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Lees station for Ottawa's new light-rail transit is situated next to highway 417. Sept. 27, 2019.James Park/The Globe and Mail

The LRT has arrived. Ottawa’s Confederation Line began service this month and was welcomed by many as a sign of the capital’s evolution. Next stop: big-city status.

In a sense, this is great news. Ottawa’s collective aspiration to be a more transit-oriented region is laudable. But the line itself is far from perfect: The experience for riders is indifferent, and there are serious flaws in the planning of the system and how it might transform the city.

On the smallest scale, it works. The public art along the line is fantastic. Jim Verburg’s subtle installation at Rideau station and Jyhling Lee’s at Hurdman both enliven the passenger experience. At Tunney’s Pasture station in the west, Derek Root’s Gradient Spaces combines a skylight and glass-tile mosaics into richly coloured compositions.

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Derek Root's Gradient Spaces skylight installation is seen at Tunney's Pasture station.James Park/The Globe and Mail

This may be enough to distract people from the architecture and landscape, which are grey and mediocre. The 13 stations, four of them underground, show a consistent vocabulary of exposed concrete, grey ceramic tile and silver aluminum, with the odd piece of wood. Downtown, the entrance pavilions are ungainly glass boxes; outside the downtown, they’re mostly big, open structures with butterfly roofs. There are echoes of the British High-Tech tradition and architects such as Nicholas Grimshaw.

The problem is that this design is very subtle and demands great workmanship and fine materials. You don’t find those in Canadian public-works projects these days. The Confederation Line has plenty of poorly finished concrete and cheap ceramic tile.

Such architecture also ought to be rigorous in both concept and execution. Here, it is not. The team of architects – including Ottawa’s BBB, the transit-design team at Toronto’s IBI Group and Toronto’s Adamson Associates – have achieved quantity but not quality. There is a general sloppiness to the architecture that, in the big Canadian offices of the 1960s, would have sent people back to their drawing boards.

The average rider is not going to notice much of this. What they will notice is the indifference with which bus lines, which carry the bulk of Ottawa transit passengers, are treated. I visited two of the busiest interchanges, at the government compound of Tunney’s Pasture and at Hurdman station. In each place, riders have long walks from the train to the bus stops, where they’re forced to wait on bare concrete with minimal shelter and limited seating. There’s no shade, since the few trees are sad-sack saplings. I wouldn’t want to be there in February – or in July.

Who made these specific decisions? It’s hard to say, because the $2.1-billion project was procured through a DBFM P3. In English, that’s a long-term contract with a private consortium to design, build, finance and maintain the system over a multiyear period. That consortium, Rideau Transit Group, includes construction giant EllisDon, ACS Infrastructures and SNC-Lavalin.

Even before SNC’s recent implosion, there were reasons to question this arrangement. P3 arrangements have been widely criticized over the past decade; their promised benefits of insurance against delays and cost overruns don’t always materialize. The Confederation Line was more than a year overdue.

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Lees station for Ottawa's new light-rail transit is situated next to highway 417. Sept. 27, 2019.The Globe and Mail

Another issue is design quality. Such deals are highly complex and inevitably involve armies of litigators and bankers. Design always suffers, as it has on the Confederation Line.

But, having said all of that, what’s most important about any transit project is how it remakes the city. The Confederation Line gets middling marks on this score. It follows an existing bus rapid transit route, doing little to connect new places. There has even been rumbling from suburban commuters (and their councillors) whose trips are, after a reconfiguration of the bus system, actually longer. Such upheaval is necessary, though difficult, in the process of building a comprehensive transit network. And the city is already planning to extend LRT further into the suburbs – the Confederation Line east and west, and the existing Trillium line south.

lf those lines are well planned, they will encourage dense development right around their stations, gathering people who will become habitual transit riders. Ottawa’s planners are working on such transit-oriented development plans. But several of the stops opened this month aren’t well placed to serve this goal. You want a transit station to be in the centre of a neighbourhood, where people can walk to it. The Lees stop is next to a Highway 417 cloverleaf.

This Confederation Line project is the result of more than a decade of political debate and compromise. It’s not perfect, and in any city, that’s inevitable. But if Ottawa is committed to transforming itself into a transit-oriented city, it can’t afford to lock itself into a system that only works halfway well and a land-use plan that’s less than ideal. The new LRT is good for the city, but that’s not good enough.

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