interesting response from Councillor Cullen was that the tunnel is coming in "under budget", at $600 million, far less than the $1 billion projected. By former Regional Reeve Andrew Haydon. In the 1980's. This is selective memory on Cullen's part. Consider that the City's 2003 Transportation Master Plan called for 120 kilometres of light rail on existing track, and the first two phases, going from Orleans to Kanata to Riverside South, would cost about $3 billion total.

Anyway, the session resumed at 1:45 in the Colonel By room, where Vivi Chi went through the slideshow (pdf) on the recommended alignment.

I was really quite surprised. Not at what it recommended, but that they bothered announcing it. Aside from an extra 700 metres of tunnel from Laurier to Mann, this is exactly what City Staff have been saying is their preference all along. It makes you wonder why we even bothered to go through public consultation.

This "public consultation" process reminds me of my high school essays. To prove we had spent time on it, we had to submit rough drafts of our essays. Frequently, we would simply write our essays the night before, then introduce spelling errors into alternate versions, which we submitted as "rough drafts." It was clear from the previous public consultation that City Staff wanted the cross-country alignment, that they wanted the centre platform station design, and that they wanted to have the O-Train line merge with the East-West line.

I have to admit, I was a bit surprised that they decided against building temporary bus infrastructure for LeBreton station, but I'm not the least bit surprised that they found no way to keep Transitway buses from using Scott and Albert to get between Westboro/Tunneys and Bayview/LeBreton once Phase I is finished and Phase II isn't yet started.

When I asked Vivi Chi about this after the briefing, she said that they need to look at ways of mitigating it, and there's lots of work to be done. Translated to English: Scott/Albert is convenient for them, so they're not going to seriously consider alternatives to save the neighbourhoods along these roads from having a surface Transitway on their doorstep for the next ten or more years.

It was also a surprise that the tunnel would be extended by about a third beyond the previously-suggested East entrance at Campus station to just south of Mann Avenue. Apparently, this would minimize disruption at Laurier and Waller when the East end of the tunnel is built, which I'm skeptical is worth the price of 700 metres of cut-and-cover tunnel. It certainly would require more consultant time to design!

Councillors raised some interesting points (disguised as questions). Rideau-Vanier Councillor Georges Bédard mentioned the Rideau Centre's concern that the tunnel station will be immediately below Rideau Street. They prefer the regional transit to be on one end of the Rideau Centre and the local transit to be on the other (i.e. the Transitway is currently on the Mackenzie-King Bridge and local buses are on Rideau), so that people are forced to walk through the Rideau Centre to transfer, and shop along the way. Bédard noted that the Rideau Centre's sales dropped by 30% during the bus strike.

Since it's clear the tunnel station will be on Rideau, Bédard wants to cripple transit transfers by forcing local buses to go down to Mackenzie-King Bridge, purely so that people will be forced to walk through the Rideau Centre.

Kanata North Councillor Marianne Wilkinson was angry that Staff had done an about-face on bus traffic coming in from the West. She recalls (as did I and the person sitting next to me) that in the last round of discussions, Council was told that express buses coming in from the West would be able to continue to go through downtown until the train line is extended to Baseline, since transferring at Tunney's or LeBreton would make for a very short train ride. Vivi Chi denied that Staff had ever said this, and Councillor Cullen used his Jedi skills to deny it as well. I remember that they had said this, because I have railed (pun unintended) against this terrible decision at every occasion I've had.

I'm a bit torn: I don't like the revisionism on Staff's part, but I also don't like the idea of express buses continuing to go downtown until after 2017, after whenever the next phase is finished. Whatever the case, Council needs to make a concrete decision so that Staff and Councillors are both aware of whether express buses will turn around or continue to downtown.

Rideau-Rockcliffe Councillor Jacques Legendre raised the insightful point about working with downtown landowners:
"A few years ago, when we were talking about the Chiarelli system... [Downtown business owners] were a bit taken aback [when asked to come to the table], and came back and said 'we're ready to come to the table.' We never talked to them. Let's not repeat that error. Please."
After the event broke up, I spoke with Vivi Chi about some lingering questions.

