NCC LRT Solution

LRT compromise shows why we need the NCC

Chianello, Joanne.The Ottawa Citizen; Ottawa, Ont. [Ottawa, Ont]10 Mar 2015: A.2.

The happy compromise announced last week between the city and the National Capital Commission on how to route the western LRT extension through federal land shows us why we need - yes, need and should now and then give thanks for - the NCC.

The mostly agreed-upon route will see light rail run underneath the asphalt of what will become a more narrow Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway. This will not only preserve the existing green space - the NCC's primary demand - but will dramatically increase the amount of parkland between the roadway and the south shore of the Ottawa River, helping to nudge the NCC's dreams for a national linear park closer to reality. And the route can be built within the city's existing $980-million budget for the project.

But this elegant solution would never have materialized without the NCC's insistence that a better way be found for the contentious 1.2-kilometre stretch of track.

Last November, the NCC wasn't winning many fans - including in this column - when it put the brakes on the city's western LRT leg at a hastily called news conference. We decried that our federal overlords were once again showing how out of touch they were with the practical needs of the city.

The city wanted to run the train above ground for 500 metres west of Dominion Station, along the northern edge of Rochester Field, before diving into a shallow tunnel and eventually ending up under Richmond Road in Westboro. The NCC was against any plan that affected its green space in any way. It wanted to explore a route that went underneath Rochester Field, and continued along under Richmond or even the Byron linear park. The city consistently maintained that would be too expensive.

But the NCC stood its ground.

And when push came to shove, the city and the NCC were able to find not one, but two options that met most of both sides' criteria: the "southern route," which sees the train travel under Rochester Field (and was the NCC's preference all along); and the "northern route" that runs under the parkway.

And - surprise, surprise - both routes fit into the city's existing budget, even though as recently as November the city was insisting that the NCC's route was going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars more.

"That didn't turn out to be the case," admitted city manager Kent Kirkpatrick.

Or, in other words, the city was wrong and the NCC was right.

At the height of the impasse between the city and the NCC, former foreign affairs minister John Baird and Mayor Jim Watson called a 100-day timeout for a working group - made up of senior staff, directors, politicians, costing consultants and even landscape architect George Dark - to hash out an agreement. By all accounts, it was local NCC director Bob Plamondon who first suggested the idea of putting the train under the roadway. (The background documents for the agreement credit an NCC staffer with the idea, but it was likely Plamondon who voiced the proposal to the whole working group.)

There were some NCC insiders who wanted to keep the parkway off-limits, especially when it seemed as if the NCC-preferred southern route was going to cost about the same amount.

But an interesting thing happens when you put bureaucrats and politicians in the same room with orders to come up with a solution: Everyone becomes more sensitized to the other side's position. And everyone brings a particular perspective to the conversation. City staff can argue why, from a cost and engineering standpoint, they want to build a particular route.

But it took the councillors in the room - Stephen Blais, Keith Egli and Mark Taylor - to explain why running the route under the Byron park was a political problem: The community would be disrupted for at least two years, and the replacement park would take a decade to grow back into anything resembling what's there now.

While the NCC says it finds both the northern and southern routes acceptable, it has agreed in principle to allow light rail under the parkway, recognizing that's the route that's easier for the city - which, in NCC terms, counts as a significant compromise. And the NCC will allow the train to run above ground for 200 metres west of Dominion Station, so that passengers could get at least a glimpse of the Ottawa River.

This discussion isn't over yet.

There will be folks who will argue for the southern route, and suggestions of where to locate future LRT stations. Great - people should voice their opinions on March 30 at the first of several public meetings over the issue.

But it's likely that more people will like this version of the route than most of the ones that have gone before. And those people should thank the NCC, our local sober second thought when it comes to city building.