I’m with Jim

It hasn’t been a stellar week or two in federal-municipal relations. First, we had the feds announce that they were going to waste $80M refurbing the old-moldy-bread-factory-turned-“temporary”-science-museum rather than building a proper facility in a proper location. That was unfortunate, but worse was the NCC ambushing the city on their LRT plans, deciding that their precious highway is more important than building a livable city.

Thankfully, it appears that Mayor Jim Watson and the ranking local government MP John Baird have reached a bit of a detente for now. This is an improvement, and certainly better than a bunch of appointed NCC henchmen hijacking our development plans.

Before this peace in our time, Watson made the comment that residents needed to make this an issue in the next federal election (which is supposed to occur next year), and he’s absolutely right. There can be valid debates about the LRT. Is it worth the money? What’s the best route? What should be buried? But there is no debate about the fairly useless, almost malicious, organization that is the NCC.

It’s ridiculous that NCC’s prime mission right now is to save a waterfront freeway in Kitchissippi. There is nothing, nothing, about the Parkway that has national significance. It ruins the riverfront, blocks the actual parkland from people and actively destroys the environment. And it’s not even in a particularly significant location.

The NCC needs to be reformed. It’s an outdated organziation staffed mostly with people who little connection to the city (only two of the board members have to be from Ottawa). They have no particular expertise in urban development, and their love affair with parkways demonstrates how archaic their visions actually are. The only people who rein this group in is the federal government.

So, yes, people of Ottawa, the actions and disruptions of the NCC should be a federal election issue.

Mike Maguire Responds (but not to me)

Mayoral hopeful Mike Maguire has responded to a criticism by former Ottawa Citizen columnist Ken Gray. Gray critiqued the claim by Maguire that his vision of light rail would ease congestion in Ottawa, which is one of the critiques I had of Maguire’s plan.

To reiterate: mass transit does not ease congestion in the long run. It has the same effect as expanding roads. There may be a short term reduction in traffic, but soon the cars will be back. There is, essentially, a critical mass that transit always wants to meet.

Gray was actually receptive to Maguire’s plan, thinking it would be better than the current LRT plan.

Regardless, Gray understands that light rail isn’t going to solve congestion it just (hopefully) “gets transit users past those jams inexpensively.”

Maguire, though, just won’t let his erroneous claim go. He wrote to the Gray:

As to the assertion that a successful introduction of commuter rail will create an incentive for former drivers to get back on the road and try their luck with the traffic again … you could be right – do you propose that we ignore a simple, inexpensive solution to traffic congestion because some folks might want to drive again? Surely that’s a questionable trade-off?

And, again, here’s the problem. Light rail is not a solution for congestion. It is a solution for mass transit (perhaps). If Maguire is unwilling to accept this fairly straightforward concept, he is unfit to be mayor.

Don’t Vote For Mike Maguire For Mayor

Ottawa’s mayoral campaign is now officially a two-horse race. Mike Maguire, who finished fifth last time around, launched his campaign on Thursday. So far, he is the only challenger to incumbent Jim Watson.

Maguire has built his campaign on four pillars: debt and taxes, traffic, trash and hydro. These are probably wise topics to focus on (though politicians fetish for ever-cheaper hydro and an increasingly polluted environment irks me), but–despite being intrigued by his candidacy four years ago–his platform would be bad for the city. His impulses may be wise (control spending! ease congestion!), but his actual proposals would be harmful, and his overall platform is incoherent, lacking in vision and self-contradictory. There is also a clear demonstration that he doesn’t fully understand some of the issues upon which he is commenting (plus, perhaps, a tad bit of convenient dishonesty).

Overall, he has a general goal, but he seems to be applying a high-level political philosophy that works well on talk radio (and, to be frank, blogs) but doesn’t translate neatly to the intricacies of municipal governance. It was never my intention to do a point-by-point fisking of his platform, but, well, here we are.

Taxes
This appears to be his fiscal discipline pillar (his main concern, from interviews and reports, appears to be the city’s debt, but he doesn’t have a plank titled “debt”, so everything goes here). Maguire wants to “rein in spending and lower taxes to foster growth”. It’s a nice idea, and maybe it’s workable. At this point, his site doesn’t have any further specifics, so we don’t know what will get cut.

