Shake the planning etch-a-sketch: Build that LRT to Orleans, and charge them for it

Let’s shake the planning etch-a-sketch by building that LRT out to Orleans right now.

 And charging them for it.

The Sinkhole Incident on Hwy 174 has high lighted the lack of access to the former St Joseph d’Orleans.

And its not just the lack of road access, it’s the lack of alternatives.

If the sink hole happened on the road to Kanata, there are more alternative routes. The higher road capacity pushes off the breakeven point for extending LRT to Kanata. And remember, the nearest point of Kanata is further away than the farthest point in Orleans*.

In this road shortage situation, Orleans might be blessed. Because out of adversity comes advantage.

It is expensive to build more roads to Orleans, but I’ll bet all the politicians will be promising more roads. What they should do is provide more  transportation choices, such as extending the LRT out to Orleans.

After all, the purpose of transportation is move people, not automobiles. We have to get out of our minds the common assumption that people are normally in cars.

Why? Well, that road that begins in Orleans ends in Ottawa. Which means more traffic at our schools, universities, offices, and on the city streets.  Much better to move the people rather than their cars. I’ll welcome the Orleanais in Ottawa but not their tin boxes.

But won’t extending the LRT be too expensive?

Well, it certainly costs money, but what about the alternatives? Like the cost of widening all those roads and intersections, both out there and in the city. Oops, sorry, our media and public discourse doesn’t headline those costs, only the transit ones. And we don’t calculate the “cost recovery or  revenue” for roads (perhaps because it is so low), but only for transit.***

So part of the problem is how we perceive the cost.

The second part is the low density of Orleans, and the longish-haul out to there and back, with no revenue between Montreal Road and Jeanne D’Arc. So the conventional planning wisdom says its not cost effective to run the LRT out there. Our transit boffins say it will be 30 years or more before the LRT extends to Orleans, if ever.

So let’s shake our planning etch-a-sketch and start anew.

The LRT to Orleans has little competition, there being but one primary road out there, the 174, which conveniently is owned and operated by the same provider as the LRT (the city). So we don’t have to worry about someone (like the province) stepping in and providing a competing transportation facility.

To be blunt, the city can force encourage people into transit by not providing more roads. That’s pretty much how we forced encouraged everyone onto roads in the years past (by building roads and starving pedestrians of sidewalks, transit users of transit, etc). New modes take off by government coercion and subsidy, as well as their competitive advantage.

The distance from Blair Station (east end of the current OLRT project) to Place d’Orleans is about six miles. The average cost of constructing a double track LRT in North America is currently $35 million per mile ** and this alignment is along an existing freeway and pretty much entirely through open fields (golf course, greenbelt, freeway right of way in the Orleans built-up area). Surely even Ottawa could build this for a near-average cost.  So, $210 million.

We need a station at Montreal Road, then one at Jeanne d’Arc, and the terminus at Place d’Orleans. For stations, add 3 x $50 million, or $150 million.

Total expansion cost of the track: about $400 million. Divide by the 50,000 households in Orleans, giving a per household cost of $8000. Amortize over 30 years (which is at least how long it would otherwise be before an Orleans extension of the OLRT could be justified) and it’s $266 per year on each household’s tax bill (interest costs are at an historic low rate, so I have ignored them; I expect interest costs might extend the payback period by a year or two, but I’ll leave that up to the number boffins, who can also figure out how much would be paid by new residents of the area as it grows).

That’s just $22 a month, per household. If there are two commuters, that’s $11 each.

So why would the Orleanais want to pay a special levy on their taxes to get what other residents get for their regular taxes?

Well, they’d get LRT and an escape from the Queensway traffic 30 years before their due.  For those Orleanais who wouldn’t use the LRT, their $266 a year buys them space on the road for their car by getting their neighbours off it.  And their house values would go up by maybe $8000 since the lack of access to Orleans supposedly suppresses their resale values today. No need to buy a car for the kid to go to college or university. And no need for mom or dad to find parking spaces at their destinations. And less car traffic on Orleans roads. And in Ottawa.

Of course, I ignored the operating cost of the extension. Purchasing the LRT vehicles and operating them is not free. But I think these costs could fairly be attributed across the whole city, as everyone across the city benefits from the Orleanais using fewer cars on the road (less congestion), and the LRT vehicles carry way more people per operator than do buses, reducing those costs the city as a whole would otherwise have been paying for bus service for the next thirty years.  

I think one of our current planning problems is that we view transit as an expense, a cost centre. We don’t expect it to pay its way. Would that we did the same for roads, but we don’t, and that’s not going to change soon. So, to expand the LRT and keep Watson’s promise of low tax hikes, it would take a plebiscite from Orlean’s residents to see if they were willing to incur a local improvement tax.

Definitely worth hashing out some better numbers, and trying it out on a focus group of Orleanais. So, I think the first step is for an Orleans councillor to ask transportation committee to rough out a cost to extend from Blair to Orleans, along the Qway. (And eventually to raise bloody hell if it an Ottawa-built LRT along an open field, using an existing right of way, comes in costing more than the North American average).

And best of all, the Orleans LRT  might piss off the Kanatans who would remain parked on their eight lane Qway.


*or so I have been told. I didn’t verify this.

**Wikipedia. Note that Ottawa’s initial phase includes a very expensive tunnel. And the western extension requires lots of grade separations and very nice landscaping. After that, who knows if Ottawa’s costs are typical? Fortunately, the Orleans extension is thru rather ordinary fields not yet naturalized by the NCC. It’s hard to imagine a simpler, easier to build route.

