Budget 2020 – What does it mean for Ottawa’s environment?

On Wednesday, November 6, Mayor Jim Watson presented the draft city budget for 2020.

This budget has implications for all three of Ecology Ottawa’s program areas:

  • LIVING CITY, our program to protect and enhance Ottawa’s trees, water and green space;
  • RENEWABLE CITY, our program on climate change and energy policy; and
  • ACTIVE CITY, our program on sustainable transportation.

Below is a summary of budget items, colour-coded by program area and categorized four ways:

  • improvements and new initiatives;
  • business-as-usual spending;
  • spending reductions or bad investments; and
  • open questions.

These assessments are preliminary. Over the next few weeks, Ecology Ottawa staff and volunteers will be asking questions to councillors and city staff in order to clarify the points below.

Improvements and new initiatives

$2 million for purchase of natural areas. In past years, the city has spent over $800,000 on the purchase of natural areas for preservation. $2 million is a substantial increase over historic averages, although it should be noted that no amount was identified for the 2019 budget.

$4.7 billion for extension of light rail. There remain very serious issues with service delivery, reliability, transparency and public accountability on LRT. While there are very strong arguments that light rail investments could be better spent and better managed, the fact that the city is investing billions on transit is still a positive development.

$6 million for an electric bus pilot. While this line item was previously announced, we are pleased to see the city move towards electrification of its bus fleet. We urge the city to draw lessons learned from pilots in other cities and move towards more rapid electrification.

Rate freeze for EquiPass. Last year, EquiPass increased well above the rate of inflation. We are pleased to see the city cap EquiPass rates at 2019 levels for the 2020 budget year.

Increase in on-street parking rates. The 2020 budget sees the first increases in on-street parking in more than a decade. This is a welcome step forward, as higher parking rates encourage reduced car use and greater use of alternative transportation options.

$2 million for traffic calming. While some of this money may be allocated to overhead, this appears to be an increase in the traffic calming budget of $50,000 per ward (or $1.15 million) last year.

Business-as-usual spending

$1.5 million to plant 125,000 trees per year. This is a standard line item that we’ve seen in past budgets. We are happy to see the city continue to invest in forest cover.

$3 million for energy efficiency retrofits in City of Ottawa buildings. This year’s total matches the amount spent in 2019. Typically, these investments are not only good for climate action, but they return cost savings to the city.  We are happy to see the city continue to invest in this area.

$9.1 million for Cycling and Pedestrian Plans. Last year these plans received $7.1 million, a steep decline relative to average annual funding over the last term of council. While this year is seeing an increase in funding to $9.1 million, this is still well below the 2015-2018 average investment of over $20 million per year in this area. In light of this, we are categorizing this as a “business-as-usual” expenditure. 

$500,000 for the Pedestrian Crossover (PXO) Program. This amount is the same as in the 2019 budget. Clearly, there is ample demand in all wards for safer pedestrian crossings. We would like to see the city expand its spending in this area. 

Spending reductions or bad investments

$70,000 for Energy Evolution (spending reduction). Energy Evolution is the city’s plan for taking action on the climate emergency. In many ways, it is the most important environmental project underway at city hall. As such, it is disappointing to see this measly investment in climate action. The $70,000 investment is well below last year’s total of $150,000 and the 2018 total of $500,000.

$66.2 million for road growth projects (bad investment). Ottawa’s continued expansion of its road network creates serious challenges for future budgets, in terms of maintenance, clearing, and managing induced demand from additional vehicles. There is no evidence that widening roads alleviates congestion, and yet the city continues to justify massive investments in roads by claiming that new road projects will do precisely that – alleviate congestion and accommodate growth. This massive investment could be better used in any number of other areas (e.g., Energy Evolution, transit, pedestrian infrastructure and/or cycling infrastructure). Worse still, some of this money is earmarked for expansion or widening roads in sensitive areas such as the Greenbelt.

Open questions

No clear line item for investments as part of the Urban Forest Management Plan. As with last year’s budget, it remains uncertain what progress the city is making towards the ambitious goals laid out in the Urban Forest Management Plan.

Increasing climate resilience through floodplain mapping and community flood risk profiles. While this initiative was mentioned in the Mayor’s budget speech, we could not find a line item earmarked for specific climate resilience projects. So, while spending in this area would be welcomed, it remains unclear whether this spending is actually occurring.

No clear line item for green infrastructure investments. As with last year’s budget, it remains unclear what progress the city is making on integrating living and built water management infrastructure into roads and other city infrastructure.

No clear line item for vehicle electrification infrastructure. As with last year’s budget, it remains uncertain what progress the city is making towards the electrification of Ottawa’s transportation system. We know from other cities’ climate analyses (e.g., “Transform TO”) that rapid vehicle electrification is one of the most important climate change initiatives that can be conducted at the municipal level. It is imperative that the city make investments in this area. 

No clear line item for greening the municipal vehicle fleet. In past years, the city devoted $500,000 to converting its fleet to lower- or zero-emissions. As in the 2019 budget, we were unable to identify the “green fleet” line item.

$78.3 million for winter operations. While the Mayor states that this investment marks a $5.6 million increase over 2019 levels, this line item is difficult to parse. Our concern is that this money will continue to be prioritized for clearing parking lots and roadways, and will not result in any tangible improvements for active transportation modes. We will seek clarification from the City on how this investment will be allocated. 

Collaboration between City of Ottawa and NCC on winter network. The Mayor’s statement mentioned that staff have come to an agreement on a cost-sharing basis to support a number of trail initiatives. While this could be a promising development for active transportation initiatives, we could find no line item in the budget that corresponds to new winter trail investments.

An additional $7.5 million to expand the bus network. Clearly, the City of Ottawa is experiencing major challenges with the roll-out of light rail. This could be a welcome addition of funds to help restore rider confidence in Ottawa’s troubled transit system. However, the City of Ottawa has not yet posted detailed Transit Commission budget information. As such, this number has yet to be verified. We will seek additional clarification. 

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