He has stated that he’s not going to give a specific promise in terms of how much he’ll lower taxes. I respect that. Larry O’Brien got scorched for his “zero means zero”. These sorts of things always lead to a “read my lips” scenario that’s open for easy mockery during and after a campaign (*cough*MillionJobsPlan*cough*).

Unfortunately, he also has an odd definition of taxes:

The City directly taxes residents through property taxes. However, the current City Council has increased indirect taxes by increasing the cost of parking, public transportation and electricity.

Parking prices, transit fares and electricity rates aren’t taxes. They’re prices.

I’m willing to hold off on judgement on this part of his platform until further details arise. All things being equal, lower taxes and more growth would be nice.

Transit
This is a pretty big issue right now, with the LRT, bike infrastructure, Lansdowne and sprawl, there’s a lot to deal with. Unfortunately, despite his (quite true) opening statement, “[g]ridlock in Ottawa has a huge negative impact on our quality of life,” he doesn’t have any sound suggestions for easing congestion.

Further, the very second statement is either dishonest or ignorant. He states:

The Complete Streets Approach to transit, favoured by the current administration, favours pedestrians and cyclists at the expense of cars and drivers.

While it is true that the Complete Streets model purports to favour pedestrians over cyclists and cyclists over cars, the implementation of this model has done no such thing. Ottawa is just in the process of unveiling our first Complete Street, Churchill Avenue. It is a raised cycle track adjacent to the sidewalk with no buffer from the road. Driveways and pseudo-parking lots still intersect the raised cycle track, and there are clearly instances where everyone just has to learn to get along.

In reality, the Complete Streets approach does not favour pedestrians and bikes over cars (even though we should, as these are both the more vulnerable users of the road, and the ones more likely to be using the surrounding neighbourhood as more than just a cut-through). Ottawa’s Complete Streets seek to favour no one. It’s about creating balance between bikes, walkers, cars and buses.

Further, if he is so worried about economic growth, he should acquaint himself with the literature detailing how walkable neighbourhoods help businesses.

Even though Maguire will claim to not be pro-car, he has this to say about transportation infrastructure:

Mike Maguire will focus on relieving congestion for the average commuter in Ottawa, the car driver with common sense solutions. [sic]

That’s pretty blatantly “pro-car”.

Maguire claims that the Laurier bike lanes have created congestion in the downtown core. This is patently absurd. Expanding Laurier back into a four-lane road will do nothing for congestion. Road expansion just leads to traffic increases. This is pretty basic city planning. Only die-hard conservatives with a culture war axe to grind make claims to contrary. Maguire can increase traffic lanes downtown all he wants, it won’t solve congestion (well, until he makes downtown so undesirable that no one will actually go there).

You see, this is where he demonstrates that he does not have the proper knowledge of municipal governance to be mayor.

Maguire seems a little more bullish on OC Transpo than he does on cycling (even though he likes to bike, he swears!). He doesn’t like the current system, and argues for a “hub-and-spoke” system. I’m ambivalent. Generally, I haven’t been swayed by arguments for hub-and-spoke, but I’m open to being persuaded.

Another suggestion, which is a little worse than hub-and-spoke, is cutting away at our sidewalks and bicycle lanes. Oh, he doesn’t say that, but he wants to create more bus lane “pull-ins”, so that buses aren’t stopping on the street blocking traffic, ie cars. As someone who walks, bikes and buses to work at various times, street stopping for buses isn’t a big deal. It slows Bank Street a tad, but not much. It has no effect on Albert or Slater, because those have dedicated bus lanes. Carling has ample space to get around, as do roads like Innes and Merivale. And, really, the further you get from downtown, the less of an issue this becomes.

I don’t think this is a serious policy; I think it’s a statement: Cars come first, buses second. No need to worry much past that.

However, the absolute worst suggestion Maguire has is to open up bus routes to competition–because having one bus line filling our streets isn’t enough. We need multiple bus companies running amok. I get where Maguire is coming from. Generally, competition is good and the government should get out of the way as much as possible, but the infrastructure demands (not to mention the barriers to entry) in the mass transit industry makes it a slightly different beast.

