Clive Doucet, an Ottawa City Councillor who strongly supported Ottawa's planned light rail system, explains why the plan was cancelled and what cities must do to create good sustainable transportation systems.
By Ben Bull
Published January 10, 2007
Author, rower, historian, and fierce proponent of the recently cancelled Ottawa Light Rail project, Ottawa City Councillor Clive Doucet is not a man to keep his thoughts to himself.
In a recent Globe and Mail opinion piece, Mr. Doucet cast his net far and wide when it came to laying the blame for the Light Rail fiasco. Curiously, it was John Baird, Canada's new Environment Minister, who seemed to get more tangled up than most. "Mr. Baird leaked the light-rail contract to the press and accused the incumbent mayor ... of 'hiding' behind confidentiality agreements. ... The reality was that Mr. Baird had not behaved appropriately."
So what really doomed this ambitious project? Why can't cities see the light when it comes to investing in public transit? And what does Mr. Doucet really think about Mr. Baird's green agenda?
We decided to find out. When we contacted him, Councillor Doucet agreed to an email interview. The questions and his responses are reproduced below.
Ben Bull, Raise the Hammer: In the recent Globe and Mail article about the cancelled Ottawa Light Rail project, you compare Colonel John By's Rideau Canal project to the Light Rail one. Six years for the creation of a wonderful network of waterways, versus six years and 55 votes for a cancelled light rail project. Why is it so hard for municipal governments to get good ideas implemented today?
Clive Doucet, Ottawa Councillor: The cities have been building in the same way since the 1950s and the construction of Don Mills, the first 'planned' suburb in Toronto.
The planned suburb is: you throw out trunk sewer and water pipes from the adjacent city and that is it. Roads like the Don Valley Parkway and all the associated urban arterials, malls and associated parking lots follow.
There are enormous vested interests in continuing the urban growth model exactly as it has been undertaken now for more than fifty years.
Residential, commecial and road builders have made and contine to make billions of dollars from this model. In fact, the principal industry in North America has been the construction of mall-sprawl suburbs. So the long and short of it is there are enormous vested interests in continuing the urban growth model exactly as it has been undertaken now for more than fifty years.
'New ideas' like electric light rail create entirely different kinds of growth patterns. They are more pedestrian oriented, consume less land and require a more diverse and complex building pattern. The developer just can't rip off the top soil from the farmer's field and then lay out his suburban grids which has the fewest construction costs and largest profits. Electric light rail changes all this.
Another reason why it is so difficult to make happen is that the initial costs are not incremental. Our council increases the city's road network by 100 kilometers a year and spends $600 million total on roads just for repair and expansion, but it's always increased incrementally. Each road expansion or reconstruction can cost anywhere from $5 million to $100 million. There are so many of them that they become part of the background financial noise of the city.
In contrast, a public transit project like light rail requires a more difficult, more complex environmental assessment than a road environmental assessment, requires more initial funding than a road project, and can't serve everyone all the time everywhere - unlike roads, which are perceived as a universal service when in fact they are no more than public transit is. There are many roads in Ottawa I've never driven on and never will.
Canada is the only G-8 country that has no ongoing federal or provincial urban transit funding.
The final large reason is that there is no federal or provincial funding programs for public transit systems. Canada is the only G-8 country that has no ongoing federal or provincial urban transit funding. Ottawa suffered through all of these limitations, fought for and got $400 million in special project funding from the federal government and the province ($200 million each); fought through the environmental assessments, project definition, and so on.
But unlike every other Canadian city, Ottawa had a senior federal minister deliberately interfering to make sure the project never happened for partisan political ambitions.
RTH: What communication strategy did Ottawa use to promote the transit plan? What lessons can other cities take from Ottawa's experience?
CD: We depended mostly on the media to report on the public consultations, committee and council debates. It didn't work. What the media did was use the project to create controversy and to sell newspapers and sound bytes by giving every opponent of the project, no matter how ill-informed, ink and electronic space.
So you had councillors who had never sat on the Transit or Transportation Committees in their political lives quoted at length opposing the project, in fact getting more air time than those working on the Committee. Six people would come together give themselves a name, e.g Friends of Mer Bleu, and come up with 'their solution' to the rail project.
What the media did was use the project to create controversy and to sell newspapers and sound bytes by giving every opponent of the project, no matter how ill-informed, ink and electronic space.
The result of all this was that trying to get the light rail story in Ottawa out was like standing in Union Station in Toronto with hundreds of passengers all speaking and trying to get attention of the crowd. It couldn't be done. So the general public, hearing so many contradictory opinions and ideas, didn't know what to think about the project.
