When politicians quit before their job is done

OPINION: Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson announced last week he’ll run for a third term, which probably ensures the city’s LRT will actually get built — an experience some other cities have good reason to envy
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Mar 16, 2017
Mayor Jim Watson (left) and Infrastructure and Communities Minister Amarjeet Sohi tour the site of a future LRT station in Ottawa last year. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

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Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson made it official last week: he’s running for a third term as mayor. If he wins and sticks around for the full duration of his term he’ll be mayor at least until 2022; he’s held the position since 2010, succeeding the, ah, tumultuous tenure of Larry O’Brien.

It’s not a galloping shock: Watson’s time in office has been relatively drama-free compared to that of his immediate predecessor, and to other Ontario mayors. He’s no Rob Ford, no Joe Fontana, no Susan Fennell even. It hasn’t been entirely spotless — Watson was criticized for his response to the death of Abdirahman Abdi last summer — but for a mayor cruising toward the finish line of his second term, his record has been notably disasterless.

Voters in Ottawa will get to judge Watson’s time in office for themselves, but fans of the city’s light rail plan can breathe a bit easier with the news Watson will remain: with support at council and from the provincial Liberals, he has made the expansion of rail transit one of his signature policies.

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Phase one of Ottawa’s LRT plan will open next year (assuming no hiccups interrupt construction) and has so far been progressing quickly: council first approved the project in 2012, meaning only six years will have elapsed from approval to fare service. That progress has not only built the political credibility to move forward with phase two — which will extend both the existing north-south line and the coming east-west line further in three compass directions — which is currently going through the planning process and waiting on firm funding agreements from both the provincial and federal governments. It also means that phase one is far enough along that it can’t be cancelled after the next election, even if Watson loses. It will be a fact on the ground, whoever is in the mayor’s office.

If the money starts flowing in an orderly way most of phase two will be complete before the next election, in 2022. More facts on the ground. More momentum for a potential phase three expansion even farther into the city’s suburbs. And for Watson, a chance to leave office having utterly transformed Ottawa’s transit system. Or run for a fourth term because hey, there are always new municipal battles to fight.

Ottawa’s not the only case of transit planning success, but there aren’t very many. In Waterloo Region, a light rail line has been bubbling away since 2004 and is also expected to open next year. Not coincidentally, the project has been shepherded by a regional chair who has stuck around over the long haul: Ken Seiling has been in office since 1985 (first as an appointed chair, and since 1997 as an elected one).

Meanwhile, in other cities transit planning has been either partly or totally derailed by mayors who either left office or lost their re-election bids.


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Toronto’s transit plans have basically been in a constant state of flux since the 2010 election, in which incumbent David Miller chose not to run for re-election and was succeeded by Rob Ford, who immediately killed Miller’s approved and funded light rail plan in favour of a very different, subway-based one. He, in turn, has been succeeded by John Tory. But given the increasingly bleak numbers facing Tory’s adopted child — he took up Ford’s subway mantle, and added in a whole new layer of rail planning of his own — he’s likely to face a challenge from someone in 2018 looking to find a better way to spend $3.35 billion.

In Hamilton, that city’s LRT plan faces substantial opposition among skeptical councillors, but it has also suffered from the changes in the mayor’s chair. Planning for light rail started under Fred Eisenberger in 2008, who lost the 2010 election to Bob Bratina, who was and remains skeptical of light rail in Hamilton, but then left to run federally and was succeeded in turn by Eisenbeger again, which means light rail is back on, again.

Can we say with confidence that, if David Miller had stuck around in Toronto (the one poll that looked at how Miller would have fared suggested he’d have beaten Ford) that the city’s light rail network would be operating as scheduled? No, because the craven politics at the provincial level still need to be accounted for. It’s entirely possible the Liberals at Queen’s Park would still have schemed to blow up Scarborough’s light rail plans for their own purposes, as they did in 2013 to win a by-election running as “subway champions.” Could they have steamrolled council and a pro-LRT mayor anyway if Miller had stuck around? The province can do whatever they like at the end of the day, but they normally try to retain at least a fig leaf of local democracy. It would have been harder for the subway champions if there had been an LRT champion in the mayor’s office.

The larger problem is that it shouldn’t take 10 or 15 years to get anything done in a modern city. From approval to opening the University extension of the Yonge subway in Toronto took five years; it was less than eight years from approval to operations of that city’s Bloor-Danforth line. By the time the Eglinton Crosstown opens it will have been 11 years, and it’s not remotely clear the line will actually open on time. Other cities have built full subway lines in less time: the French government approved Paris’ Line 14 in 1989 and opened it to service in 1998. Maybe transit-building has actually become intrinsically harder since 1966. Or maybe we’ve just become worse at doing these things with a sense of urgency.

There’s no one reason why these things take longer now — environmental assessment rules are one regularly blamed culprit, but also consultation processes designed to let local residents air their grievances about construction impacts, More fundamentally, though, we simply have become inured to the fact that these projects take a long time.

That’s a mistake. It’s not just annoying for advocates of transit investment that it takes so long: it’s a legitimate threat to getting these projects built at all. Some municipalities — like Waterloo Region — have leaders who have enough built-up political capital that they can ask voters to trust them for the planning, approval, and construction cycles that last longer than several election cycles. But that’s the exception, and reasonably so: voters are being told ad infinitum that the need for transit investment is so urgent that all levels of government need their tax dollars. If it’s really that urgent, maybe it should show in the construction schedules and not just the volume of dollars expended.

In the meantime, and until someone figures out how to get major transit projects done with more haste, Jim Watson reminds us that the only thing that guarantees them a fighting chance is having the politicians who back them stick around.

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