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OC Transpo insists 2019 transit budget built to handle uncertainty over LRT handover

OC Transpo general manager John Manconi speaks to reporters on Feb. 12, 2019.
OC Transpo general manager John Manconi speaks to reporters on Feb. 12, 2019. Beatrice Britneff / Global News

Doubt over whether the City of Ottawa will get the twice-delayed Confederation light-rail transit (LRT) line on March 31 had some councillors on Wednesday wary of green-lighting a proposed 2019 budget for OC Transpo based on the “false assumption” — according to one councillor — that the LRT handover will occur on that date.

But OC Transpo’s top boss insisted the budget is built to handle any further delay to the LRT’s completion and won’t affect the transit agency’s bottom line.

READ MORE: Will Ottawa get keys to LRT on March 31? With weeks to go, RTG and OC Transpo have conflicting answers

OC Transpo general manager John Manconi told Mayor Jim Watson and councillors on Feb. 12 — barely a week after the 2019 draft city budget was tabled — that he thought there was “no probability” the Rideau Transit Group (RTG), the consortium building the train system, would have it done by its third deadline.

Coun. Diane Deans, former chair of the transit commission, argued the city has already incurred $25 million in expenses since last spring due to the LRT’s delay — an amount she said is expected to grow to about $40 million by the end of March.

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“I just have a lot of trouble with this budget, in passing a budget that builds in a lot of risk and doesn’t answer the questions that I think the public would like to have answered,” said Deans, who no longer sits on the commission but attended Wednesday’s meeting on the 2019 draft budget.

Deans pointed to the budget’s proposed 2.5 per cent hike to transit fares, scheduled to kick in on July 1. (Ottawa city council previously approved delaying the fare increase until the summer so as to not compound the many challenges public transit riders are facing as a result of the LRT’s delay.)

“Are we going to do a fare increase on July 1 if the system isn’t running?” Deans said. “My answer is, ‘no we’re not.’ There’s already a lack of reliability in the system that we couldn’t possibly ask taxpayers to pay more if the LRT is not running.”

WATCH (May 2, 2018): Sneak peek of the Ottawa LRT
Sneak peek of the Ottawa LRT
Sneak peek of the Ottawa LRT

Manconi replied that staff did consider further LRT holdups when designing OC Transpo’s 2019 budget and insisted the budget is “sustainable.” He said RTG, not the taxpayer, is getting billed for all LRT delay-related expenses, including the cost of freezing fares and maintaining bus detour routes. (RTG, for the record, disputes that it should cover those costs and it’s been suggested the disagreement will end up in court.)

As for the fare freeze, Manconi said council can take action to extend it if there’s any indication the LRT won’t be up and running by July 1.

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Asked after Wednesday’s meeting whether city council should move to do so now, given his skepticism about RTG’s ability to meet the March 31 deadline, Manconi said: “It’s too early to start talking about July fare freezes right now.”

“You do not mix policy with budget. That’s a dangerous recipe for a lot of things going wrong in terms of your budget,” he said. “If council wants to have a discussion about setting fares, they should do that outside the context of budget.”

READ MORE: Ottawa’s draft city budget has 3 per cent tax increase amid provincial belt-tightening

Other councillors, including Glen Gower and Carol Anne Meehan, suggested they would support freezing transit fares for a longer period if the trains aren’t running by the summer, but transit commission chair Coun. Allan Hubley said he opposes the idea.

“I wouldn’t vote to extend the freeze for the simple reason that this budget takes that money that’s coming through the increase and it’s making significant improvements to a number of the routes … we need that money to do that,” Hubley said. “I really hope there isn’t a successful motion to delay the increase.”

Service expansion coming after LRT launch; Manconi admits OC Transpo has ‘horrible reliability issue’

But OC Transpo won’t be making those proposed bus improvements — a $5.1-million expansion that promises 45,000 more hours of service, shorter wait times and increased capacity — until after the Confederation Line is moving customers along the tracks.

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For months, bus riders have been complaining about capacity issues, cancellations, clogged downtown bus lanes and problematic route changes that were implemented in the fall in anticipation of the LRT handover (which then didn’t happen on Nov. 2, 2018, as scheduled).

READ MORE: OC Transpo considering ‘tweaks’ to ‘handful’ of bus routes affected by LRT delay

Councillors and city staff, again, got an earful from riders and advocates on Wednesday about their ongoing frustrations with the transit system — prompting Manconi to admit the public transit network has a “horrible reliability issue,” compounded by “horrible” winter conditions.

“I’m not denying it, it’s not a reliable system right now,” Manconi said, in response to a question from Coun. Tim Tierney. “Our customers are going through a lot of pain. I need the LRT to get up and running. I can’t be any more candid to you than that.”

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After the meeting, a reporter asked Manconi why OC Transpo, then, is choosing to wait until after the Confederation Line has launched to expand and improve service when he admits riders are hurting now.

“Injecting more change right now, especially when we don’t have the reliability that we need in the system, won’t improve things,” Manconi said.

OC Transpo’s 2019 draft budget also proposes spending $7.8 million on 12 new 40-foot buses to expand service – again, once the LRT is rolling.

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Users of Para Transpo also voiced their own grievances with service on Wednesday, telling councillors and OC Transpo staff they waste a lot of time waiting to book a ride and then waiting for the ride to show up. Several riders and advocates called for higher investments in Para Transpo and the creation of an online booking system.

READ MORE: City to make interim payments to most seriously injured in bus crash: memo

Manconi said there are some in the community who have concerns about an online booking system, but he said many riders — and OC Transpo staff — want to see one implemented.

“It’s not around the corner but we will bring the best strategy forward,” Manconi said. “We’ll bring you that report and if you endorse it, we will proceed with it.”

In the meantime, Manconi said OC Transpo is bolstering call centre staffing for Para Transpo, which he anticipates will improve service.

Transit commission approves OC Transpo’s 2019 budget, two councillors vote against plan

Two councillors — Bay Coun. Theresa Kavanagh and Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney — voted against OC Transpo’s $547.8-million operating budget for 2019. They said they did so because they oppose raising the prices of OC Transpo’s EquiPass, Community Discount and Access Pass, three discounted fare programs for transit riders with low incomes and disabilities.

A number of OC Transpo and Para Transpo users told the commission on Wednesday that Ottawa’s public transit system is becoming increasingly inaccessible to low-income riders. Some public delegates urged the city to freeze fares for the subsidized programs specifically, while others argued fares should be frozen across the board.

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Kavanagh told reporters she feels the focus should remain on the fare hikes to the discounted programs.

“I think this is a very precarious time and this will hurt those that are very vulnerable,” Kavanaugh said. “This was a hard-fought victory to have an EquiPass and I think we need to keep it affordable.”