We don’t want multiple transpo garages. We don’t want to worry about multiple fare types, passes and tickets. We don’t want buses getting cute with their routes or their levels of service. As much as OC Transpo should attempt to cover all its costs through fares and advertising (and it should!), there is still a public service aspect to it, and we grant buses a lot of non-monetary subsidies to operate (the transitway, bus lanes, special road laws). The city is a pretty direct stakeholder in the transit system. A wild west isn’t going to help anyone.

Maguire isn’t a big fan of the LRT, and that’s fair. As he says, “[c]urrent projects do not address gridlock on the Queensway or arterial roads, and will not be completed for years.” He’s absolutely right! And, unfortunately, residents regularly get a sold a bill of goods about how improved mass transit will reduce traffic congestion.

It won’t. Additional mass transit will, in the short term, take some cars off the road, but as the roads become clearer, more people will be encouraged to drive (and move to the middle of nowhere while commuting into and through the city). It’s just like adding additional lanes to a road. Build it, and they will drive.

Of course, the ship has kind of sailed. Chewrocka is already underground. Contracts are signed, and the LRT is being built. Throwing up your hands and saying, we’re done! isn’t truth telling, and it isn’t fiscal responsibility. Also, good luck getting council to agree.

Well, even if his promise to scrap the LRT is pretty worthless, at least he understands that expanding mass transit doesn’t actually address congestion issues.

Wrong!

He wants to build light rail, just different light rail. On tracks that are already there. Because somehow this will magically make no one want to drive into the city.

And, though he’s “not for or against cars”, he wants to make it easier for people to drive everywhere. He would roll back the price increases for parking. Free or under-priced parking is good for nobody. It is an incentive for driving, and, therefore, increases congestion. Make no mistake about it, Maguire is pro-car.

And you can’t be pro-car and anti-congestion. It just doesn’t work that way.

One last thing about transit, he promises to do nothing for pedestrians.

Trash
There seem to be two basic elements to Maguire’s trash pillar (which is great imagery for cynics like me), scrapping the Green Bin program and returning to weekly trash pick-up.

Maguire has some interesting slides with a lot of (seemingly sound) back-of-the-envelope math demonstrating that we’re paying a lot for the Green Bin program, and it’s not really achieving what it is intended to achieve (extending the life of our landfills). His arguments are somewhat compelling, but I’m inclined to think that there’s more to it that what he’s presented. Unfortunately, this issue is outside of my wheelhouse (though I recall there being a lot of issues with the roll-out, which meant higher-than-expected up-front costs, so extending the program won’t re-incur those costs).

One thing I will say in favour of the Green Bin program: it’s not just about a cost-efficient prolonging of a landfill’s useful life. There are other environmental benefits to composting and a city-wide program might get more people thinking in terms of not destroying the environment. That’s a good thing… though not necessarily at the cost of the program.

Maguire also claims that we are currently paying as much for bi-weekly garbage pick-up as we paid for weekly garbage pick-up. I find this hard to believe, but if it’s true, then I’m all for weekly pick-up. At this point, Maguire does not have any further details on this on his website, so I can’t judge the veracity of the claim. The site states that more information will come.

Hydro
Maguire wants cheaper hydro. If I combine with his support of driving, his antipathy towards cycling and walking, and his desire to axe the Green Bin program, I’m inclined to think he doesn’t give a whit about the environment.

Maybe that’s unfair. Still, it’s my impression.

Maguire claims that through some really odd accounting (a $200M promissory note from Hydro Ottawa to the City of Ottawa, the sole owner of Hydro Ottawa), Hydro customers are being overcharged. He has a nifty slide show to back that up.

Personally, I’m unconvinced. His argument against the promissory note (which seems to have been issued for no tangible reason) seems thin. I can imagine a perfectly valid reason why the city would demand $200M from Hydro Ottawa (even though it is wholly-owned by the city): getting to be the monopoly provider to Ottawa hydro customers is a damned sweet deal. The promissory note, I would imagine, ensures that Hydro Ottawa pays significant dividends to the city.

