Light rail, heavy consequences
With Ottawa now studying Phase Two of its light rail transit system and offering to plug Gatineau into the new network, via the Prince of Wales Bridge, and with our MP Greg Fergus ramping up his own interest in a commuter rail line connecting Hull and Aylmer, the topic of a regional network is again gaining currency.
A regional network would be a massive project, requiring massive spending by the feds and provinces, but it would be an inspiring project since they are talking electrical and rail (not diesel) service connecting two significant cities and their outlying boroughs. Ottawa estimates that 60,000 people cross the river every day to work, and that number will only grow, government being our growth industry. So, getting rid of many cars and buses (now dumping particulate into our breathing space) is an exciting idea – electricity and rail, wow!
However, there’s always a devil in the details -- and in the background assumptions. The context of this cross-river light rail network is an old concept, a “National Capital Region”.
This one-big-region notion carries a lot of history . . . and baggage. Committing to a rail network might just lock all of us into this Big Region, more than any political decisions. But the concept remains a political one, and it carries big implications.
We had best try to identify those implications, and get a little more clarity on the whole concept of a National Capital Region, before we launch into an effort of this size. What are the political and financial implications, besides the technical challenges? It’s the political and financial commitments which will stay with us once the technical difficulties are overcome.
What is a National Capital Region? Washington, DC, with its own state-like government? Or metro Mexico City (with a population equal to all of Canada’s), almost as powerful as the national government, and sometimes indistinguishable from it?
Where would it be governed, where will the council sit, and how will “councillors” be elected? Whose interests will survive? What about provincial sovereignty? What about the national government’s powers? Language and cultural matters? Economic development? Even airport management? There are plenty of questions which ought to addressed before we get very far along the road to a project of this magnitude and complexity.
Mr Fergus has said, about this big question, “there really is just one region here”; Mayor Pedneaud-Jobin has gone ahead and is talking to Ottawa’s mayor -- all as if regional government is coming.
Despite the 60,000 commuters, heavy traffic does not mean political congruencies. We are not now one big administrative region, although we can cooperate on low-level transit without triggering political disputes or political/fiscal commitments. What about Quebec’s history of keeping its borders intact?
Any consolidation of services that buttresses the identification of Gatineau-Ottawa as one “national district” must face these unresolved issues and agendas.
Even talk of this project demands the utmost sensitivity, community-mindedness, and intelligence. Rare qualities, when taken together.