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John Baird, Light Rail Killer

Did Tories' new enviro minister undercut a big light rail project to settle a political score? A Tyee special report.

Laura Drake 23 Jan

Laura Drake is an Ottawa-based reporter.

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Baird: Outcome will up emissions

Last week, John Baird, the Conservatives' new Environment Minister, hopped a ride on a low-emissions hybrid bus to a press conference in Western Ottawa. Once there, the Ottawa based Minister, described by many as the rising star of his party, announced $230 million in funding for the development of green technologies, part of a downpour of environmental initiatives rained down by the government last week.

Ironically, though, thanks in part to Baird, that low-emissions bus is the most eco-friendly vehicle the nation's capital will see for a long time. Only two months before his fabled climate change wake-up call, Baird not once, but twice, took decisive actions that helped kill a massive electric light rail project for his hometown. The project's failure will not only cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars and potentially open the federal government up to a major law suit, it will also mean an extra 131,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year poured into Ottawa's atmosphere.

Ottawa's long track to light rail

The history of light rail in Ottawa is convoluted, with a long list of unnecessary complications. The city encompasses two university campuses and is home to the majority of the federal civil service. As a result, it has more public transit users per capita than any other city in North America. But those users access a system that is almost entirely dependent on busses. In fact, prior to 2001, the entire greater Ottawa region had not one stop of fixed link public transit.

Bob Chiarelli wanted to change that. Chiarelli was a former provincial Liberal MLA who turned to municipal politics in 1997. Between 1997 and 2001, Chiarelli, first as the Regional Chair for Ottawa-Carleton and then as mayor of an amalgamated Ottawa, pushed the city to adopt some form of municipal rail system.

In 2001, a pilot project was built on a single existing track. The O-Train is an eight-km five-stop route that runs from a field several km west of downtown and Parliament Hill, through Carleton University's campus, and ends at a big-block shopping centre north of the airport. The joke in Ottawa is that it runs from nowhere to nowhere -- not what Chiarelli had envisioned. Nonetheless, the O-Train was deemed a success and Chiarelli became hell-bent on extending it. Chiarelli envisioned a new line would run north through downtown and south past the airport to the southern bedroom communities.

In May 2004, Chiarelli secured $200 million each from the federal and provincial governments towards the project. If completed it would have become single largest infrastructure venture in Ottawa's history. Less than a year later, the three orders of government signed a memorandum of understanding to fund a 27-km, double track electrified LRT system. And a year after that, in July 2006, the Ottawa council voted 14-7 to accept a $725-million bid by Siemens/PCL/Dufferin to undertake the project. Everything was in place. Ottawa was finally going to get a state of the art rail line after almost a decade of trying.

Or, as it would turn out, not.

Chiarelli gambles on LRT

Chiarelli's zeal for the light-rail project wasn't born simply from a love of environment or commuter travel. The two-time mayor's popularity had tanked over tax hikes and a perceived complacency in City Hall. So his rush to get funding for the O-Train secured and the contract signed was also based on a looming municipal election. The vote, scheduled for November, pitted Chiarelli against two tough opponents: Alex Munter, a popular former councillor and Larry O'Brien, a self-made high-tech millionaire. Both men were positioned against the light-rail deal city council had signed in September.

Chiarelli's light rail plan was never perfect, nor was it universally supported, which made it easy to campaign against. David Jeanes, the president of Transport 2000, a non-profit group that promotes eco-friendly transit and one of light rail's original champions, was actually against the extended plan, in part because it would have shut down the existing O-Train for three years. The contract with Siemens was also controversial. To this day it has never been released. Councilors who want to see the document have to sign a gag order, even now, promising never to talk publicly.

In October, Larry O'Brien asked the Treasury Board, the department that oversees federal spending, to conduct a value-for-dollar audit of the light-rail contract. Mike Patton, a spokesman for O'Brien said the then candidate "just wanted to make sure the federal government had done due diligence." And as it turns out, the president of the Treasury Board agreed it needed a second look.

Enter John Baird.

John Baird and Bob Chiarelli have a fabled relationship in Ottawa. The two were opposing MLAs in nearby Ottawa ridings during Ontario's Mike Harris years and they have clashed for years on local and provincial politics. Neither man would comment for this story. A spokesman for Chiarelli said he was not speaking to the media for 90 days after the municipal election. Baird's office did not return calls.

Soon after O'Brien sent the contract to the board, Baird publicly announced he was withholding the federal government's signature from the contract until after the municipal election. He would sign if and when the new council voted in favour. That announcement changed the entire campaign. In the days afterwards O'Brien said he would delay and review the light rail contract if elected. The mayoral candidates' opposing stances on light rail were no longer rhetoric: A vote for Chiarelli was a vote to keep the LRT. A vote for O'Brien was to axe it.

Announcement changed the campaign

What Baird did also muddied Chiarelli's public persona. Chris Waddell, an expert on Ottawa municipal politics at Carleton University said that might have had more of an impact on the election than the LRT issue. Chiarelli had said that the contract had to be signed by all funding partners by mid-October to guarantee the price, but Baird said publicly the deadline was really Dec. 14. Waddell pointed out that what Baird did then, in effect, was make Chiarelli out to be a liar. "When Mr. Baird came in and did what he did, then that became a catalyst for people," said Waddell.

