Let the NCC pay

The city is locked in a bit of a battle with the National Capital Commission. The city is finalizing (for now) plans for the new light rail transit system. In the west end, the LRT is scheduled to cut through some NCC land near the Parkway. The city plans to build a trench to hide it, but that isn’t good enough for the NCC. They want it buried.

The city is resistant – and optimisitic – since burying the line would increase the cost by $300 or $400 million. Currently pegged at $980M, city council voted to approve the plans as they are without NCC approval.It’s a typical sort of fight in Ottawa. The National Capital Commission is tasked with preserving the city as the capital jewel it is/was/should be. City council is tasked with actually making the city work. Only council is responsible to residents as the NCC is an unelected federal agency. As a resident, it is easy to dismiss the NCC as a lumbering bureaucracy doing more to harm Ottawa and its residents than to help them. There is a valid argument that the NCC’s mandated is over-sized. Is the access to waterfront land near Westboro really of national interest?

(Let’s just put aside the fact that the NCC’s Parkway basically cuts off the waterfront making it barely useful to anyone, making any complaints about the LRT little more than whiny grandstanding.)

But let’s ignore such objections for now. Let’s assume that the NCC is well within its mandate to scuttle the LRT project if it is going to interfere with NCC land in the west end. And let’s accept that the livability of the city is of less importance than the national vision of The Capital. Maybe the NCC has a point.

Ottawa benefits greatly from being Canada’s capital. Bureaucratic jobs flood the city (well, maybe a little less today), and our tourism industry is founded upon our status as the nation’s capital. The federal government pours money into urban development and construction in the city. In many instances, Ottawa is a host to conferences and industry events because it is the capital. With the benefits we reap, it is understandable that we might also experience some inconveniences.

Part of the cost of being the capital city is conforming to the NCC’s vision. The NCC, allegedly, is working for greater ends than city council. The NCC, supposedly, is serving the interests of all Canadians. All Canadians have a stake in creating a “world class capital”, and it will bring some intangible value to each Canadian – from Cornerbrook to Surrey to Iqualuit – to ensure that this vision is carried out.

So it is with this in mind that we have to accept that the NCC’s vision of the western LRT route supersedes council’s plan. Although council’s plan is what is best for the city (presumably), the NCC’s vision is what is right for Canada. It’s not ludicrous to accept this logic.

However, if we are burying the western LRT for the sake of Canada, it is only fair to make Canada pay for it. Those people in Cornerbrook, Surrey and Iqualit are the ones who are deriving value from the NCC’s vision. If it is their value, it can be their wallet.

Of course, this all goes back to some initial assumptions. We are assuming that it is valid for the NCC’s mandate to expand to the west end. We are assuming that the NCC actually provides value to people across Canada. And we are assuming that members of the NCC are operating with the best interests of Canadians in mind, rather than with regard solely to their own preferences.

In all of this, former mayor and current NCC Director Jacqueline Holzman came up with the most noxious quotation:

“I am not willing to give up anything because of the city’s financial problems.”

As the Citizen‘s Joanne Chianello notes:

It’s disdainful hubris beyond imagination. Note the use of the first personal pronoun when speaking about the federal agency she’s supposed to represent. Marvel at the tone deafness from someone who used to have to worry about winning votes in this city.

(I would add that it’s not “financial problems” that makes the city reluctant to spend $400M on burying the LRT; it’s “prudence”.)

Regardless, it’s quite a useful mindset to apply to the issue. Let’s present the idea to spend $400M burying transit in the west end to Canadians, or at least to their MPs, and find out how much support there really is… how much value the NCC is really bringing to Canadians. Sure, Canada has a nasty deficit and nastier debt, but why should Ms. Holzman have to give anything up because of the country’s financial problems?

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