The head of OC Transpo made it clear on Wednesday the transit agency will not totally backpedal fall changes to bus routes that have been “directly” impacted by the delayed launch of Ottawa’s light rail transit (LRT) line.
OC Transpo is reviewing about 12 affected routes – including routes 11 and 12 – and riders should expect “tweaks” to a “handful” of those dozen at most, John Manconi, the city’s general manager of transportation, told members of the transit commission.
READ MORE: Launch of Ottawa’s LRT delayed until 2019
Manconi said bus route changes involve “hundreds” of steps and take months to prepare and finalize, and to roll back changes at this point is unrealistic given time and financial constraints.
“It’s a very restricted environment and so I want to manage the expectations today that there are going to be tweaks,” he said. “In a perfect world, it’s go and unpack all those 12 routes and bring them back to what they were before. If we do that, we’re into March and April.
“It’s not that we don’t want to do that, it’s ‘what are all the restrictions to preclude us from getting to that.'”
OC Transpo rolled out its fall service bus schedule on Sept. 2. It implemented changes to approximately two dozen routes, many of which directed riders to LRT stations in anticipation of a late 2018 launch for the Confederation line.
Eight days later, Ottawa city councillors learned that the consortium building the line, the Rideau Transit Group (RTG), had recently told Manconi that it would not be able to deliver a system that checked all the contract requirements by the agreed-upon Nov. 2 deadline. Major issues included two “critical” computer parts for two trains went missing. In addition, RTG didn’t believe it could complete all the required safety testing on time.
Manconi told the finance and economic development committee on Sept. 10 that, because of this, the city doesn’t expect it will open the LRT until sometime in the first quarter of 2019.
The transit commission doesn’t have authority over the design of the LRT, or over bus routes, but a discussion about the train system’s delay and its impact on bus service was added to the commission’s agenda on Wednesday.
Manconi said the city is also reluctant to walk back the fall bus route changes in their entirety because doing so would “compromise” the “final push” before the switchover to LRT. The city has deliberately been rolling out route and schedule changes “incrementally” over the past few years so public transit users aren’t blindsided when LRT goes live, he said.
“We said all along, the last thing you want is a big bang,” he told the transit commission.
Manconi said OC Transpo needs “a few more weeks” to determine what minor route adjustments are possible. He said he’s had riders, for example, ask to him to extended certain routes by an extra stop.
Since news of the delay, questions have been raised about why the city went ahead with the fall bus service schedule if the city had a hunch things weren’t going hunky-dory with the LRT’s progress.
Manconi defended this, saying preparation for the fall changes started at the beginning of the year because the process is so complex. There’s many moving parts to consider, like route coordination across the bus network and “contractual obligations” regarding bus drivers’ schedules, and everything was finalized mid-July, he said.
One of those moving parts was handing layoff notices to just over 340 bus drivers who would no longer be needed due to a reduction in bus operations once the LRT was up and running.
Manconi and a lawyer for the city confirmed those drivers will now “stick around” in light of the delay and discussions with the union about pay and other issues are ongoing.
Deadline for LRT a ‘work in progress’
Manconi told members of the finance and economic development on Sept. 10 he had denied a request from RTG to loosen some of its contractual obligations so it could deliver the system on Nov. 2.
The consortium had asked the city to cut down the trains’ trial runs and proposed launching a smaller LRT fleet and only partially opening certain lines or stations, Manconi said that day.
After that, the consortium proposed a Nov. 30 deadline, but the city also had concerns with this, Manconi said.
In a scrum with reporters following the transit commission meeting, Manconi refused to comment on whether the city has accepted RTG’s proposed Nov. 30 date or when a new deadline might fall. When pressed about whether there is an agreed-upon deadline for the LRT project or not, Blais jumped in to say it’s a “work in progress.”
Manconi said the city and RTG are “working away” on the issue and will share updates publicly once they have them.
Manconi told reporters he is meeting with RTG representatives, in person, “every single day.”
“I am up ’til 10 o’clock taking phone calls from them, all kidding aside, and weekends and so forth,” he said.
“I can assure you that we have been asking the tough questions all along.”