RTH: What do you believe was the thinking behind John Baird's threat to cancel the federal funding for the project and leak information to the press? How much did this move affect the final outcome?
CD: This move determined the final outcome. Without his interference, the project would now be under construction as it has been signed off by all the parties, Siemens, PCL, the City, the province and the Federal Ministries of Transportation and Finance. It was a done deal.
The thinking behind it, as evidenced by Ken Rubin's access to information applications as reported in last Saturday's Ottawa Citizen, was that Mr. Baird's interference was totally politically motivated. He wanted to damage or unseat the Mayor who was a prominent local Liberal and the best way to do this was to cast doubt on or kill his premier accomplishment - the light rail project, which he succeeded in doing and was rewarded by becoming Environment Minister.
RTH: In your Globe and Mail article, you write, "cities need issue based parliaments". Many urbanists believe cities need a new political mandate - with new powers of revenue collection and disbursement - rather than being mere dependents of the province. In Toronto there has been a lot of discussion around the introduction of party politics into the municipal arena. What do you think of these ideas? What kind of municipal governance reforms would you advocate?
CD: I don't think cities need political parties at the city level. What we do need though is political reform that will allow Canadians to elect governments which are formed by true majorities, not pluralities. Right now, Mr. Harper refers to 'his' government. Well it is his government, it's not 'our' government because two out of three Canadians didn't vote for him.
We need political reform that will result in the way people vote being reflected in the distribution of seats in Parliament. When that occurs, Parliaments will become more issue-based because, like City Halls, they will have to pay more attention to what the 'majority' of their constituents want, not what just the folks who voted for them want.
We need political reform that will result in the way people vote being reflected in the distribution of seats in Parliament.
The greatest impediment we have to buidling a more just, more sustainable environment is our North American political system, which permits minority governments to be elected who have a different agenda from the majority who voted, e.g. anti public health, anti national day care, pro 'preventive' wars, and so on.
Modern cities and modern societies are complex. They need governments which are more nuanced, more able to compromise and consult, more interested in solving problems than beating up the opposing party whomever that party may be.
RTH: Mr. Baird is now the Federal Environment Minister. Here in Canada there appears to have been an alarming lack of encouragement from the feds to promote sustainable development initiatives at the municipal level. Many cities in the States have given up looking for federal leadership and taken their own course. What kind of initiatives do you feel Mr. Baird should be proposing to help municipalities pursue a green agenda?
CD: Given that he has just killed the largest, greenest project ever undertaken in Canada's fourth largest city? A project that was not only the first step in reducing carbon emissions in our city by several hundred thousand tons a year but would also have generated a billion dollars in pedestrian friendly housing and commercial investment around the new stations over the next five or six years.
Given that he was a key member of the Harris government in Ontario that reduced the Ontario's Environment Deparment by 50 per cent and associated deregulations that were responsible for Walkerton (See the O'Connor Report) - I can't imagine what he will be proposing.
RTH: Hamilton's primary mode of transit is the road. The majority of capital funding for the past 50 years has been allocated to laying down more asphalt. In the meantime the public transit system has languished. Why is it so easy to find money for highways but so hard to find money for transit? How critical is an efficient public transit infrastructure for the overall health, prosperity and 'livability' of a city?
CD: Efficient, comprehensive, public transit is the difference between a city and a suburb. Why is it so hard to get? See above.
RTH: In your November 25 article in the Globe and Mail, you write, "The municipal political system is sustained by the development industry, which builds the sprawl." Is it possible to reduce the influence of private capital in political decisions? How? What can citizens realistically do between elections to make councilors accountable?
CD: It is possible in two ways. Elections have to be publicly funded, not privately funded. As long as politicians depend on contributions from the development, phamaceutical, industries, etc., the political system will respond to the folks who pay for their elections. When they don't, they won't.
The second way is you need a process of local government which gives the ordinary person a real chance to set city priorities, that means annual participative budgets as they have pioneered in Porto Alegre and a planning and development process which gives communities equal opportunities to influence how their neighourhoods are built.
RTH: What lessons can other cities learn from Ottawa's light rail project?
CD: Communicate better than we did. Tell your city's PR people to forget about the media. Get out there and work with all your communities; ask them what they want. Strike ongoing committees with broad memberships, listen and listen and listen. So when the project finally moves forward people feel it's their project, then you will have a real chance to finish what you start. At the end of the day, we didn't do that well enough.
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