Phase 2 Light Rail To Riverside South Delayed By Another Year
By Charlie Senack
Any plans for light rail transit to hit Barrhaven could be put on the chopping block as OC Transpo finds itself in a tougher than expected financial situation.
While trains wouldn’t be rolling through the community for at least a decade anyway, the transit agency is trying to plan long term for a bleak outlook.
During a technical briefing on Sept. 18, it was confirmed that 25-year projections are down $3.7 billion — more than $100 million per year. Pre-pandemic ridership now won’t return until at least 2030, and the expected 112 million expected rides this year won’t even come close. All of this after OC Transpo had to dig into its reserves last year to cover its budget gap, running a $40.8 million deficit.
To help offset all these costs, multiple options are on the table including increasing fares, cutting service, adding a new tax, or axing any further light rail expansion plans.
In an interview with the Barrhaven Independent, OC Transpo general manager Renée Amilcar said it will be a “tough run.”
“Now people know, now people understand the reality. Maybe they can better accept the decisions we will need to take in a short term period so that mid term and long term we can have a sustainable transit here in Ottawa,” she said.
If light rail transit were ever to be built to Barrhaven, Kanata and Stitsville, it would need to be funded fully by other levels of government. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has made it clear that no further money will be promised until issues with the Phase 1 Confederation line are sorted out.
During the technical briefing, city staff did not make a supportive case for a Phase 3 project, saying it would cost an estimated $64 million per year to operate. It would bring only an estimated 2 per cent increase in ridership, increasing funds by $5 million annually.
Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe, who campaigned on seeing Phase 3 built, said he still hasn’t given up all hope. He said the financials, however, are much worse than he predicted.
“I still believe that we can deliver Phase 3 to the residents of Barrhaven, Stittsville and Kanata. I think it’s an important part of the system and our population is going to grow significantly over the next 25 years,” Sutcliffe told reporters. “We’re not ready to push the button on Phase 3 this week anyway. We have a lot of work to do before we get to a point about making a decision about Phase 3, so we have to do that work and we have to have those important conversations with other levels of government.”
Amilcar meanwhile said when she took over as general manager two years ago, she never saw Phase 3 as a guarantee.
“We need to make sure that we can fix the problem that we have with the Confederation line and we have to make sure that we have success with stage 2, then we will see,” she told the Barrhaven Independent. “Maybe we can see with bus rapid transit. BRT is very good as well. You don’t absolutely need LRT. BRT can do the same level of job.”
Amilcar said the latest financial report is a good “wake up call” over the impacts COVID-19 has had on Ottawa’s transit system and said federal office employees working from home are partly to blame.
While she said it’s too late to not build Phase 1 or 2, Amilcar said a redesign is in order to work with what’s available.
“Based on my experience, around the world it’s better when you have a good transit network for the future instead of waiting,” she said. “It will be a tough time because the system is built and we need to be able to operate it, we need money that we don’t have. But in 15 or 25 years we will be so proud and happy to say the system is here, available, and that it’s working.”
To help OC Transpo weather their financial storm, Sutcliffe is calling on other levels of government to step up and provide further funding. When the 2023 budget was tabled, it included a $39-million hole which was expected to be covered by the federal and provincial budgets, but no additional help came.
“I think Ottawa is justified in asking for help because of the unique circumstances of being the nation’s capital,” Sutcliffe said. “Federal government decisions have had an impact on transit ridership in Ottawa and, frankly, the future of downtown.”
Sutcliffe referenced how the federal government is considering moving out of many of its buildings, which he said will present a “significant challenge for the community.” He also said other cities like Toronto get a bigger piece of provincial funding to run their networks.
“I respect those decisions, those are their decisions to make, but there are consequences at the municipal level,” he said.
More details on Ottawa’s problem-plagued transit system are expected to be released during meetings in October.
The Phase 2 light rail transit line out to Riverside South and the airport was supposed to see completion in August 2022, but was delayed a year. This August it was announced that work won’t be completed until “the year if the year.”
Amilcar wouldn’t say if those timelines are still accurate, but noted they won’t launch the Trillium Line system until fully ready, hopefully avoiding the past mistakes seen with Line 1. Once completed, trains will run between Bayview Station and Limebank Road, passing through Carleton University, South Keys, and the airport.
Barrhaven will continue to be served by OC Transpo buses for the foreseeable future.
Light rail transit to Riverside South has been delayed.