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Ottawa mayor talks Westboro bus crash, LRT woes and coming out in year-end interview

Ottawa mayor says ‘buck stops’ with him on LRT issues

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson sat down with Global News last week for an end-of-year interview that covered the highs and lows of 2019, the tragic Westboro bus crash, the problem-plagued light-rail transit (LRT) system, the mayor’s coming out in August and reflections on his last 10 years in public service.

Parts of this interview have been been edited for length and clarity.

Q: As mayor, what was the highlight of 2019?

A: I think, you know, after 20 years of debate and dithering on LRT, launching the LRT system was a very important milestone in our city’s history. I think the population changing to one million was another big deal that took place in 2019. And I think the fact that we ended the year with the second budget in a row of this council passed unanimously, investing in housing and transit and police officers and paramedics. Those were three things that I was quite proud of.

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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

Q: And conversely, the lowlight — what would you say was the low point of the year?

A: I think obviously the tragedy that took place with the bus crash in Westboro that we had to deal with. Obviously the challenges we had with the initial start up of the LRT was a challenge for people using the system. We’re improving on a daily basis. There are fewer door issues, fewer challenges with the computer system but it’s still frustrating for some people, even though we’re at about 98 per cent of the rides working quite well.

READ MORE: Mourning relatives of Westboro bus crash victims feel ‘stuck’ with no update on probe or timeline

Q: On the Westboro bus crash, the families of the three Ottawa residents who died have criticized how the city and police communicated with them in the aftermath of the collision. Do you have any regrets about how you and the city handled this? If so, what would you have done differently?

A: Unfortunately, we live in this world governed too often by lawyers and lawyers tell people in public life, you know, you shouldn’t say this and you can’t comment on that because the families are suing the city. And my responsibility is not just to the families grieving and what can we do, but also to the citizens of this city. What we’ve tried to do — I know Coun. [Allan] Hubley on my behalf visited that family in particular and brought the book of condolences, we’ve offered counselling and we’ve provided money up front for some of the initial costs that families have to deal with. So, I don’t want to sound like a technocrat, but I did ask if I could attend the funeral and I did with Coun. Hubley and senior staff from the city to pay our respects. And, you know, I felt that that was the appropriate thing to do and the family was comfortable with me being there.

Q: On transit, you mentioned the LRT and the launch as a highlight but it’s been a tough year for OC Transpo customers. They were asked to endure the bus service problems over the last year until the train launched because the train would make things better. But LRT service hasn’t been reliable during the most crucial hours of the day and the bus system is still letting passengers down. Who is responsible for the state of the train and the bus system right now?

A: Well, ultimately, the buck stops with me. I’m the mayor of the organization, the CEO, and so I take responsibility. And in turn, that’s why I’ve been convening meetings on a regular basis to get updates, to see what progress is being made, where we need to put more resources and that’s when I came to the conclusion we needed extra bus service. So Coun. Hubley and I brought forward the proposition of adding the extra 40 buses. Then we’ve added the extra 20 standby [buses] when there are problems with the train, and then we have 19 more buses coming [at] the beginning of January to help with some of the crowding issues on buses and the reliability of the buses coming at the right time, at the right stop.
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The good news is that 98 per cent of the train trips are problem-free. Two per cent of, you know, millions of trips is a lot of people who are upset. And social media amplifies that to a certain degree. … But, you know, we’ve seen a remarkable decrease in the number of stoppages in the last couple of weeks. We’re heading in the right direction. We have people from around the world coming and looking at our system because it’s been custom-made for Ottawa to ensure that we get all of the bugs out of the system.

READ MORE: Bugs disrupting LRT service declining but no sure-fire date for stable train, OC Transpo says

Q: On that note, how confident are you that the Rideau Transit Group will properly maintain the LRT over the next few decades without the city breathing down its neck? You’re had to withhold payments, now you’re launching a review of the maintenance activities. Have you lost faith in the consortium?

A: Well, I’ve been frustrated with the consortium. They have a lot of very good people and firms that make up that consortium that have great experience in transit. But they will tell you, their competitors who were not successful will tell you, that every new system takes a few months to work out all of the kinks. You know, it’s sometimes complex systems like the TCMS that I’m learning about. Other times, it’s a passenger pulling the doors open to save a few seconds and then ends up costing the whole train 20 minutes of frustration and delay.

