LRT's early champions mark bittersweet victory

LRT's early champions mark bittersweet victory

As politicians cut the ribbon on Ottawa's Confederation Line on Saturday, there were dozens of public transit advocates quietly watching from the sidelines, knowing they'd all had some small part to play in the decades-long struggle for light rail in Ottawa.

"It's hard to believe, but it has taken 30 years," said longtime LRT proponent and former city councillor Peter Harris, who remembers when the crusade began.

Attitudes change. It's just an evolution of thinking. - Peter Harris, former Ottawa city councillor

"That was back in 1989. The region of Ottawa-Carleton had a whole different philosophy on transportation. They were sold on the bus transitway. They had plans in the works to do expressways for cars."

Harris believes LRT's arrival could have come much sooner if there had been the political will.

"I opposed the bus tunnel, and I was told at the time I should know better."

Unsung heroes

Andrew Lee/CBC

David Jeanes, another early proponent of commuter rail, helped launch Transport 2000, later renamed Transport Action Canada, and was front and centre in 1997 when the former regional council finally decided to explore the possibility of LRT.

"Despite the 22 years that have elapsed ... I am pleased that we are finally getting a viable system," Jeanes said. "It includes many elements that I have been one of the first to promote, including the airport extension, which I had proposed back in 2000, the Parkway-Richmond Road routing, which I proposed in 2008, the location of the tunnel portals which I proposed to the task force in 2007, and the retention of a Trillium Line maintenance facility in the vicinity of Walkley Yard."

There were others along for the ride, Jeanes said, and they became known as Friends of the O-Train.

"Tim Lane, Michael Richardson and Steven Fanjoy were the driving force behind the Friends of the O-Train opposition to a combined bus transitway/LRT across downtown, instead promoting east-west electric LRT only in the core."

Harris added to the list of citizens who helped shepherd in the LRT era in Ottawa.

"I teamed up with Michel Haddad and Greg Ross, and we formed Citizens for Alternative Transit," Harris said. "We did our research and had a meeting right in regional headquarters. It had about 200 people. And CP Rail sent a representative, Bombardier, Siemens, on what we could do with rail, what had been done in other cities, and I was impressed with the number of people in Ottawa that really knew about rail."

'A cuckoo choo-choo'

While the movement had political allies including Coun. Pierre Bourque and Mayor Bob Chiarelli, there was no shortage of opponents, among them Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Gord Hunter, who was concerned about the cost.

"I thought it was a cuckoo idea, a cuckoo choo-choo. It just didn't make sense to be doing it," he said. 

The City of Gatineau was planning to expand its bus networ despite the opportunity to tie into Ottawa's proposed rail system, and the National Capital Commission said it had no interest in the plan. The head of Ottawa's airport authority showed a similar lack of enthusiasm.

"Eventually the faces changed, people retired, the head of OC Transpo moved on," Harris said. "And now the Ottawa airport is for rail. So things change. Attitudes change. It's just an evolution of thinking. I think support was always there, but you had to somehow facilitate the discussion, and I think that's what the volunteers and the community have done over the years." 

Still, Harris can't help thinking about what might have been. Growing suburbs such as Barrhaven and Greely continue to grapple with gridlock, with no relief in sight. Scrapping the previous light rail plan, which cost the city millions in legal penalties, has put any solution even further out of reach.

"The route was already there. It would have been finished a long time ago," Harris said. "In hindsight, I think that was a mistake. But there's not much we can do about it now."