Ottawa, Canada’s capital, already has one of North America’s largest bus rapid transit networks, with a series of transitways leading into the city center, where buses run in dedicated lanes along city streets. The first sections of the line opened in 1983, and now the system has a high ridership for a bus system in a city of 800,000: 240,000 daily riders. Ottawa also has an 8 km diesel multiple unit light rail system with five stops called the O-Train that has a daily ridership of 10,000, though the service doesn’t reach downtown. The O-Train opened as a demonstration line in 2001. Now the city is actively working to build a downtown light rail tunnel that would eventually be connected to a train network serving the entire region.
The city’s leadership has never been entirely comfortable with the busway system they built so successfully beginning in the 1980s. Rather, over the past decade, there have been a number of proposals to build a light rail system running through the city and, in some places, replacing the bus rapid lines. Building light rail in Ottawa is cheaper than elsewhere because the right-of-way already exists. But that progress has been repeatedly stymied by bad planning – such as an idea in 2006 to run light rail on the existing and overcrowded surface streets – and by lack of political will.
Last fall the city announced its long-term transit plan, whose basic principle is the replacement of the city’s busways with light rail transit lines extending through downtown, and then east, west, and south, with a spur to the airport. The O-Train would be converted to electric operation and integrated into the broader system, allowing direct access downtown for people along that line. New busways would be built connecting the light rail corridors.
Yesterday, the city revealed its preferred alignment for the downtown section of the light rail line (shown in the map at top). The first phase of the new transit system will run 13 km east-west along the existing transit way from Blair to Tunney’s Pasture, with a 3 km diversion into a tunnel through downtown. There will be a connection at Bayview to the O-Train, with preparations made for a future electric conversion of that line. The entire system will be designed for future 6-car trainsets to handle the line’s expected high ridership.
The tunnel itself will significantly improve the state of downtown’s Albert and Slater Streets, which are currently so completely overcrowded with bus traffic that there’s no capacity to increase services on the transitways, which are expected to have to meet twice the passenger demand by 2030. The rail tunnel allows effective separation from traffic, lower pollution counts because of electric operation, and faster speeds because of complete separation from traffic and quicker acceleration.
Some business groups have griped about the route of the tunnel, because it’s slightly different from that taken by buses today and therefore may reduce demand at retail outlets that had been designed and positioned with transit riders in mind. The city, however, claims that its route is designed to maximize ride quality because it doesn’t have the tight curves that bus routes currently take and that rail vehicles aren’t able to handle as easily.
The initial line will cost a total of $830 million, funded by non-yet-committed local, provincial, and federal sources, with the vast majority being spent on the $600 million tunnel. Construction could begin in 2012, with completion in 2016 or ’17.
Though the larger plan, with LRT corridors throughout Ottawa, will function effectively in a city with a high transit mode share, there will be some problems during the initial implementation phases. The first line’s construction will probably require the diversion of bus lines along the transitway and as a result slow down the commutes of hundreds of thousands of riders for several years. In addition, once the light rail line is finished, riders on the O-Train and buses will have to transfer to light rail to get downtown. This will make the Tunney’s Pasture and Blair stations at each end of the line potentially overcrowded, and make the life of those not living on the LRT line more difficult because of their lack of one-seat access that they current have.
If the city is serious about implementing its larger transit proposals, though, these problems will be ephemeral, with the vast majority of the city eventually benefiting from rail service.