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Ottawa mayor announces extra $3.5M to improve transit as bus, LRT woes continue

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson at the Rideau Centre in Ottawa, Ont., on Jan. 28, 2016.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson at the Rideau Centre in Ottawa, Ont., on Jan. 28, 2016. The Canadian Press/Lars Hagberg

After yet another rush-hour commute was disrupted by technical issues on Ottawa’s Confederation Line on Friday morning, a “furious” Mayor Jim Watson says the city will spend an extra $3.5 million to bolster public transit service for frustrated riders, which will include bringing back some of the buses taken out of service in early October.

Ongoing problems and delays along the new light-rail transit (LRT) system over the past month have stressed the city’s now-reduced bus service, which underwent widespread routes changes on Oct. 6 to align with the train. Riders have reported being passed by packed buses and have complained about the frequency of some routes, the mayor said.

“They’re angry, and I don’t blame them because they’re paying good money both through their taxes and through their fare box contributions,” Watson said in an interview with Global News.

“We have to do a better job, plain and simple.”

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Exciting and ‘emotional’: Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson describes how LRT launch day feels
Exciting and ‘emotional’: Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson describes how LRT launch day feels

Forty buses from the retired fleet will be brought back starting next week, Watson and transit commission chair Coun. Allan Hubley announced on Friday afternoon, after the city’s senior leadership held a meeting about the problem-plagued OC Transpo system.

“These additional buses will be deployed on routes that have faced chronic issues since the October 6 service change, such as the 39 in the east, the 257 in the west and the 75 in the south,” Watson and Hubley’s statement said.

Nineteen more buses be added to OC Transpo’s fleet on Jan. 1, 2020, they confirmed.

READ MORE: Door malfunction causes cascading back up on Ottawa LRT

The update comes after Watson tweeted on Friday morning that he was “furious” with the LRT’s “poor performance.” During the morning commute, a “door fault “at Lees station and a “switch issue” at Blair station delayed service along the LRT for about three hours, according to OC Transpo’s updates on Twitter.

This was only the latest in a number of technical issues – including stuck trains, door problems and computer failures – that have occurred repeatedly over the last month, halting service and lengthening wait times.

Asked why it took a full month for him to voice his dissatisfaction with the LRT system, Watson said he “wanted to give it a couple of weeks to see if the system was going to work the problems out.

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“It’s like any new vehicle or computer or or house that you buy. There are always some some problems,” he told Global News. “Clearly, these were not being diminished.”

READ MORE: Another door malfunction halts Ottawa’s LRT Wednesday morning

In their statement on Friday, Watson and Hubley said the city will announce “further transit investments that will aim to improve the experience of transit customers across the city” when it tables the draft 2020 budget this coming Wednesday.

Ottawa city council previously approved $5.1 million to OC Transpo’s budget to improve the bus network.

OC Transpo general manager John Manconi has said a “comprehensive” update on bus service and LRT service – including “key causes of train faults and actions being taken to improve reliability” – will be provided to the city’s transit commission on Nov. 6.

Watson offered an apology to Ottawa’s public transit users both on social media and during his interview with Global.

“At the end of the day, the buck stops with me as mayor and I take responsibility,” he said.

“That’s why I’ve been working with the consortium and with our staff and with our elected officials to do what we can to stabilize the system.”

City deducting $2.8M from builder’s October payment

Watson said city staff met with executives from the consortium that built the Confederation Line on Monday to discuss the ongoing problems. According to the mayor’s statement, the Rideau Transit Group (RTG) has been “reviewing every incident in order to identify probably causes and solutions.”

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RTG has struck task forces and called in experts from Toronto and Europe “to provide the technical knowledge required to find the root causes of these ongoing issues,” Watson and Hubley said.

READ MORE: Ottawa transit commission chair says public confidence and morale at ‘all time low’: memo

Watson is placing the blame for the LRT’s technical issues on RTG’s shoulders and announced on Friday the city will deduct $2.8 million from the consortium’s October payment.

“RTG has to pick up their socks,” he said. “They have a international reputation that’s getting a black eye and they have to do better because the passengers are not satisfied and I’m not satisfied.”

Watson said the city will make a similar deduction in November “if the situation is not resolved.”

Politicians, media ride LRT trains ahead of Confederation Line’s handover to city
Politicians, media ride LRT trains ahead of Confederation Line’s handover to city

Pressed on whether he believes the Confederation Line wasn’t ready for the job or adequately tested when the city accepted it two months ago, Watson said he believes the system was ready.

“I know people don’t like hearing this, but the vast majority of the time, the train is working beautifully,” he said.

“It’s those points where it’s not working, it’s a miserable experience for everyone on the platform, on a train or on a crowded bus.”

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