*** most residents in Ottawa who read the paper or listen to CFRA, even Sun readers, could probably identify $2 billion as the cost of the LRT. How many of them could identify the cost of new private-vehicle roads and bridges in the same planning/construction decade?

16 thoughts on “Shake the planning etch-a-sketch: Build that LRT to Orleans, and charge them for it

  1. philosophically you may have a point, but practically, you’d have to get transponders on every car registered in ottawa (what of quebec?) and invest in a lot of technology. Road charging by mile will come soon enough. Govt has an insatiable greed / need for money. Houses are fixed in place, with tax collecting already established, so it might be easier to vote in a local development levy on top of the taxes, rather like the BIA’s have a surtax on business property taxes, this would just be a surcharge on taxes. One fight, then the issue goes outa sight. Road tolls irritate drivers every day (which may be your point).
    thanks for commenting.

  2. I say let the ‘burbs suffer and focus on improving things within the Greenbelt first (i.e. LRT west to Baseline Stn, South to the Airport, and north into Gatineau) otherwise we’d just be encouraging sprawl. Bringing LRT to the suburbs before a solid system is in place within the Greenebelt will promote growth outside the Greenbelt and actually make Highway 174 LESS congested for only a short period of time (making it EASIER to drive) until thousands more people realize how easy it is to get into the city. Before you know it, the highway will be clogged again and we will have spent millions on an alternative way into the City that would leave us with the exact traffic condition we are in today. The Greenbelt was established to put a physical boundary on the growth of the city, and now we are forced to cross over it with water/sewer lines and other services, roads and transit that have a very expensive price/foot. If we’re going to do all of that, what is the point of the Greenbelt other than a waste of taxpayer money and a more scenic drive into town?

    1. Is leaving Orleans dependent on the car the answer to their or our problems? We live in an interconnected urban place and those thousands of motorists will express their will for more, wider roads (in our neighborhoods) making our lives worse. Recall too that this extension was an alternative to roads, at the extra expense of Orleans taxpayers. Exapansion within the city is very expensive and requires fed – prov – local monies, the way we are currently organized. Don’t hold your breath for more LRT anywhere.

  3. My daughter reports from her vantage point on the bus that it whizzed by hundreds of waiting cars with one occupant at the Montreal Road exit. Who does this to themselves on purpose. No question all lrt focus should go to Orleans. Excellent overview once again Eric.

  4. I love it.

    More fun with numbers …

    Step 1) You don’t need to amortize. There’s no need to pay the principle. If the city says it would be 30 years before they can spend the $400M to get the train to Orleans then all you need to do is pay interest, the city would have paid the whole amount in 30 years so let them. So that’s $240/year.

    Step 2) Realize that $400M in 30 years is going to cost a lot more (inflation), so only pay enough of the interest to cover the gap between interest and inflation (maybe about 1% currently). That gets us down to $80/year.

    Step 3) Add in commercial taxpayers. Wild ass guess is they comprise maybe 1/6th the total, so bump number to 60,000 household equivalents and reduce to $64/year.

    Step 4) Calculate how much the city will save by running trains instead of buses (lower labour costs, no diesel, less road maintenance, etc.). Estimate that at about $10M/year. Put that towards reducing the annual levy. Do the math (60,000 X $64 = $3.84M) and it turns out the city would owe Orleans about $6.16M per year for getting early LRT.


  5. Regarding the need for transponders in cars. You don’t need them.
    You already have them.
    All cellphones can be tracked by triangulating positions from the nearest 3 cell towers. It would be entirely possible to create a “road usage app” that would identify the car via the cell phone of the driver, determine the route start and end points, and then route the billing via a discrete service or via the cell company.
    I cannot remember the figure for roadway construction costs per mile but I think the 417 expansion was something like $25 million per mile.
    Then you need to calculate the cost of snow clearing, the lost productivity of sitting immobile in traffic, the increased risk of personal injury (an automobile is an incredibly risky form of transportation, much higher risk than planes or bikes, or working on an offshore oil rig), and the gross inequity of someone with property but no car paying the freight so other folks can tool around the neighbourhood with goosed exhaust rumbles and blaring stereos.
    We should move to “Driver Pay.” The belief that roadways are “Free” is wildly wrong. And if you want to see the true cost of roadways pay attention to the growing debate over an ice free arctic and consequent methane release:

    1. Cellphones might work, if you enforce a one person per car rule, which seems a little suboptimal.

      Charging per mile would be hard without a lot of extra equipment, but congestion zone charging would work, pay a toll to enter the city. Charge based on license plate pictures. There aren’t that many roads (21) that cross the Greenbelt. Those plus the 5 bridges and you’d have a pretty simple system.

    2. So then what? We need to legislate that you must travel with a cell phone in your car? This may surprise some, but not everyone has a cell phone.

  6. Great idea, but East Enders would rightly point out that the West End never paid a levy for their superior transport routes. Also I don’t think Orleaners would be able to get around with less cars. You would still need to drive to the transit hub.
    I really do like the idea of asking local media to talk about the cost of road projects.

      1. I don’t have a car, so I could be wrong, but it seems that there are more surface route options West, including Carling, Baseline and Richmond.

  7. If the rest of the city split the costs 50/50 with Orleans land owners I would be OK with that. It could be a precedent for how to determine when to bring the LRT out to Kanata and Barrhaven and perhaps stop the continual tug of war about which route should be built out first.

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