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… I think once we get Phase 2 completed going farther east, west and south, that will take a lot of pressure off those terminus stations like Hurdman’s, Tunney’s and Blair — because everything from the east end is piling into Blair, everything in the west end is piling in to Tunney’s and in the south end, to Hurdman. And once you get more stations farther afield, that really dilutes the number of people trying to cram onto one train. And we’ll have the 14th train out sometime early in the new year that will take away a lot of those problems that you see with the crowded platforms.

Ottawa mayor talks LRT problems, ‘frustration’ with builder in year-end interview
Ottawa mayor talks LRT problems, ‘frustration’ with builder in year-end interview

Q: After this rocky transition though, why should residents have confidence in stages two and three of LRT?

A: Well, if you don’t learn from your past mistakes in history, then you’re going to repeat them again. So we’ve learned a lot — everything from coating the stairs and the platforms, to putting those arrows in place, to better educating the passengers not to open the doors. We’ll have had three or four good years under our belt of LRT before Phase 2 comes into fruition. The south end will open at the end of 2022, the east end, 2024, and the west end, 2025. So we’ll have had those years of experience that we didn’t have with Phase 1 because we were all new to the business of a LRT system in our city.

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Ottawa mayor says city will apply lessons learned to next phases of LRT
Ottawa mayor says city will apply lessons learned to next phases of LRT

Q: At the beginning of November, you said you were furious about some of the issues. Are you mad about all this still? Do you get frustrated?

A: Oh yeah. Listen, I’m probably one of the first to get the notice if there’s a problem in the morning, and I get up often with a knot in my stomach because it frustrates me because it’s a good system that’s not performing to its peak at this point. So of course I get frustrated and I’ve had some very heated, unpleasant meetings with RTG and with our staff. But at the end of the day, the fundamentals of the system are right. We just have to narrow down the root causes of two or three issues that cause a ripple effect and a negative experience for our passengers.

… But at the end of the day, this is a very good system. We did the right thing by making it a fixed-price contract so cost overruns are the responsibility of the consortium and not the taxpayers.

Amidst LRT woes, Ottawa mayor says he often gets up “with a knot in my stomach”
Amidst LRT woes, Ottawa mayor says he often gets up “with a knot in my stomach”

Q: This year the city declared a climate emergency amidst another wave of devastating flooding. How is the City of Ottawa going to put its money where its mouth is on climate action over the next decade to come?

A: Well, you saw that in the budget. We’re planting 125,000 trees; this term will be a half-million like we did last term. We’re ensuring every new building we have is LEED Gold-certified as a minimum. The LRT system in itself is our single biggest weapon to fight climate change, because it will reduce greenhouse gases by 200,000 tons a year. An electric train system is very positive for that. We probably this year, or next year rather, [will] finish completing all the conversion of our street lights. I think we’re one of the first cities in Ontario to do that. We’ve got electric charging stations that are going around to different community centres.
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So we’re doing a lot of practical, pragmatic things — converting a lot of our Ottawa Community Housing appliances to energy-efficient appliances. A big priority is to replace leaky, drafty windows in those units to cut down the heat consumption in the apartments. So what we’re doing is very much grassroots, pragmatic, not a bunch of theories and studies and academic papers. But actually,what do we know that create greenhouse gases? Automobiles, buildings — those are the two big ones. And if we can get more people onto the trains — we’ve seen a 3.1 per cent increase in passengers, which is very positive when you compare us to the rest of North America — and get fewer cars on the road, that’s a good thing.

READ MORE: Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson comes out as gay in newspaper op-ed

Q: In August this year, you told the public, “I’m gay” — a statement you said was 40 years in the making. So four months after taking that step, how are you feeling and what has stuck with you from your coming-out experience?

A: It’s been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve had, I think, tens of thousands of tweets and emails and about 95 per cent are positive and really encouraging. [It’s] really nice when parents tell me they’re sharing the story with their kids and young people I meet at high schools are saying they read it and it helped them with their coming out. I’ve had two or three people tell me that, which was very heartwarming. You get five per cent that are sort of the fringe element that are homophobic and will say things that you can’t repeat on television, but that’s the minority. The vast majority has been very positive.