This isn’t just a tax grab like he says (though I understand that argument). This is the city selling something of value–the rights to hydro delivery–while maintaining control over an essential service. Maybe it would be better if the government was out of the electricity game, but if that’s the argument, Maguire should make that case. Currently, he’s merely arguing for the city to establish lower costs–and therefore lower rates–for hydro.

Personally, I don’t think hydro is egregiously expensive. I think people who waste hydro (including through heating, cooling and lighting massive homes) are essentially stealing from the rest of us. Their consumption puts an incredible burden on the rest of us in terms of pollution. Lowering hydro rates is merely rewarding environmental degradation. Further, considering how hydro consumption tends to increase with wealth and income, it’s a giveaway to the rich. Conservation is an issue that addresses inequality, and politicians who don’t recognize that are transferring wealth and utility from the poor to the rich.

Contradictions and Summation
Since I’ve wound up at over 2000 words, I think a bit of a TL;DR recap is in order.

Mike Maguire has as his focus a very worthy goal, fiscal discipline. We should concern ourselves with the city’s debt. As much as Jim Watson hasn’t been some crazy-spending liberal, we have embarked on some pretty expensive projects in the past four years. Now, Maguire doesn’t offer convincing arguments against those projects, but having someone hammer on the fiscal discipline bell is useful.

Unfortunately, for Maguire, his campaign doesn’t actually represent fiscal discipline.

He wants to lower taxes and lower spending. OK, if you lower spending more than taxes, you should be able to get your house in order. However, he’s not just talking about lowering property taxes.

Maguire wants to lower hydro rates and erase the dividend the city receives from Hydro Ottawa. He wants to cut the price of parking, selling this precious city asset at a below-the-market rate. He also thinks the city needs to lower bus fare. That’s a wealth transfer to the rich and a way to increase city spending!

At his campaign launch, Maguire noted the very stale anecdote of an Ontario businessman losing a city contract to someone from Quebec (xenophobia is ugly, even just inter-provincially), so he wants to make sure city contracts go to good ol’ Ontario residents, regardless of price. Protectionism is bad enough, but when you’re running on your fiscal responsibility bona fides, it really undercuts your campaign.

Maguire also rails against congestion and gridlock, but he offers no actual solutions. Do you want to get rid of congestion? You’ve got to attack driving; make it expensive. That means road tolls. It means aggressively pricing parking… that is, when you’re not eliminating parking. The carrot of good public transit (or bike lanes) is all well and good, but you really need a stick.

You also need to abandon the suburban bedroom community dream. You need to create real Garden Cities that are self-sufficient. You need mix-use zoning and intensification to make it work. Not only do you need to deter people from driving, you need to make sure that you have the necessary amenities nearby so that they don’t have to drive.

Maguire does none of that. He just wants different transit expansion.

Make no mistake, Maguire’s platform is bad. His heart may be in the right place (and he certainly seems sincere) but his policies are scattershot. There’s no continuity and there’s no clear method as to how his policies would actually get to his goal. Of all the critiques one can make of Jim Watson, he has displayed a competency that just isn’t present in Maguire.

It would not be good should he become mayor.

Light Rail and Development Charges

There were a few interesting things to come out of today’s council meeting, and, with a bit of grace, I’ll actually get around to writing about them. For now, I want to focus on one measure that was defeated.

The city has implemented new development charges (or DCs, which I wrote about a week or two ago). DCs are the charges the cities levies against builders when they want to, you know, develop stuff. The charges vary depending on location (greater charges in the ‘burbs outside than greenbelt than inside, lesser charges for rural lands, especially ones without much certain services), and the purpose is to fund all the infrastructure that the new developments will demand (as a side benefit, which I imagine is intentional, DCs discourage sprawl, as they put upward pressure on home prices, especially the outer suburbs). They are, in many ways, a darn good thing (especially as the OMB has usurped much of Ottawa’s ability to control sprawl these past few years).

