Former Alderman Peter Harris Weighs in on Light Rail

The Following is a guest blog post by Former Alderman Peter Harris:

30 years. Three Ottawa-Carleton Region Councils. Three Mayors of the amalgamated City of Ottawa. An election issue in 1991, 2006 and 2010. From Master Plans featuring bus transitways & expressways , Light Rail reflects a new era for Ottawa’s future.

A lot has happened over three decades. In 1989 the Ottawa-Carleton Bus Transitway was the preoccupation of regional government. OC Transpo was rated as one the best bus systems in North America. So why the change or shall I say – challenge?  The Region had proposed a $950 million tunnel for buses under Albert Street. It was supported by the majority of Mayors from the different cities. However, the political faces changed; the head of OC Transpo moved on; new leaders were elected; and amalgamation created one giant Ottawa.

As the Alderman for the former Dalhousie Ward in Ottawa, rail made a big difference to my constituents. The CP rail corridor went through the heart of Little Italy. The Region’s Master Plan included the Preston Champagne Arterial – a 70’s style expressway connecting the Queensway to the Ottawa River Parkway. It would have meant the demolition of St Anthony’s Soccer Club and a mile of homes through to Lebreton Flats. Italians along Preston St were still ‘licking their wounds’ from expropriation in the ‘60’s near St Anthony’s Church for regional housing and the new High School of Commerce.

Thankfully, CP Rail sent representative Raymond O’Meara to appear before the RMOC Transportation Cttee to explain how Montreal had converted freight lines to commuter. I introduced Mr. O’Meara to the Executive of the Preston Street Business Association who loved the idea. It suited their plans for the future. This was no ordinary route – it included a tunnel under Dow’s Lake; passed by the Carleton Univ campus and headed south towards the airport. On the Quebec side, it went by the site of the future Casino Lac Leamy.

The NCC in the meantime missed out on the era of transportation planning for the Capital of Canada. “We are not in the business of transportation’ said the NCC while busy planning bridges for cars. The Prince of Wales rail bridge crossing the Ottawa River was sold to the City of Ottawa whose Council was hot on LRT; while Gatineau’s opted for buses.  Interprovincial master planning at work!

In late 1989, following my defeat in a Dalhousie Ward byelection, I was showed the door a week later at RMOC while opposing the tunnel for buses. One prominent politician stated ‘that I should know better’. Well I did. I joined forces with Greg Ross and Michel Haddad – two private citizens who also voiced objections. We formed a new citizen’s group called Citizens for Alternative Transit – C.A.T. – one member per initial.

C.A.T. issued media releases, researched LRT in other cities; contacted rail suppliers; and in the spring of 1991, hosted an LRT seminar at the RMOC headquartersNearly 200 people heard presentations from AEG Bailey-Siemens, CP Rail and Bombardier on the merits of light rail, the possible modes of rail that can be used, and projects in other cities in Canada and abroad. The level of knowledge displayed by the audience was so impressive. From the beginning Ottawans have showed enthusiasm and support for light rail.

In late 1991, having been elected once again and on the RMOC Transportation Committee, there was more support around the Council table for light rail. LRT had emerged as an election issue in the race for RMOC Chairman between Darrell Kent, Peter Clark and Frank Reid. Kent proposed an elevated rail system through the downtown core. He lost the election but elevated LRT to a new level. Peter Clark won the election and was open to new ideas.

Councillors such as Nancy Mitchell worked with me to integrate LRT as part of the Master Transportation Plan. The Ottawa-Carleton Council of 1991-1994 would change the future of transportation planning forever. The Preston-Champagne Arterial would never materialize and rail would overcome the bus transitway. 

In 1997, Bob Chiarelli defeated Peter Clark as new Chair of Ottawa-Carleton Region. With the help of the Preston St BIA, Chiarelli supported the north-south CP Rail corridor for an LRT route. It didn’t hurt that Chiarelli grew up in Little Italy. In 2001 the O-Train was launched at the corner of Preston & Carling Ave.

David Jeanes & Tim Lane, members of Transport 2000, did tremendous volunteer work to promote LRT.  They kept the Transportation staff ‘on their toes’ and made presentations to community groups. In the east end, LRT was being promoted by Gloucester’s Royal Galipeau.

Light Rail influenced the outcome of yet another election in 2006 when Bob Chiarelli lost against Larry O’Brien in part due to Chiarelli’s proposal for an above-grade LRT system on Albert St. The merchants were very upset. Larry O’Brien campaigned against this as well as the north-south rail route. The new Ottawa City Council nixed the contract for north-south rail (big mistake) at a cost of millions of tax dollars. Planning then began for an East-West LRT route.

In the 2010 election, Jim Watson departed Queen’s Park and defeated Larry O’Brien for Mayor. Watson pledged to bring in LRT ‘on-time & on-budget’. In 2012 he cancels the agreed LRT station at the iconic location of Confederation Square in front of the NAC (so much for the speeches on world-class cities). Jeff Gillin of the Lord Elgin Hotel offered $2 million to the city. Watson refuses. The NAC and NCC lament the change but do nothing despite the major funding from the federal government. M.P.’s Muril Belanger and Paul Dewar raised objections.

The LRT station planned for the Rideau Centre is retained and to this day, the big question remains: How much money did the Rideau Centre contribute?

Today ongoing debates on the route of LRT going east and west continue. But LRT has finally arrived. It reminds us that politics is about managing change and this is a major one. LRT was not inspired by government staff or any one politician. It was the vision and challenges of private citizens and volunteers that facilitated community discussion.

The debates and implementation of LRT shows us how individual actions can make a difference despite big government; and should serve as a reminder to our elected officials on the importance of public participation.

3 Comments

  1. The other message in all of this is how useless the NCC is. The organization has been detrimental to Ottawa’s development over the years. The City would be so much better without it.

    1. Compare the NCC’s parks, bike paths, public spaces, tree planting, urban planning, bridges, buildings, public consultations, etc., with those of Ottawa’s. The NCC wins hands down. Were it not for the NCC, Ottawa would be wall-to-wall sprawl – endless soulless subdivisions, shopping malls, traffic-clogged roads, ugly condos, and dying trees. The City of Ottawa would be so much better if it ceased to be an Ontario municipality and became instead a federal/capital district. We might then be able to move beyond the 1980s planning that is still practiced by the City of Ottawa.

      1. Years ago I spoke with Jean Pigott about the federal district. The problem is Quebec is not interested. But typically they have welcomed all the federal funds to upgrade Hull , Gatineau Park etc. That being the case, I think a new model of governance to update the NCC is warranted. Let’s start with a name change to OTTAWA & CAPITAL REGION. How do you market a no-name city ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *