Ahead of a second one-day bus strike set for Tuesday, the mayor of Quebec’s fourth-largest city warned his transit service and its union to “intensify the talks” because the ongoing job action is “hurting thousands of people” in the National Capital Region.
Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin said he was “very, very worried” about the impact of the rotating strike on transit ridership during a wide-ranging interview that touched on affordable housing, greening buildings, future Gatineau light rail and his city’s relationship with its neighbour Ottawa and the federal and Quebec governments.
“I keep in mind every day these days that it took years after the Ottawa strike to get citizens, that left public transit because of the strike, back onto buses. It took years to catch up to the old numbers,” he said. Thousands of public servants and other workers travel between Gatineau and Ottawa Monday to Friday.
“There’s a price to pay in signing something that is not reasonable, but there’s also a price in having a strike that lasts too long, because when people leave public transit, we all lose.”
Gatineau’s bus drivers and maintenance workers in the Syndicat uni du transport labour union walked off the job Thursday as part of a rotating set of one-day strikes, after bargaining talks with the bus service, Société de transport de l'Outaouais (STO) ground to a halt.
“There’s always two sides to a coin,” said Pedneaud-Jobin when asked about his message to frustrated people. “If we sign onto offers that are absolutely not reasonable at this time, there’s a heavy price to pay."
He called for patience, because negotiations are not over yet. "Actually, there’s not enough talks," he said. "That’s what I’m telling the STO and the union: intensify the talks, because we’re hurting thousands of people.”
Transit is a big deal for the City of Gatineau, an amalgamated city which spans some 50 kilometres between the former towns of Aylmer and Buckingham. It's not just the bus strike that has people talking: its twin city Ottawa is in the midst of building its own light-rail transit (LRT) system.
The first phase of Ottawa’s Confederation Line is due to be finished next year, while Gatineau is currently studying what type of transit it should deploy to link its Aylmer sector in the west with downtown Gatineau, said Pedneaud-Jobin. Meanwhile, the federal government is allocating tens of billions of dollars for transit infrastructure.
Pedneaud-Jobin believes this all points to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get Gatineau an LRT system of its own, and possibly linking the two systems, helping to stem the flow of over 1,000 buses that cross the bridges between the cities each weekday and the greenhouse gas emissions that produces.
This month, Ottawa city hall approved the second stage of its LRT plan and gave Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson the green light to formalize talks with Pedneaud-Jobin on using an old rail bridge over the river to link up future transit systems.
"It’s complicated with Gatineau and Ottawa: it’s two cities, two provinces, a river,” said Pedneaud-Jobin. “For us, it was great news when we heard that council wanted to formalize a relationship.”
He said “there’s never been as much money at the federal level for transit, so we think it’s maybe the perfect time for us to actually correct something: to have the same technology as Ottawa, because it’s one metropolitan area for transit."
On housing, the mayor said it's his objective to "bring families back downtown," through a series of initiatives like giving grants to downtown home-owners, changing a tax credit program to provide an incentive for more co-op housing, making streets safer for kids to walk to school, and altering urban planning rules to foster live-work locations for artists.
But at several points, he noted the difficulty of bringing federal cash into the city. "Everything that we do, we have to go through Quebec City," he said.
The city's infrastructure needs total $1.3 billion, he said, and "we need help" from the province and the federal government, far beyond what his tax base can provide.
The following is an edited transcript of a National Observer interview with Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin on Friday, March 17, 2017 at 4:30 p.m. in his office at Gatineau city hall:
National Observer: The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) has identified three priorities for federal investment in cities: housing, transit, and green infrastructure. Let’s start with transit, because there are a couple big issues on the table with Gatineau right now.
Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin: Absolutely, many big issues, and that’s why timing is good for us. And this budget better be good! (laughs) Actually, we know it’s going to be in transit, because the money is set aside. The question is, how will the model for [the federal government's phase II infrastructure plan] be set?
In Gatineau we have quite a few big projects, the first one being the link between the western part of the city, Old Aylmer, and the two downtowns: downtown Gatineau, and downtown Ottawa. That in itself is big, but depending on the technology that we pick, it could be even bigger.
One of the big debates—in fact, the big debate—is, do we go to transit right away, to light rail transit, to fit with the Ottawa system, or do we stay with buses for another 15 to 20 years, and then we go to rail? Is it better to dig now, only once, and go to rail, even if it’s too expensive for the density that we have? Or do we dig twice, and then we spend a lot of money anyway?
There’s never been as much money at the federal level for transit, so we think it’s maybe the perfect time for us to actually correct something: to have the same technology as Ottawa, because it’s one metropolitan area for transit.
That’s one big project, and the relationship with Ottawa should also include a bridge, because the train may actually have to cross the river, and that involves a lot of money. Where do we cross? Is it our system that crosses the bridge—so, buses to an LRT station—or is it the train that crosses the river? Those decisions have to be taken in the near future.
So what’s your opinion on those?
There’s theory, and reality. In theory, it only makes sense that we have to go to trains. The money is there, we’re going to end up with rail, so I think we should go right away. The reality is the money: how much would it cost to bring the train to the western part of Gatineau?
Before I say anything too firmly, I need to know how much it’s going to cost, and if it’s feasible. But I think that it’s probably the occasion of a lifetime. The next occasion to go to rail might not be for a long, long time.
So let’s say that I have to be convinced that it’s a wrong idea. Because I start with the idea that it only makes sense and we’ve got to do it as soon as possible.
You’re talking about money being there, do you know about federal infrastructure funds being available for these projects?
When I say the money is there, I mean that the federal government has put many billions of dollars aside for transit, so we think that if there’s an occasion to have our share of that, it’s now. And that money will be allocated for many years, so the next big investment will be in like a decade, so it’s now or never.
I understand there's discussion about formalized talks between yourself and Mayor Watson. Can you elaborate on that?
Yes, happily. I got involved with politics on a certain number of issues, public transit being one of them, and the relationship with Ottawa being the most important aspect of that issue.
Ottawa has said they want to formalize the discussions that have been going on between the mayors. For us, it’s great news, because the first conversation I had with Mr. Watson was on that topic when I was elected.
It’s difficult between the two cities, for many reasons, mainly legal reasons and administrative. It’s complicated with Gatineau and Ottawa: it’s two cities, two provinces, a river. So for us, it was great news when we heard that council wanted to formalize a relationship.
The mayor was very clear, and I agree with him: to think about only one public transit organization for the region is way too complicated. So instead of starting at the top, governance and structure, we should start from the bottom and say, ‘How can we have our bus lines fit together better?’
And the next step is, ‘How can we think of the transit systems together?’ Instead of investing in two different systems and then trying to make them fit, we should think of the two systems together, so eventually it’s going to be only one public transit system on both sides of the river. And that’s [what] we’re getting at.”
Is there a date set for these talks?
Actually, those talks have started. We had two meetings in 2016 that were historic. The two mayors were there, the two heads of the transportation committees, and the two general managers of the transit organizations were there.
That had never been done before. We had one first meeting where we talked about the problem, and a second meeting where we agreed on a certain number of solutions. We’re close to a formal agreement. I’ll play it safe, because we need to finish the details, but in principle we are closer than we’ve ever been before to a formal agreement, which is great for the whole region.
When you talk to citizens about issues for Gatineau, it’s always among the top, the relationship with Ottawa concerning public transit.
Citizens are also talking about the bus strike. I’ve heard frustration on the Ottawa side. What do you say about the strike?
If it’s a message to people on the Ottawa side, I keep in mind every day these days that it took years after the Ottawa strike to get citizens that left public transit because of the strike back onto buses. It took years to catch up to the old numbers.
That has me very, very worried. There’s a price to pay in signing something that is not reasonable, but there’s also a price in having a strike that lasts too long, because when people leave public transit, we all lose, and that has me very worried.
What about people in Gatineau?
It’s difficult. There’s always two sides to a coin. If we sign on offers that are absolutely not reasonable at this time, there’s a heavy price to pay. Because if we put the money in on one side, we can’t put it on the other side, so we have to be careful where we put it. What the union is asking is not reasonable, so they have to move before we sign anything.
So that’s where I ask people to be patient, because that discussion is not over yet. Actually there’s not enough talks. That’s what I’m telling the Société de transport de l'Outaouais (STO) and the union: intensify the talks. Because we’re hurting thousands of people.
In terms of infrastructure, is there any way the federal government can get involved to help that situation?
Not really. We’re making a study on the rapid system between Aylmer and the two downtowns. It’s going to be ready before summer, and then we’ll be equipped to put down a request at the federal and provincial level.
But the strike is an issue between labour and management, and the issue of infrastructure is not very important to that.
On housing, Gatineau is offering a $5,000 grant—more if you have a child or are expecting a child—for buying a home and living in downtown Hull. How’s that program going?
It has just started [Jan. 1] so it’s hard to evaluate if it’s a success or not. We’re talking about it a lot because we want to bring families back downtown. It’s a big issue because we want to save the schools. People have been leaving the core of the city for many years. We’ve slowed this process, but there are many things to be done to start to really have an impact.
Many units are being built, but mainly condos—which are great, it brings people downtown. But very often it’s single people, or couples with no kids. We need to attract families, and we need incentives. This is one of the tools.
I’m meeting—actually, next Monday—the director of one of the schools, because he wants to talk to me about other things we could do to make the streets a little safer, to make the environment look better, so the schools will be more attractive to families.
Right now, in some areas, you don’t want your kids walking along those streets, so there are things we can do [for that].
We also have a huge tax credit program for all units being built. The result was that we had lots of condos, other types of units. We changed it two years ago to increase the number of collective houses, or co-ops, and smaller units—not towers, but units where families can live. So we’re tackling this issue in many ways.
For both of those programs, is there a role for the federal government?
On this side of the river, it’s difficult, because everything that we do, we have to go through Quebec City. There’s no relationship, directly, between cities and the federal government.