The political divisiveness of the issue grew exponentially as a result of Baird's move. The issue became so contentious that 60 per cent of Ottawa residents said light rail would influence their vote in a poll done after Baird's announcement. In the 10 days before the election, Chiarelli started to tank in the polls. "A week to two weeks before election day… they started calling the people who had voted last time," said Waddell "When they did that, it was clear that Mr. Chiarelli didn't have a chance."

On Nov. 13, O'Brien won, Chiarelli finished a distant third. His loss can not be chalked up entirely to light rail -- he had a poorly-run campaign and a sketchy reputation with Ottawa voters, and O'Brien's position as a City Hall outsider played well with people who saw City Hall as an old boys club, said Waddell.

Regardless of the reasons why, Baird's old political foe had been felled. And the future of Ottawa's LRT was bleak.

Baird again withholds funding approval

After O'Brien was sworn-in as mayor, the bureaucratic furor around the light-rail project took a turn for the worse. The campaign had a drastically negative effect on councillors' opinions of the project. Many of them also felt they had been misled by Chiarelli over the contract, which most of them had never seen. They were also unsure of the certainty of the federal and provincial funds.

The new council, sworn in on Dec. 1, was subject to a flurry of briefings on the subject. The final decision was to vote on an amended light-rail line that would drop the downtown portion of the plan and simply extend the track south. Council voted 12-11 on Dec. 6 to pass this plan. That vote only passed, however, because Rainer Bloess, an anti-LRT councillor, was on a cruise instead of at City Hall to cast his 'nay' vote.

It seemed as though Ottawa's light rail had limped back to life. There was only one problem: The federal government wanted three months to review the new plan. The contractors' deadline was Dec. 14.

"That two or three months that they would need to re-examine really put us beyond the final date where our contract price was fixed with contractor," said Rejean Chartrand, the city manager in charge of the light rail project. "We did receive it from the province, but not from the federal government."

Baird had promised, after the municipal election, that the $200 million would be there for any light rail project the new council approved. But on the morning of the contract deadline, council had a letter in hand from the province, and none from the federal government. Council voted 13-11 to kill the project.

Other cities got hundreds of millions

Clive Doucet[], an Ottawa councilor and long time supporter of the light rail plan is convinced Baird's actions killed the project. (Baird's office did not return calls for this article.) "Light rail in Ottawa failed absolutely, 100 per cent because of political interference, because of the man who is now Minister of Environment," he told the Tyee.

"It was all about partisan politics, not issues. An important person in the Tory machine got mad at someone who's an important person in the Liberal machine. There was nothing at all about creating a better city for Ottawa or a better country."

Doucet is not the only one who blames Baird. David McGuinty is the Liberal MP for Ottawa South, and the newly-minted environment critic in Stephane Dion's shadow cabinet. The day after his appointment, he talked to the Tyee about Baird's actions during the municipal election, which he called the lynch pin in the LRT's demise.

"I've spoken to two former Treasury Board Presidents and they say they can't ever recall an incident where the president of the Treasury Board has interfered in the affairs of another order of government," McGuinty said.

McGuinty is convinced that Baird's actions were entirely political, for several reasons. First, the Ottawa Citizen received an internal briefing memo for Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty -- David's brother -- that lamented Baird's actions as irresponsible and personal.

Furthermore, said McGuinty, in the time between Baird's announcement and the election, Treasury Board approved $908 million in spending for similar projects in Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto. "He never asked a single question about any of those cheques that were going out the door. He certainly didn't go to Toronto, which had a municipal election the same day as Ottawa, and tell them their new council had to approve that contract."

McGuinty also said he personally believes that all of this could lead to Baird being sued on behalf of the federal government. It is almost inevitable that the development consortium Siemens/PCL/Dufferin will sue the City of Ottawa under the contract signed in September for anywhere between $180 million and $300 million. McGuinty said he thinks that all Canadian taxpayers might end up shouldering some of that lawsuit.

"I believe as a lawyer that what Mr. Baird has also done is expose the people of Canada for liability of his actions," McGuinty said.

Baird was given the contract for the express purpose of giving it to Treasury Board staff for an audit. Instead, McGuinty said, he immediately ran to news outlets to divulge details, an act that was forbidden by the contract and led to the project's demise. "If I was working for the City of Ottawa right now, and I was on the hook for between $180 million and $300 million, I'd say, if we're going to be sued for this, should we turn around and sue the federal government?"

Lost opportunity

If Bob Chiarelli was the father of Ottawa's light rail plan, Clive Doucet was its uncle. He was also first elected on a light-rail platform in 1997, and had championed the idea as an environmental ideal from the very beginning. He voted in favour of the project on every one of the 55 votes council had on the project from 1997 through 2006. All but one of those votes has been passed in favour of light rail.

"The city has lost this wonderful opportunity to step back and build a greener city and a more community-focused city."

Doucet points out that due to the loss of light rail, 400 buses that would have been off the downtown streets will still be on, resulting in 131,000 tonnes of emissions a year that would have been eliminated by electric light rail.

And that isn't the only loss. Besides the $64 million already spent on the project, and the potential lawsuit, Ottawa has also lost out in economic forecasting. The LRT project would have pumped roughly $1.2 billion into the regional economy. The Conference Board of Canada released a report this month which said Ottawa's economy would grow half a per cent slower because of the loss of the LRT.

"We will get sued. A billion dollars in construction was going to go forward. It's going to cost us, minimum direct cost, half a billion," Doucet said, adding that in the end, he thinks the city will spend more for nothing than it would have to build the original project.

"The stupidity of this is impossible to describe in anything else than an encyclopedia."

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