Today, there was a motion before council to halve the development charges for all new builds around the soon-to-be-constructed LRT stations. The argument is sound. The city wants dense hubs around these stations to make the LRT more attractive to more residents. It’s also a great way to make housing within the greenbelt more affordable (more units = downward pressure on price). I have not done–and will not do–any study into the incidence of DCs, but I imagine most, but not all, of the cost of the DCs are passed on to buyers/renters (this is generally what happens when government imposes fees, levies, tariffs or taxes–businesses will pass on as much of the added cost as they can, but demand elasticity will prevent them from passing on 100%).

As a result, the DCs will prove to be a discouragement (to an extent) to developers and to potential residents (again, to an extent).

If council were to pass such a measure, I really wouldn’t have too much of a beef. It is the city’s plan to intensify around these hubs, they allow developers to build higher and denser (which developers tend to like to do), and they really want a lot of people living there. Cutting these developers on consumers a break on DCs would work towards the city’s stated (and demonstrated) goal.

But the city didn’t, and, in the end, this is the right decision. First, the city is already cutting developers a break. Zoning restrictions are relaxed around these hubs, so more and higher development can occur. As we’ve seen with some recent planning committee fights, developers generally want to build out and build high. We don’t really need to additional incentives to achieve our goals.

As well, there will still be demands on city infrastructure by these new residents. As much as we’re trying to induce people to live near the LRT, we’re also build light rail that these eventual residents will get to use. You could argue that we’re already cutting them a break by allowing more of them easy access to the LRT.

In the end, the pros and cons are pretty much a wash. Neither side is wholly right and neither side is completely wrong. In fact, each argument in favour of one side can be turned around to actually be an argument against it, and vice versa. Consequently, it appears the city did the right thing. They have decided a fair charge for new development and they’re sticking to it. In the absence of especially special circumstances, the city should stick by the decision, otherwise there was little point in making the decision in the first place.

A reduction in the increase of additional buses on Scott Street

On Friday, the city released a statement titled, Transitway volume to be reduce on transitway detour. Sadly, this heading is a lie. What the city has done is reduce the planned increase of buses that will be diverted onto Scott Street during LRT construction (which I wrote about here). But a smaller increase is an increase, nonetheless.

Here’s what they said:

OC Transpo will reduce the number of buses operating along the Scott/Albert Transitway detour by up to 18% during peak periods when the detour is in effect from 2016-2018. This detour is required as part of the Confederation Line light rail transit (LRT) project.

The City of Ottawa has analyzed ideas submitted by the community on how to reduce the number of bus trips that need to run along the detour route. These suggestions have helped shape a number of service changes that will see a significant reduction of the total transit volumes along this corridor.

As part of the mitigation measures, OC Transpo will, pending approval from the National Capital Commission, divert out-of-service buses onto the Sir John A Macdonald Parkway. Also, some express routes will end at Bay Street in the morning peak period, rather than at LeBreton Station. These two service adjustments will result in daily peak period reductions of:

  • 267 fewer buses west of City Centre Avenue (14% reduction during peak periods);
  • 348 fewer buses between City Centre Avenue and Preston Street (18% reduction during peak periods); and,
  • 133 fewer buses east of Preston Street (7% reduction during peak periods).

It’s also rather less-than-honest to list only the reduction of the amount of buses that will be added to the street during construction. It’s all an attempt at appeasement rather than education.

Since I don’t have a breakdown of the initial numbers here, I’m going to do a little ‘rithmetic to figure out what those bullet points actually say:

  • 1907 buses west of City Centre Avenure
  • 1933 buses between City Centre Avenue and Preston Street
  • 1900 buses east of Preston Street.

I don’t know if these numbers mean an additional 1900 buses on the street (during peak periods), or if it means the additional buses will bring the numbers up to 1900 buses. I’m inclined to assume the former, as the increase is the cause of public demonstrations, the press release and the preceding sentence frame it in terms of a reduction of  the additional buses, and this would give the city a smaller denominator, plumping up the percentages they offer for each bullet point.

(But, all that being said, I’m not sure it’s much of a difference.)

This is still far more than that road can or should handle, and residents have solid grounds for continued grumbling. Unfortunately, the very need for LRT comes from our over-reliance on transit and commuting. What we really need to do is reduce our overall commuting times and distances. But that would be an even more difficult change.

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. Continue reading