I’m probably the mayor that cheats the most, because they [Ottawa officials] are so close, and I meet them all the time. We don’t really talk about it, but we talk together. But they couldn’t get involved directly in those programs, they have to go through Quebec City.
So even when we talk about public transit, I say that the money is with the federal government, but actually when I hand out projects, I’ll have to give it to Quebec City, and they’ll talk with Ottawa. So that’s the Quebec reality.
What about other affordable housing projects? Isn't Gatineau looking at artist live-work spaces?
Yes, we’ve changed some urban planning rules. We allow artists to work in their own house, even if it’s a workplace. So they’re not forced to rent spaces elsewhere in the city. For them it’s cheaper, they can work at home.
We also have an artist co-op in downtown Gatineau that is being set up. And that’s going to be great, because they’ll be able to live and share some work environment, and just here downtown.
Artists have been used in many cities to redevelop. They’re ready to move downtown because sometimes it’s cheap. It was a huge in Quebec City. They’re starting to have the opposite problem: people who can’t afford to live in what was a poorer area.
We’re trying to use the same strategy to redevelop downtown Gatineau—right around here (gestures outside his office window), very close to city hall.
The Quebec government and the federal government, for many years, have been decreasing the amount of money they put into social housing, and Gatineau is one of the cities that has maintained its own share, even if we were paying the projects alone, we’ve kept investing a lot.
One of the difficulties we have is housing prices are way higher on the Ottawa side. That brings the prices on this side higher. We’re always either the first, second or third-most expensive city in Quebec. It’s Montreal, Quebec City and Gatineau. So we’ve invested quite a bit in social housing over the years.
But that’s point where the next [federal] budget is critical. They’ve put money aside for social infrastructure, and we totally agree with FCM that housing should be the top priority. You can’t fight poverty if people don’t have an affordable house.
The FCM has also been talking about the structure of investments. What do you think of going from project-based to allocation-based funding?
I believe in allocations. We need to have a predictable amount so we can plan. Housing is a difficult issue, because Canada’s very different from one area to other, but we think we’re well-placed to manage our own money.
For example, in Quebec there are many, many, many community organizations that share part of their responsibilities in helping people that are either homeless or close to homelessness. Some people will help them with their food, others with mental health, others who struggle with addiction. When it comes to investing in social housing, you cannot separate the infrastructure itself and the services that come with it.
People can live in an apartment, but they’ll just go back to the hospital if they don’t get help. That’s where cities, I think, are better placed than any other government to manage the money, and where it’s invested. That’s why I don’t really believe in project by project, I believe in allocation, exactly like the gas tax.
For big infrastructure, we can plan ahead, we know how much money we’re going to have, we can borrow when there are things that need to be built fast. If borrowing’s not a good idea, we can wait and put money aside from this allocation that we receive. It’s way easier to plan.
On green infrastructure, is there a climate change strategy for Gatineau?
There was one that was presented and we were not completely satisfied, so we went back to work. It’s going to be presented before summer, but I don’t know when.
I should know, because you can’t fight climate change without cities. That’s why we need a plan for the city itself, the corporation—do we have electric cars, do we have buildings that are energy efficient—so we need a plan for us, but we also need to be part of a bigger plan.
Clean water, garbage, transit—you can’t fight climate change without cities, because that’s where many problems arise.
The federal government has its own plan to run its buildings on renewable energy by 2025. How would that affect Gatineau—what’s the proportion of federal buildings here?
Those are numbers that obsess me. We manage 60 per cent of all public infrastructure, and we get eight per cent of revenue. It just doesn’t add up. Whatever I do with my budget, it’s not going to work if I need to properly manage all that infrastructure. That’s why the streets are so bad: because we just don’t have the money.
That’s where the federal government comes in: even for our own buildings, we need help from Quebec City and Ottawa. Just for Gatineau to get all our infrastructure into shape, it’s $1.3 billion that we would need to invest.
We’re one of the cities where the calculation is the most precise: We’ve worked a lot on getting those numbers straight, to be able to plan for the future. And $1.3 billion is a lot of money. It’s a lot of taxation if we want to solve the problem.
Outside of the three FCM priorities, do you have another top priority in mind for Gatineau where a federal partnership could help?
Yes, it’s not in the municipal environment, but it’s key to any kind of economic development: it’s our university, the Université du Québec en Outaouais, which is underfunded, and in the last announcement of projects it was the only university on both sides of the river that didn’t receive a penny.
That was mainly because of a disagreement between Quebec and Ottawa, but it is a huge handicap for any kind of development: social, economic, green, whatever. We need our university, and they are in big need. If we compare it to other universities in Quebec, they are the most underfunded, and there’s competition.
We are very often on the same team, Ottawa and Gatineau, but on some issues we play on a different team, and the University of Ottawa and Carleton, they’re huge competition.
We need help, because we do not have a university at a level that the fourth-largest city in Quebec deserves. Outside of the municipal world, I think that would be my top priority, by far.