June 01, 2011

Ottawa Considers Moving from Bus Rapid Transit to Light Rail

A guest post by: Ryan Anders Whitney

Ottawa’s Transitway

Ottawa’s Transitway opened in 1984 and provides high-quality Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service to the region. The system carries an average of 240,000 riders per day and 96 million annually, which means Ottawa has the highest transit ridership for any city of comparable size in North America. However, the Transitway is in need of an upgrade, with projections showing that the congested downtown corridor will reach capacity by 2018.

BRT has big potential for other Canadian cities as well. After scrapping Transit City, an 8.5 billion dollar transit plan for the Greater Toronto Area focused primarily on Light Rail Transit (LRT), BRT is now back on the table. It is reported, for instance, that BRT could save nearly $600 million on Finch West compared to the previously proposed LRT option.

But today, Ottawa looks poised to move to light rail. Has the Transitway become a victim of its own success? And what can their example teach other cities as they plan their BRT systems to avoid similar issues?

Ottawa’s Transitway: Outgrowing Capacity

The Transitway system features 30.2 kilometers of bus-only infrastructure and 16 kilometers of on-street bus-only lanes. It features many key characteristics of true BRT, such as at grade boarding and segregated bus lanes.

However, the current BRT system is limited by the capacity of its downtown corridor where heavy bus congestion exists on the light-synchronized bus-priority lanes.

Projections indicate that transit ridership will expand by 78% to 166 million trips annually by 2031 and that there would need to be an articulated bus every 18 seconds in the downtown corridor to meet this demand. This is not possible with the existing infrastructure and congestion.

From the start the City sold the BRT corridor as an interim step on the road to light rail, and now the City is pledging to switch the current BRT system to LRT at a cost of $2.1 billion. The proposed system will have 13 stations, with four linked to an underground downtown tunnel, retrofitting the Transitway for rail along the way. Six hundred million has been committed by both the federal and provincial governments with the remaining $900 million projected to come from the City.

While the environmental assessment has been completed and the City has federal and provincial buy-in, the City has yet to grant the final approval. Elections in November 2010 brought in new city councilors and a new mayor, further complicating municipal buy-in.

While significant public confusion over transit issues in Ottawa has inadvertently worked to sell BRT short, concerns over costs and other impacts mean light rail is not a done deal, yet.

Light Rail not a Done Deal

Even though the conversion to light-rail seems imminent there are several hurdles that still need to be overcome, some that might even give the government reason to rethink their choice.

The Ottawa Region spans two provincial and municipal governments, the Federal Government of Canada, and two linguistic cultures of French and English, all of which come together under the National Planning Commission (NCC). Significant bureaucratic delays surround the approval of the new system because so many governing bodies, often with conflicting agendas, are responsible for Ottawa’s planning decisions.

Furthermore, transit in Ottawa is not cheap.  At $3.25 CAD a ride, with general monthly passes ranging from $91.50 – $141.75, the system ranks among the most expensive in North America. With a new LRT system proposed to cost upwards of two billion dollars, significant public concern exists surrounding transit cost.

Recently, plans to build a $780 million, 30 kilometer light rail line to link University of Ottawa to Barhaven were cancelled after a political turnover in the 2006 municipal election costing taxpayers $36.7 million in contract cancellation fees.

The Ottawa Lesson

In the Ottawa context, many forget that a potential switch to LRT does not represent a failure of BRT but rather the long-term planning behind the system. The BRT system has been very successful and is so well used that it is threatening to overextend capacity.

Ottawa highlights the value of long-term planning and the importance of decision makers who are able to forecast long-term transit needs.  A switch from BRT to rail will not only cost more money, but might send the message that the Ottawa BRT system was not adequate to serve the region.

As Yonah over at Transport Politic points out BRT is not simply a cheaper version of LRT, but rather both have their pros and cons depending on the transit needs of a given area. As other Canadian municipalities plan their transit futures, BRT should be treated as a world-class option, not simply a step en route to rail.

Ryan Anders Whitney is a former ITDP intern and Technical Consultant for Eco-Counter in Canada. 

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