Society

The long road to rail — Larry O’Brien, John Baird, and other bumps on the track to LRT

After years of political wrangling, and now four delays, the much-anticipated second phase of Ottawa’s light rail system is now almost a reality (we hope).

But it’s not all about Jim Watson, John Manconi, and the RTG. The track to light rail in Ottawa has always been a bumpy one, full of political duels, funding problems, and lawsuits.

“It’s never too late to press the reset button,” Larry O’Brien said countless times during the 2006 election campaign, referring to his desire to cancel the north-south LRT plan championed by Bob Chiarelli. On his way to victory, O’Brien got a little help from his friend John Baird who, as Treasury Board president, used his power to withhold the feds’ promise of $200 million in LRT funding until after the election. (Baird, a Tory, was accused of acting politically, given the acrimonious relationship he and Chiarelli, a Liberal, had over the years.)

Here, we look at the many ups and downs on the route to rail.

2001
The O-Train is introduced as a pilot project to serve in conjunction with the standard bus system. It runs between Greenboro in the south and Bayview in the north.

2004
Mayor Chiarelli secures $200 million each from the federal and provincial governments toward expanding the O-train.

Photo courtesy City of Ottawa

2005
Federal, provincial, and municipal representatives sign a memorandum of understanding to fund the north-south LRT plan.

2006
Mayor Bob Chiarelli is challenged by councillor Alex Munter and businessman Larry O’Brien. The future of the light rail plan becomes a major election issue, with O’Brien calling on Chiarelli’s plan to be halted. But in July, council votes to proceed with the north-south route.
In October, treasury Board president John Baird drops a bombshell that halts the LRT plan: the federal government will withhold its $200-million contribution. His intervention helps O’Brien and hurts Chiarelli. In December, mayor O’Brien and his council vote to scrap the north-south route.

Photo courtesy City of Ottawa

2007
The city is sued for $175 million by Siemens Canada-led consortium that was going to build the north-south LRT line. Council eventually votes to settle with Siemens for $36.7 million.

2010
Council endorses the functional design for an east-west LRT line, and the province approves the environmental assessment.
Jim Watson is elected mayor, handily beating O’Brien.

Photo courtesy City of Ottawa

2011
Council votes to accelerate the project timeline to have construction completed by 2017, in time for the country’s sesquicentennial.

2012
Ottawa City Council approves the Confederation Line, a 12.5-kilometre LRT line running east-west, from Blair Road to Tunney’s Pasture.

2013
Construction begins at a maintenance and storage yard on Belfast Road.

2016
A major sinkhole opens during construction work on the tunnel under Rideau Street, delaying construction by six months.

2017
The tunnelling machines meet in the middle, connecting the tunnel’s two ends.
Council approves a $3.6-billion project that will expand the east-west LRT line.

2018
In February, Watson announces the Rideau Transit Group (RTG) will not meet its initial completion date in May. Deadline is pushed to November 2, 2018, and excitement builds as the first LRT train travels through the downtown tunnel in April.

But in September, the city pushes the deadline into 2019.

2019
In early March, RTG announces they will not be handing LRT keys to the city on March 31 as planned. When pushed for the cause of the delay, the city’s transportation manager John Manconi says, “The train will launch when it’s tested, commissioned, and safe to do so.”

Mayor Jim Watson is showing cracks in his confidence: “I’m always a bit of a doubter. I’ll believe it when I see it.” RTG says they expect to launch in June; they have until May 31 to provide the city with a new date.