Friday, May 29, 2009

On Chevrolets and Cadillacs

I was at a meeting this past week where there was one of those interminable discussions on public transit in Ottawa. You know the ones--someone new talks about how easily transit could be improved in Ottawa and all the old hats have to tell them that logical arguments don't work in this city. (You don't know those types of meetings? Consider yourself lucky)

The boredom of this particularly long spell of circular discussions put me into a hypnotic spell in which I had a flashback to a catchphrase from the last LRT project.

Back in the 2003 municipal election, there was much to do about Cadillacs. There was an article in the Citizen on November 3 that is a case in point. You can read it in the Proquest archive here if you have an Ottawa Public Library card and PIN.

The article, "Chiarelli's priorities for Ottawa" by David Reevely, repeats the contemporary meme that the City was spending a lot of money on "Cadillac" projects, the metaphor suggesting that the City should not be using tax dollars to build luxury projects.

The case in point for this analogy was the O-Train expansion, which at the time had not grown into the $900-million North-South Light Rail Transit project that was killed shortly after the following election.
"If you're going to look at getting Chevys instead of Cadillacs, I think you have to take a hard look at the O-Train," said J.-F. Claude, running in Innes ward. "It's not going to reach the east end until 2018, and it's a Cadillac system where we're dealing with a Chevy budget."

The city's transit money would be much better spent on more and better buses, Mr. Claude said.

Mr. Chiarelli, however, argues that it costs about $2 million a kilometre to convert existing track for the O-Train's use, versus $12 million a kilometre to expand the Transitway.

"Light rail is about as efficient as you can get," he said, adding that city staff are already looking at ways to expand the system as cheaply as possible.
It's crazy to think that the 2003 Transportation Master Plan (TMP) proposed 120 kilometres of light rail, mostly using existing track to expand rail cheaply and effectively, whereas the 2008 update significantly reduced the amount of rail and opted for a much more expensive version of rail.

Instead of reaching the east end by 2018, as the 2003 plans suggested, it will now only go as far as Blair in the east and Tunney's Pasture in the west by that time.

On the one hand, the O-Train extension was considered expensive and luxurious--a "Cadillac" plan in comparison to the existing "Chevy" bus service. By that comparison, though, we're now building a Hummer system: something that costs a lot more and doesn't go nearly as far.

It's unfortunate that Bob Chiarelli turned his back on the idea of using existing track to cheaply expand rapid transit. It lost him the 2006 election big time. Now we're planning a Hummer system which probably won't even get built, leaving us with our Chevy bus system.

Now, in 2009, as Chevrolet struggles against bankruptcy, do we really want the City of Ottawa to keep on the Chevy trail?

- RG>

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