Who wants to be an incumbent mayor or councillor in municipal election year 2018?
Transparently the light-rail project is off the rails. That’s the largest municipal project in Ottawa history.
Civic officials will deny this, but that package of so-called extras (such as a fare system or a bus loop at Tunney’s Pasture) was a way to keep the project on its $2.1-billion schedule. Expect another package if or when this project runs over again. The LRT extras have prompted The Bulldog to call the real light-rail cost $2.3 billion.
Meanwhile the city might be able to disguise the rail overrun but it can’t deny the timing. Municipal officials are fudging their completion dates (remember it is May 7, 2018) so that’s a sign this puppy is not on time. This project will likely be late. It’s already over-budget.
That looks bad because the mayor has been trumpeting that all is well with LRT. It is not … not even close. The overspending on this project is mind-boggling (more than twice the cost of the cancelled project and giving us much less) and still LRT does not get to Barrhaven or Kanata. And don’t forget the massive accidents and labour woes in the tunnel. If residents are paying attention, they won’t be happy.
But even if the project finishes on time, there are myriad problems. Every transit user going downtown must transfer to light rail. Nobody likes transferring in winter cold or summer humidity. When riders discover this, they will not be happy. They are paying more money (a lot more money) for a line that will get them downtown slower than at present (because of the extra transfer) and will be much more uncomfortable.
So our current civic politicians are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Make the completion target and riders will be disappointed with the transfers and the longer trip downtown. Don’t make the schedule and people will be disappointed that for $2.3 billion, this project isn’t on time.
But there are other things that will affect the 2018 election. How long can the city keep shovelling reserve money into the kitty to keep a balanced operating budget? When does the kitty have its last meow? How many civic employees will lose their jobs if the operating budget can’t make its target?
Good opponents for office can exploit LRT and the largest operating deficit in city history. The question is: will good opponents appear?
So light-rail and budget woes can be raised by capable candidates. But there are more problems than just these two.
First, will voters start to consider the change thing? Mayor Jim Watson has been on the political scene for a long, long time as a councillor, a mayor, a TV personality, an MPP, a provincial cabinet minister and now mayor again for what will be eight years this time by the next election. Unless Watson has the resiliency of Mackenzie King, voters might be looking for a new face.
Second, will voters, and particularly victims of the recent flood, be concerned that Watson did not declare a state of emergency concerning the recent flooding? The law is foggy on this topic but the question arises that if the mayor did not declare an emergency, does that mean the province cannot petition the federal government for flood help?
The Bulldog poll results today, while unscientific, show clear concern about the lack of an emergency call. Word of mouth will get around extremely quickly that victims will have paid tens of thousands of dollar to repair their homes but they couldn’t get money for cottages or new furniture for the rec room. Some of these complaints might not be valid but residents will remember that Watson said he had the situation under control. If you’re out tens of thousands of dollars, your life is out of control. The city offer to push back victim’s property taxes only delays the inevitable. It is faint help at best. The city gives up a little interest on the money it would have collected. Big deal.
Good optics, lousy effectiveness. But that has been the theme of the Watson administration for some time. It’s a pretty facade over a terrible mess.
Third, will victims of the flood and other residents of Ottawa be concerned that so little warning was given about the deluge. Floods on the Ottawa River don’t come very often but they are real and damaging. The city has an emergency plan but where was that in giving reasonable warning the water was on the way. With some degree of accuracy, flooding can be predicted. Winnipeg, which often gets Red River floods, is always prepared for the worst. It has seen the worst. Ottawa was prepared for the best.
Fourth, the publicity campaign for the $28 million or more Ottawa 2017 celebration that features Watson in almost every press release will be long over by election time. Such publicity is good for name recognition but Watson doesn’t need name recognition. His profile has always been high … maybe a little too high.
So 2018 is shaping up as a difficult year for incumbents. This could be Watson’s last hurrah.
He is carrying the can for a badly botched administration.
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