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Canada Ottawa's troubled public transit service in the spotlight ahead of draft 2020 budget

14:20  04 november  2019
14:20  04 november  2019 Source:   ottawacitizen.com

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Public transit problems weren't supposed dominate the City of Ottawa ' s 2020 budget . Now it’s OC Transpo and city council’s oversight of the transit system that’s in the spotlight as Mayor Jim Watson and city management prepare to table the draft 2020 budget on Wednesday.

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a group of people standing in front of a bus: Buses drop of transit users at Blair Station.© Jean Levac Buses drop of transit users at Blair Station.

Public transit problems weren’t supposed dominate the City of Ottawa’s 2020 budget.

About six months ago city hall was preparing to go to battle with the Ontario Progressive Conservative government over possible funding cuts. The clash was poised to be the top headline of the municipal budget.

The province partially backed down from some of the planned reductions.

Then the city launched the $2.1-billion Confederation Line, reconfigured the bus network, and not even two months later, started raiding the reserves as an emergency patch job.

Now it’s OC Transpo and city council’s oversight of the transit system that’s in the spotlight as Mayor Jim Watson and city management prepare to table the draft 2020 budget on Wednesday.

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It’s not like Watson to scoop himself on council’s most important policy decision, the municipal government’s annual budget, but the mayor last week needed to deliver answers to bitter transit customers who have been squishing into packed buses and spending more time  curbside waiting for buses to come.

On Friday, Watson announced $3.5 million to reinstate 40 buses to provide more capacity on particularly packed routes — and that was just one day after he vowed to include even more money in the 2020 budget for bus route improvements.

The switch to LRT was supposed to free up money in the transit budget, but the city finds itself pumping millions back into Transpo.

That’s not even getting into the problems with the LRT system, which has seen numerous delays caused by doors jamming and computer systems malfunctioning. The electric train system is unstable and some councillors, like Jeff Leiper, say restoring bus routes that traverse downtown should be an option. The redrawn bus network has customers unloading at LRT stations to catch trains downtown.

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City council heard 56 delegations at their draft budget meeting. Ranging from the homelessness issue to one of the cities ice rink being closed down. Over half of the speakers focused in on one specific topic.

Transit customers have been dealt two whammies in the past eight years.

The city went through a painful route-shuffling exercise in 2011. City hall liked to call program “route optimization,” but it was really a major cost-cutting project gunning for $22 million in annual transit savings.

After the LRT groundbreaking in 2013 and the subsequent bus detours off the Transitway, the city was hanging on until it could launch the 12.5-kilometre LRT line and stop the diesel-guzzling bus bottleneck in the downtown each day. The trains would solve everything — the budget crunch, the bus schedules, the travel times — council members and transit customers were told.

LRT was more than a year late and transit fares keep increasing. Fares are projected to rise again in 2020 by an average of 2.5 per cent.

If it isn’t the LRT system or the conventional bus service, it’s Para Transpo that has caused headaches in the transit agency.

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Ottawa ’ s troubled public transit service in the spotlight ahead of draft 2020 budget .

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The accessible transit service should get attention in the budget after Transpo in September committed to implementing an online booking system by the end of 2020. Transpo was backed into a corner as it was trying to launch the LRT system, hearing from Para Transpo customers that wait times to book rides were unacceptably long.

All the extra costs will trickle down to the taxpayer, of course.

Property owners have an idea how much more they’ll be paying in 2020 because council already determined that taxes will increase three per cent. Watson and city management have been building a budget that will fit that council-approved revenue projection. It will include increases to the garbage collection fee, water bills and other user fees.

Transit is only one of the city’s problems. It also has a health dilemma on its hands.

There have been times in the capital when there hasn’t been a single Ottawa ambulance available to transport sick or injured residents as paramedics spend hours at hospitals waiting to hand off patients. The Ottawa Paramedic Service has been working with The Ottawa Hospital on solutions, but nothing has worked. The hospital blames a larger health-care problem of overcrowding and has rejected accusations by the city that the hospital organization’s processes are at least partly to blame.

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The City’s of Ottawa ’ s 2019 Draft Background Study has been prepared pursuant to the Growth-related spending authority is approved annually as part of the City's budgeting process with This consolidation does not incorporate the revisions to the Transit Service as contained in the March 24

Since the city splits the cost of providing land ambulance services with the province, the solution isn’t as simple as spending more money on paramedics and ambulances, especially if there aren’t assurances from the province that half of the money is safe from cuts. The Ontario PCs played with the idea of tinkering with ambulance funding earlier this year and the threat remains.

Climate change disasters, like spring flooding, will push the city to consider how much money it should have in the reserves, especially after council used the rainy-day funds to bolster the 2019 budget, contradicting a policy calling for more money to be kept in the reserves.

Speaking of the climate’s impact on the city budget, winter maintenance, especially on sidewalks, is another area to watch in the draft budget, and it looks like the city wants to spend more money to improve that core service. A report published last week on winter maintenance says the draft 2020 budget “will include further investments in winter operations.”

All of that, and the city still has to protect local services from looming provincial cuts.

The city anticipates provincial funding reductions to public health, children’s services and long-term care will mean the municipal government needs to find about $13.8 million to backfill the financial holes.

What remains a mystery is whether a three-per-cent property tax hike will be enough on its own to generate the millions of dollars needed to sustain municipal services in a city of one million people.

Major spending reductions have largely been avoided in budget discussions over the past nine years. The one exception might be those transit cuts in 2011.

jwilling@postmedia.com

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Transit strike: Bargaining to resume on Wednesday as drivers threaten overtime ban .
Job action by 5,000 Metro Vancouver transit workers will escalate Friday, with bus drivers refusing to work overtime, if a collective agreement isn’t reached in the next two days. On Tuesday, after almost two weeks of stalled talks and limited strike action, Unifor, the union that represents bus and SeaBus operators and maintenance workers, reached out to the Coast Mountain Bus Company, an operating firm of regional transit authority TransLink, to resume bargaining. Sessions are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday.

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