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
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
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 headquarters. Nearly 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.
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.
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.
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
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.