Ottawa·ELECTION 2018

CBC Ottawa explains: Suburban gridlock, and what to do about it

Ottawa's far-flung suburbs are growing faster than the roads that lead to them. How can the city balance the cost of all that new infrastructure with the needs of downtown residents?

In Ottawa's expanding suburbs, roads aren't keeping pace with population growth

CBC Ottawa's Street Talk team heard many complaints about infrastructure, especially roads, when it spoke with residents of Barrhaven. 0:28

Barrhaven resident Wade Khoury is fed up with traffic in the suburbs.

"Strandherd is probably the worst road on the planet right now," he said. "It demotivates you to even want to leave the house to do groceries and other chores."

Ottawa's suburbs keep growing, yet the people who live there say the roads that service them simply aren't keeping pace.

Barrhaven, Riverside South and Findlay Creek alone have added more than 5,000 households in the last five years, but the two-lane rural roads in and out of the communities haven't changed.

So what's the city's plan to deal with all that suburban growth? What will it cost? And is it enough to ease the gridlock?

Let's dig in.

Flocking south

Fifty-five per cent of Ottawa's population lives within the Greenbelt. Another 10 per cent lives in its rural areas.

At last count, 350,000 people called Ottawa's suburbs home. In the past five years, Barrhaven, Riverside South and Findlay Creek have grown by 12 per cent, while Kanata-Stittsville has grown by eight per cent. Compare that to the city-wide population growth rate of 3.6 per cent.

While suburban growth has traditionally meant large, detached homes with expansive lawns, Ottawa's suburbs are getting more dense, with townhouses and condos dominating sales.

Roads aren't the priority

When it comes to urban transportation, transit is king, at least around the city council table.

Ottawa's 2013 master transportation plan, which sets the agenda through to 2031, calls for $3 billion in spending on transit versus just $725 million on roads.

The city knows the road network it really wants — there's even a map — but can't afford it.

Spending has been constrained by council's promise to keep annual tax increases capped at 2 per cent this term and 2.5 per cent during the previous term, both under Mayor Jim Watson.

So the city has settled for what it can afford to build, extend and widen. That amounts to just $48 million a year to pay for about a dozen major projects over each five-year phase.

Development charges

In a new subdivision, developers pay for all those new streets, sidewalks, lights, parks and the pipes off the main road.

Ottawa also levies development charges to pay for the other things those new communities need including arterial roads, water mains, transit, recreation facilities and libraries.

"Growth pays for growth" is the philosophy. 

Each building permit for a semi-detached or detached house built outside the Greenbelt nets the city $35,000. Inside the greenbelt, it's $25,000.

That revenue is apportioned to specific city services, with the largest chunk going to fund light rail.

In 2017, the city collected $131 million in development charges, short of the forecast $194 million. Such shortfalls mean projects get delayed, and create a domino effect for other projects in the queue.

What about property tax?

Some cities pay for assets such as arterial roads with a 50-50 split of property taxes and development charges.

In Ottawa, nearly all the money for new growth — 85 to 95 per cent — comes from development charges.

Of course, that's only the infrastructure itself — plowing those new roads and staffing those new libraries costs money, too, and that's where all that tax revenue goes.

Field of dreams: People are flocking to Ottawa's suburbs, turning agricultural land into new suburbs at a pace the city's infrastructure plan simply can't match. (Kate Porter/CBC)

A matter of fairness

Some downtown residents believe they shouldn't pay for new infrastructure so someone can live in a big, new house in a farmer's field.

But longtime Barrhaven councillor Jan Harder, who's seeking re-election, questions the fairness of making suburban residents sit in gridlock while their property taxes fund the Elgin Street redevelopment.

Ottawa's urban-suburban personality split is showing itself once again.

So what's the solution? More debt? Cutting costs? Raising taxes? An infrastructure levy?

Some candidates have suggested the city slow development, but there are several factors that make that impractical, not the least of which is the spectre of shrinking revenue from development charges. 

Next year, the city will take another crack at both the transportation master plan and the bylaw governing development charges.

It will be up to the new city council to determine whether new roads will get suburbanites where they need to go, and how quickly.

About the Author

Kate Porter

Reporter

Kate Porter covers municipal affairs for CBC Ottawa. Over the past 15 years, she has also produced in-depth reports for radio, web and TV, regularly presented the radio news, and covered the arts beat.