By Charlie Senack, Barrhaven Independent
The next term or council will be tasked with some big decisions, including the future of Ottawa’s transit system.
With ridership habits changing and light rail transit not getting the reception city planners hoped for, some Mayoral candidates believe the planned expansion to Barrhaven should be put in pause — at least for now.
If it ever happens, light rail trains won’t be rolling through Barrhaven for at least another decade with construction not starting until at least 2027. The third phase of LRT would bring the trains from Baseline Station at Algonquin college to the future Barrhaven Town Centre behind Marketplace Station.
The price tag for the project is over $5 billion in today’s dollars, a number which would be higher by the time contracts are signed and construction starts.
Mayoral candidate Mark Sutcliffe announced soon after running that getting Phase 3 LRT out to Barrhaven, Kanata, and Stitsville, was a priority. Despite calls from many current councillors and candidates not to go ahead in its current form, Sutcliffe said the long-awaited project was needed for the growing suburb.
“We are going to get the rest of the funding from the provincial and federal governments and get the rest of the system built,” he told the Barrhaven Independent. “But we still need to improve the bus system in addition to that.”
Catherine McKenney, the current Somerset ward councillor who is running for Mayor, said they believe light rail out to Barrhaven shouldn’t be rushed until we have a better understanding of current transit patterns.
“We are living in a different time where people aren’t travelling downtown at the same rate and park and rides are empty,” McKenney said. “When you think about Barrhaven, the number of local routes does not serve the population. You would have a difficult time getting to a Library, grocery store, and then back home. It would take a long time.”
McKenney said transit patterns are shifting to more localized routes and believes creating better bus options in Barrhaven should be the first priority. They also noted Barrhaven is currently served by the bus rapid transitway, which does a good job of getting people in and out of the community when serviced by proper routes and enough buses.
Former Ottawa Mayor Bob Chiarelli, who is hoping to return to City Hall, believes all major city projects should be put on ice for at least the first year of council’s new term.
Chiarelli said there’s a lot of patchwork going on between the city and OC Transpo. He believes the entire system needs to be assessed — including the future of light rail transit expansions.
“That includes accessing the ridership, that includes doing a new examination of what the reality of our city is in terms of remote work,” he told the Barrhaven Independent. “People are not going downtown as much now, they are working from home. So there needs to be a very significant reassessment and I have some concern that the governments in our area are not working on the same page, they are not cooperating in terms of assessing the situation.”
Council candidates in Barrhaven East and West all seemingly agree that transit options in the community need a complete overhaul but are divided over whether or not to move forward with Phase 3 of light rail transit.
During the height of the pandemic, OC Transpo dropped to their lowest ridership levels ever, but are slowly seeing a climb with students back in school and people returning to in-person office work — at least in some capacity.
Now sitting at about 50 per cent pre-pandemic levels, OC Transpo general manager Renée Amilcar said it’s unlikely ridership will ever get back to its highest levels seen. With a projected $85 million deficit, the transit agency is calling on the provincial and federal governments to help balance its books.
Barrhaven East candidate Wilson Lo, who worked as an OC Transpo driver and in communications at the company, believes light rail transit out to Barrhaven shouldn’t be supported in its current form.
He wants to spend the next few years getting a better understanding of the system and how Barrhaven can best be served.
“I want to use that time to get a better deal for the city,” he said. “A project partner that has experience building LRT and related infrastructure, a contract that allows the city to demand better accountability and transparency, a train depot not located in the middle of a residential area (current plan has it at Greenbank/Highbury Park), and a project that applies lessons learned from stages 1 and 2 for both bus and train operations, especially at the transition.”
Barrhaven West candidate Jay Chadha, who has also worked at OC Transpo for the last 20 years (most recently in rail operations), believes an expansion out to Barrhaven isn’t needed. He said the current transitway was built as one of the best in Canada and has a lot of potential.
“People don’t care what mode of transportation they use to get around, as long as it’s fast, reliable, and affordable,” Chadha said. “This is a very expensive project and we don’t even have Phase 2 open yet. Let’s stop rushing projects along and make sure we do them right. I’m not against reassessing light rail transit out to Barrhaven, but we need to first see what the Public wants.”
Phase 2 will see the Trillium line extend from South Keys out to Limebank road in Riverside South and to the airport. While the line was expected to open this summer, supply chain issues have pushed the project back by a year.
The Confederation line will extend from Blair station to Trim road in the east and from Tunney’s Pasture to Baseline Station and Moodie drive in the west. Transit riders will have to wait a few more years for that section of Phase 2 with construction not expected to finish until 2026.
Barrhaven East council candidate Atiq Qureshi said he wants the Phase 3 project to be shelved due to the lack of ridership. He said with many people no longer commuting downtown for work, the expensive costs don’t justify limited gain.
Richard Garrick, also running in Barrhaven East, is firmly in support of a light rail transit expansion out to Barrhaven, saying we cannot wait any longer.
“Holding off or cancelling this project, like some other candidates have stated, would only hurt the residents that rely on transit and the businesses in our community like the new Downtown Barrhaven project and other small businesses in our community,” he said. “LRT will make it easier for residents and visitors from all over the city to get to Barrhaven to help these businesses grow. The LRT will also help attract new businesses and companies that want to come to Barrhaven and bring jobs to our area.”
David Hill, running in Barrhaven West, said he’s in support of Phase 3, but said the city must learn lessons from Phases one and two.
“The City of Ottawa and Barrhaven are growing very quickly, and we need an effective and connected public transit system to support this growth and bring together all of our major communities,” he said. “We need to take a measured approach and determine the city’s future transit needs to ensure we invest wisely.”
Barrhaven West candidate Taayo Simmonds said he would support Phase 3 as long as it’s reliable and greatly improved.
“My family took the bus everywhere. So I know the importance of reliable public transit,” he said. “I believe it’s important for our community but my concern is the quality of service. The LRT inquiry final report (due on November 30th) will provide more clarity on the path forward.”
Barrhaven East candidate Kathleen Caught said it’s premature to even discuss funding Phase 3 until we see results from the inquiry.
Barrhaven West candidate Sadaf Ebrahim said while people want to see more transparency and accountability with the system, she’s in support of funding Phase 3.
Dominik Janelle, Patrick Brennan, and Guy Boone did not respond to the Barrhaven Independent’s request for comment.