During the presentation, Chi said, "we still have residual comments on Surface vs. Tunnel, but we've been through that discussion and that debate at Council has been very firm." I had submitted a number of comments that the surface option had not been considered at any point in the process. They did not have the debate at council, and the rationale to discount surface rail in the Transportation Master Plan was restricted to an 81-word paragraph buried in one of the consultant reports. But setting my tunnel grudge aside, Chi said in her presentation that the tunnel would allow the City to "return the surface to the public."

When I asked her how many lanes of Albert and Slater are going to be converted to public parks, she said something about sidewalks and public art in Philadelphia. So in this case, "returning the surface to the public" means returning it to cars. I hope I'm proved wrong on this.

Oh, and did you know that the City will be converting the O-Train line to electric Light Rail? Yeah, that project that was cancelled in 2006 is getting built anyway. Double-tracking the O-Train line, converting to electric. No? Didn't hear about that? Well that's because it's not part of the DOTT study. It is part of the Transportation Master Plan.

Because of lower demand, they'll be running two-car trains along the North-South route, compared with six-car trains on the East-West line. Staff are recommending that these North-South trains be able to turn at Bayview so they can continue downtown.

The problem, as Transport 2000's David Jeanes pointed out on previous occasions, is that with only a handful of stations downtown, and with only one train being able to be at a station at any given time, running a two-car train through downtown to continue down South from Bayview means that you can't run a six-car train through downtown to continue West to Tunney's, and once it is built, Baseline. Capacity is lost.

One way to alleviate this problem is with more stations downtown. Instead of few six-car trains, have more frequent four-car trains, stopping at more stations. This also reduces pedestrian congestion as six train cars' worth of passengers all try to leave the station at once.

From centre-of-platform to centre-of-platform, the proposed stations are 650 metres apart, compared with 400-500 metres between urban core stations in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton and Montreal (according to Jeanes). Staff respond that Ottawa's stations will be 180 meres long, with entrances on both ends, so it's effectively like having twice as many. But newer stations in other cities have entrances on both ends, and Ottawa's trains won't have six cars for some time to come. Furthermore, they'll be 30 metres below the surface. Combined, this means a lot more walking to add to your commute time.

Staff also respond that the stations cost a lot of money--as much as $150 million. Jeanes has explained that it costs this much (as opposed to Toronto's Sheperd station, which cost a third that amount) because Staff are recommending stations with huge, cavernous interiors like those in Washington, D.C.

Connecting this all back with Bayview, the problem with Bayview's merging alignment is that rush-hour trains coming from the South won't be able to go to and through downtown, because there won't be capacity for them.

The problem with City Staff, meanwhile, is that they keep dismissing these problems, saying "those are operating questions that we have not gotten into. Right now we're looking at facilities."

I got a more straightforward version from the consultant Hopper:
"Well, that's an operational decision; there may be times when you're running six-car trains East-West in the crush of rush hour where you don't want to slip in a two-car train from North-South, and other times you may, so operationally you'd have the option to turn the train or run it all the way through."
Essentially, what he's saying is that under Staff's recommended solution, people coming in from Riverside South (and potentially Barrhaven, if Light Rail is extended that far in the future) will likely have to transfer from their two-car train on Bayview's lower platform to the six-car train on the upper platform. This is exactly what Councillor Wilkinson was incensed about for her express bus users until Phase II is built, except that this would be a permanent situation for Riverside South.

If you're going to require people coming from the south to transfer at Bayview anyway, it begs the question: why bother electrifying and converting the O-Train at all? Why build the more expensive and complex station at Bayview with the tracks merging? And why don't you just leave it the way it is and extend it across the Prince of Wales rail bridge to Gatineau?

The best answer to many of these questions (à la Occam's Razor) is, as Friend of the O-Train Tim Lane likes to sarcastically say, "it's not expensive enough."

- RG>

1 comment:

xup said...

I don't believe any of this is even going to happen. After my almost 2 years of experience living in Ottawa, I've come to the conclusion that City Council is never going to make a final decision on anything. They announce a lot of stuff and manage to get their names in the news almost every day, but nothing is ever resolved. They make sure there is always enough controversy to allow them to continue debating forever. They can't even decide whether or not to start a green bin program when every other city in the free world has one. I can't see them ever actually digging a tunnel through the middle of the city.