… When I was in the Pride parade — I’d been in the Pride parade, I guess, the last 10 or 15 years, just as an elected official. But it was a lot different being gay and being in the Pride parade and the reaction was was something I’ll never forget. It was very, very kind of people to be yelling and blowing me kisses and stuff like that.

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Q: What did you feel on that day?

A: Well, I felt pride. I felt proud and I felt the Pride movement. And, you know, you see on the route, there was I think one or two protesters … but it was just so overwhelmingly positive. I was on the City of Ottawa float and it was a beautiful day and people [were] coming up and hugging me and wanting a picture. You know, I felt really, really good. And, I said in the article I regretted I waited that long. But, I think it’s up to the individual. I’ve told people: if you’re gay and you don’t want to tell anyone, that’s your call. If you do, choose the time and the people you want to tell it to. I don’t know if it’s easier or harder if you’re a public official to announce it. I think I was given the privilege of writing an opinion piece that was published in the newspaper that got wide circulation.
‘The reaction is something I’ll never forget’: Ottawa mayor reflects on coming out, first Pride parade as openly gay man
‘The reaction is something I’ll never forget’: Ottawa mayor reflects on coming out, first Pride parade as openly gay man

Q: You’ve been the mayor of this city for almost all of the past decade. And, as the decade comes to a close, what would you consider to be your biggest win and your biggest disappointment during this time?

A: I don’t think I can give you a short answer because there’s a lot of things I’m really proud of. I think the revitalization of Lansdowne, the opening of the Shaw Centre, the opening of the Innovation Centre, our Ottawa Art Gallery that opened, the fact that we’ve really gone back into revitalizing community recreation infrastructure in Kanata and Stittsville and Barrhaven and Orléans. Obviously the LRT, notwithstanding the challenges, and I think that’s something that we can all as a city be proud of and even more proud when it’s working to its full capacity and potential.

I think the other thing … the events of the flooding and the tornado, you know, it was devastating for the people who lost everything in some cases. But it also showed the beautiful side of Ottawa, where we had 15,000 people registered to put sandbags together in West Carleton and Britannia and Cumberland. And we saw the best of Ottawa: neighbour helping neighbour and stranger helping stranger.

The shooting of Corporal Cirillo just down the street was a traumatic experience. … That was a very dark day in our city’s history, but the outpouring of support and love for the corporal and his family and the armed forces was pretty remarkable to witness as mayor.

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Q: What would you has been your biggest lesson learned over the past 10 years in public service?

A: Lots of lessons learned. I think I’m a better mayor now than I was the first term because I went from councillor to to mayor. And in the interim, I had the opportunity to head a Crown corporation and to be a minister in three portfolios and a brief time as a journalist. And I came back as mayor in 2010, I think, with a broader knowledge of the complexities of government. Ottawa the city is a unique city in Canada — we’re the capital, [which] makes us unique. We’re a suburban, urban and rural community.
… Time management is important for a mayor. You know, I think last year, the year before, I got like 5,100 invitations. I like to try to go to events. I don’t want to spend all my time in that city hall. I think you need to spend time out in the community. And I find that elections and in between elections, when I go door to door, very therapeutic because it gives me a better sense of what’s going on in the community than often what I get just hanging around city hall. And sometimes what we think is the biggest crisis of the moment doesn’t even register out with the public. So I think, the lessons I’ve learned are, do your best to try to make sure you’re mayor of the whole city — don’t spend all your time downtown or in one part of the city. Go out and visit the rural communities, which I love doing, [and] the suburban communities.

Q: What’s your biggest hope for Ottawa over the next decade?

From an infrastructure point of view, it’s that we have the full LRT up and running Phase 2 and we’re well on our way to constructing Phase 3, which will bring us to Kanata, Barrhaven and Stittsville. That we continue to remain a very compassionate, thoughtful city that understands that we have a collective obligation to help those in need and the most vulnerable and and that we continue to be a leader in terms of multiculturalism and acceptance of of all.

… I think as a broader vision, that we continue to to retain the small-town charm of a big city. You know, I meet people all the time who come here and they feel very comfortable with the neighbourhood. We’re a community of neighbourhoods but we have big city amenities. You know, the National Arts Centre, the National Gallery and Parliament and the Supreme Court. But we really are, as Joe Clark once said, a community of communities.