Ottawa

'All options are on the table' to fix LRT mess

City councillors are calling for no-holds-barred solutions ranging from buying new buses to bringing back express routes to re-instituting highway detours — all costly measures that could set the city's 2020 budget way off course.

Buying buses, highway detours and redoing budget all possibilities, councillors say

Passengers never know when they'll be forced off LRT and onto waiting buses. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

In what can only be considered an admission of the short-term failure of Ottawa's $2.1-billion Confederation Line, city councillors are calling for no-holds-barred solutions ranging from buying new buses to bringing back express routes to re-instituting highway detours — all costly measures that could set the city's 2020 budget way off course.

"All options are on the table," said a dejected-sounding Coun. Stephen Blais on Wednesday. "They're not easy options, they're not quick things."

After having put on a brave face over the past six weeks, councillors are now openly expressing distress at the multiple delays and unreliability of both the LRT and the buses that connect to it — a failure rate that a number of them have called "unacceptable."

That includes Mayor Jim Watson, who told CBC on Wednesday that "any good idea is worth exploring." 

"I'm beyond frustrated," said Coun. Laura Dudas. "[The LRT] is not serving our community, it's not serving the city … we need to start looking at how we can permanently resolve this."

"It's not acceptable to basically roll the dice on if you can get home to pick up your kids from school," Blais said.

An Ottawa LRT train moves through the snow Nov. 12, 2019. (CBC)

On Tuesday afternoon, after a train stoppage in the east end forced riders out into the cold, three councillors called on OC Transpo to restore former express routes that would take suburban riders directly downtown, bypassing the LRT altogether — similar to the parallel bus service that ran when the Confederation Line first opened, which cost $1 million a week to operate.

It's an idea that Coun. Carol Anne Meehan supports.

"It's minus 20 out there, people can't be left stranded," Meehan said. "We have to have direct buses from the suburbs … get those buses back in service going right down to the core."

Councillors Allan Hubley and Jeff Leiper say city staff are looking at many possible solutions to Ottawa's LRT issues, but finding the resources for more buses and more drivers will be a challenge.  1:13

But that's easier said than done.

The city has no more buses. It had 40 in reserve, but all those buses were put back on the road last week. And even if the city can find more buses to buy or lease, it still needs to find drivers for them. 

Even Coun. Jeff Leiper, one of the councillors who originally called for the return of at least some of the 200-series buses, said he recognizes there are challenges to his plan, and admits he doesn't know where the buses, drivers or money will come from.

Still, he said, the transit situation is so bad the city has to take extraordinary measures.

Coun. Jeff Leiper was one of the first councillor to call for the return of old express buses, but admits he doesn't know where the money to pay for them will come from. (CBC)

"We need to be pragmatic about this, but we do need to explore something other than just hoping that [Rideau Transit Group] fixes the problems with its train system," he said.

Leiper said he was encouraged in his discussions with the mayor's office and transit chair, Coun. Allan Hubley, that they are also open to "exploring whatever solutions it takes to give Ottawa transit riders the experience that they rightfully expect from us."

LRT 'an unknown situation'

There are other equally dramatic options on the table, councillors say, including re-instating highway detours and designating some city streets as a makeshift transitway.

All of this is pricey — a new bus, for example, costs about $1 million — and it would be impossible for OC Transpo's current draft budget for 2020 to absorb those additional costs.

That means the money will have to be found in other departments, or else council might have to consider a property tax increase higher than the planned three per cent. 

Coun. Allan Hubley, who chairs the transit commission, says the budget may have to be revisited to pay for additional bus service. (CBC)

"That's not going to be a popular statement because an awful lot of people put good work into that budget, but we are dealing with an unknown situation here," Hubley told reporters Wednesday.

Watson told CBC he has directed city staff to present all options to council, but it's unclear when that will happen.

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.

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