Transit troubles top concern as city prepares to table budget
Ottawa's draft spending plans to be tabled Wednesday
The City of Ottawa tables its 2020 spending plans on Wednesday, and no part of the budget is expected to face as much scrutiny or pressure as the money directed at the beleaguered transit system.
Faced with angry riders whose commutes have gotten worse since the arrival of LRT, Mayor Jim Watson and transit commission chair Allan Hubley suddenly announced Friday that 40 more OC Transpo buses would go back on the road this week.
The buses will be assigned to busy routes having capacity problems, including the 39 in Orléans and 75 in the south — areas formerly travelled by the workhorse No. 95 bus — and the 257 to Kanata.
The mayor said he directed transportation manager John Manconi to use $3.5 million from the 2019 reserves to pay for the extra bus service, but it is unclear whether the changes were intended for the 2020 budget and were simply sped up for November and December.
Buses chronically unreliable
Councillors are hearing residents demand better bus service far beyond the LRT corridor or its busy transfer stations, however.
"[Light rail] is one piece of the puzzle, and we're forgetting about ... all those people who never come downtown who rely on the bus to get around," said Bay ward Coun. Theresa Kavanagh, who sits on the transit commission.
Imagine waiting for a friend who's always late. Are you going to stay friends with them?- Coun. Theresa Kavanagh
Kavanagh said residents have told her their buses now come less often since the big switchover to light rail on Oct. 6, and they still can't count on them to show up on time.
"Imagine waiting for a friend who's always late," Kavanagh said. "Are you going to stay friends with them?"
Fare increase Jan. 1
Bus reliability is also River ward Coun. Riley Brockington's top priority, but he doesn't think OC Transpo can simply put money toward the problem without first figuring out why buses go off-schedule.
If financial fixes are needed, he thinks OC Transpo may need to shift money from other projects. After all, fares still need to rise 2.5 per cent on Jan. 1 as planned, Brockington said.
"There's not a lot of wiggle room. It's not like there are giant pots of money that we can draw on," said Brockington.
Transit chair Allan Hubley agrees the city needs to increase fares for the second time in three months. That's because the city wants to make buses more reliable in 2020, as well as creating new bus routes within suburbs and improving service for Para Transpo riders.
"If [the fare increase] doesn't happen, we can't do those three priorities," said Hubley.
The city's operating budget for transit totals about $575 million, of which nearly $200 million comes from fares, $300 million from property taxes, and the rest from other sources.
OC Transpo and Para Transpo have some 3,000 employees.
Keeping Stage 2 on track
But the city isn't just struggling to fix problems for transit riders today. Staff have also had to rearrange the budget so the city can afford to build Stage 2 of light rail.
The plan to pay for the $4.7-billion project was partly predicated on receiving a doubling of gas tax revenues from Ontario. Former Premier Kathleen Wynne made that promise, which current Premier Doug Ford then overturned.
The city has already awarded contracts for Stage 2, and construction is underway.
"You have a big hole in the plan," city treasurer Marian Simulik explained to the finance and economic development committee — which is overseeing the project, not transit commission — in September.
To fill that $36-million annual hole and keep the Stage 2 plan intact, the city will use taxes that were intended to fix roads and other infrastructure.
Those projects, in turn, could be paid for using a one-time infusion of federal gas tax revenues over the next three years.