Politics

Candidates weigh in on LRT, electric buses, and how to foot the bill


They’re divided along party lines party lines over how to pay the multi-billion dollar price tag for LRT expansion and other major transit initiatives.

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Local Liberal, Conservative and NDP candidates are all in agreement when it comes to supporting Ottawa’s light-rail and other major transit initiatives, but party lines are divided over how to pay the multi-billion dollar price tag.

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David McGuinty, running for his seventh term in Ottawa South, said the Liberals have propped up the city’s light-rail aspirations since the days of Jean Chretien’s government, with then-Finance Minister Paul Martin’s gas transfer tax still in place (now named the Canada Community-Building Fund) for municipal infrastructure priorities.

McGuinty said last week Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s pledge to scrap the Canada Infrastructure Bank would “annihilate” plans to make OC Transpo the first fully-electric bus fleet in Canada, and would threaten future funding of the city’s light rail expansion.

Earlier this year , the Liberal government announced it would offer $493 million in grants and the Canadian Infrastructure Bank would provide a $400-million loan to the City of Ottawa to help convert the entire OC Transpo bus fleet to zero-emission by 2036. As part of the plan, Ottawa will purchase 450 electric buses between 2022 and 2027 in what McGuinty said would represent the country’s single largest conversion of a public transit fleet to electric vehicles.

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“What concerns me is Mr. O’Toole has committed to ending the Canada Infrastructure Bank, which will kill the ZEB [zero-emission bus]   plan for the country, and will put Phase Three of the light rail system at risk. The whole ZEB program will be annihilated.”

Local Conservatives denied that claim, and said they fully support funding LRT and all “committed projects.”

Ottawa Centre Conservative challenger Carol Clemenhagen declined an interview request, but in a prepared statement touted her party’s plan to “fast-track” municipal projects like LRT.

“The Canada Infrastructure Bank has been one of the costliest failures by the Liberal government. According to the Auditor General, approximately a fifth of the planned $188 billion in infrastructure spending was unspent in the first three years of the plan and was moved to later years,” Clemenhagen said in the statement.

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“Canada’s Recovery Plan fast-tracks federal infrastructure investments that are aimed at supporting local priorities like public transit links to where people live, such as the LRT Stage 3 expansion. We will continue all of the already committed projects.”

With her Kanata-Carleton constituency the next destination for the LRT’s Stage 3 expansion (alongside Barrhaven in the neighbouring Nepean riding), NDP candidate Melissa Coenraad has been hearing all about transit on the campaign trail.

The riding’s Liberal candidate, Jenna Sudds, who is on unpaid leave from city council to challenge for the Kanata-Carleton seat, last week announced her party’s support for LRT in a video message from the future site of the Stage 3 expansion.

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Coenraad said it has long been the NDP’s vision to make a “green transition” with federal properties and with fleets of federal and municipal vehicles.

“The NDP has made it extremely clear that our goal is to transition all federal buildings, and federal and municipal vehicles — as many as possible — to lessen the pollutants that are being put out into the environment, especially by large cities,” Coenraad said. “And Ottawa is part of that.”

The NDP would help fund a number of green transit initiatives in cities, Coenraad said, from light-rail projects to electric buses, to a fully-electric fleet of federal vehicles.

“That’s an immediate way to lessen the impact on the environment, because promises and hopes and dreams aren’t getting us there,” Coenraad said. “We need those immediate impacts… whatever we can do for municipalities to get them more green is the immediate plan, and it’s something we can start now. And we’ll be supporting these municipalities, because there is a large cost associated with them. But the sooner we start, the sooner we can get there.”

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Under the NDP’s plan, Coenraad said, tax revenue would flow from leader Jagmeet Singh’s proposed wealth tax — which includes an “excess profit tax” on large corporations — into infrastructure projects and environmental initiatives, among other post-pandemic priorities.

“We know there is a large deficit coming out of the pandemic, and we’re still infusing money into keeping people safe and healthy, so we don’t yet know what that impact is going to be. We need to ensure we aren’t just going further into debt without addressing these issues… and the wealth tax is going to be a big part of that,” Coenraad said.

“We have to invest in these types of infrastructure for cities. We can’t just continue to expand highways, it’s really not feasible, and we need to find green ways to get people around in cities.”

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Coenraad said she is “a little disappointed” that Kanata was left unserviced by the LRT for so long given the growing population and demographics, with an abundance of federal government workers and tech employees relying on public transit and the ever-expanding Queensway.

“We are growing at such a rapid rate out here in Kanata-Carleton, by the time this project is done into Kanata, we will have a whole group of people unserviced in Stittsville and in Carp. And we can’t keep expanding the Queensway and hoping more people will drive. That won’t help (solve transit issues), and that won’t help with climate change.

“I’ll be pushing to make sure that the plans are all in place, that the environmental assessments are done, that the track’s path is the best for the environment and the constituents to have easy access to the stations.”

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Stittsville is slated to receive some LRT service under Stage 3, with stations planned at Maple Grove and Hazeldean roads.

Earlier this year, the City of Ottawa announced it would convert its entire bus fleet to electric vehicles by 2036. The Canada Infrastructure Bank is providing a $400-million loan and the federal government is offering up to $493 million in grants to the city to support the conversion.
Earlier this year, the City of Ottawa announced it would convert its entire bus fleet to electric vehicles by 2036. The Canada Infrastructure Bank is providing a $400-million loan and the federal government is offering up to $493 million in grants to the city to support the conversion. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

Coenraad said people she’s met while knocking on doors have listed transit as a major concern, and said some families have had to purchase a second vehicle instead of taking public transit during the pandemic.

“We have a lot of federal workers who work downtown, and once we do get back to our new normal, people are looking to take transit and not have that extra expense of a second vehicle, the gas, the impact on the environment,” she said.

“There is a large number of people are waiting for the service to be up and running. And with so much population growth and expansion out here, climate is on a lot of people’s minds. Our forests are disappearing, our green space is disappearing, and lot of people who live out in Kanata-Carleton are looking for ways to lessen their personal impact on the environment. I’m hearing from people that it really can’t come soon enough for them,” Coenraad said.

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Rolling back future funding for infrastructure “would be detrimental to cities like Ottawa,” Coenraad said.

“We’ve got to complete this job,” McGuinty agreed.

Before he was first elected in 2004, McGuinty served for 10 years as the founding president of the national roundtable on the environment and the economy.

“It became clear very quickly that our cities were going to need help from other levels of government if they were going to be able to create the kind of urban spaces that people wanted to move to and want to stay in.”

Stage 1 was supported “from day one,” McGuinty said, by the Martin government and by Dalton McGuinty’s Ontario government.

“I’ve been around since the inception of light rail, back when it was just the north-south line,” McGuinty said. “I still believe it is a very big priority of mine, and my colleagues in our government, to work with the city council and the province to fund Phase Three.”

McGuinty has also been around to witness some recent rail-related challenges.

“Of course there are challenges,” he said. “I have yet to see a rail project or light rail system that’s been built and didn’t have bumps along the way. No project goes off perfectly, it’s a big complex project and we can expect challenges. But I have confidence in the City of Ottawa and in Infrastructure Ontario that they’ll be able to iron out these bumps in the road so we continue to attract as many talented people as we can to our region.”

ahelmer@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/helmera

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