OC Transpo faces bus driver shortage

Ottawa’s transit system is struggling to catch up with a driver shortage of its own making, as two-year-old federal rules on mandatory breaks for drivers have begun being enforced.

Robert Hiltz
20 May

Good morning!

Hard to believe it, but the May long weekend is already upon us. I hope everyone’s able to get out there and enjoy a bit of time off. With the holiday, that means there will be no newsletter on Monday. Fear not, the Lookout will return Wednesday. 

As a special treat, we’re including an unpublished Insider story about a great brewery you may want to visit over the weekend.

And don’t forget to fill out our provincial election survey. We’re looking to hear from you on what issues matter the most in the campaign, so we can put those questions to the party leaders. 

With that, let’s get to it.

— Robert Hiltz, managing editor

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Friday: 27 🌡️ 18 | ⛅️

Saturday: 26 🌡️ 14 | 🌧

Sunday: 19 🌡️ 11 | 🌧

Monday: 19 🌡️ 8 | ⛅️

OC Transpo Short On Drivers

Four percent: Every day, about 300 bus rides are cancelled across the city, out of a total of 8,000 rides. That’s just shy of four percent. It’s bad enough the city’s general manager of transit Renée Amilcar apologized to  Ottawa transit users.

  • “I take this opportunity to apologize to our customers, and I promise you that we're working very, very hard to resolve this situation,” Amilcar told the transit commission, according to CBC.

The big issue is a more than two-year-old federal labour rule requiring drivers get 30-minute breaks every five hours. Amilcar said previous OC Transpo leadership decided not to be proactive and hire enough drivers to cover the breaks until the rules started being enforced. Last fall, the feds said they would enforce the rules. But here we are anyway.

  • The solution: To fix this, they will hire 80 new drivers this year, and another 200 to cover retirements and other vacancies. 

Ridership up slightly: Ridership is up to 3.8 million trips last month, up from 2.2 million trips in April last year, according to the city. While that is an improvenment, that’s still well below where things were pre-pandemic, only 43 percent of the 8.4 million who rode transit in April 2019. The city has budgeted for transit use to return to a yearly average of 82 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

Ottawa By The Numbers

  • 6.8%: Inflation rose nationwide to this 31-year height in April. Food prices rose 9.7 percent, and shelter costs rose 7.4 percent. [CBC]
  • 801: Ottawa hit a new, terrible milestone as this many people have now died of COVID in the city. [CTV]

Traffic Lights Removed From Wellington

Stops signs have replaced stop lights on Wellington
Bill McCarthy/Ottawa Lookout

No more stoplights: The city has taken down traffic lights along Wellington Street in the wake of the convoy. They’ve been replaced by temporary stop signs. The street has been closed to regular traffic since the winter.

  • “The closure of Wellington Street has led to a shift in vehicular and pedestrian activity due to the lower levels of traffic now in the area. … This measure is temporary until the temporary closure study is considered at the Transportation Committee at the beginning of the next term of Council,” Phil Landry, the director of traffic services, said in a statement to the Lookout.

The future of Wellington Street is up in the air following the winter’s occupation. There’s no timeline for a final decision, as the city and the federal government decide what to do with it. Expanding the parliamentary precinct to include Wellington is one of the ideas on the table, according to CBC.

Insider Sneak Peek: Embrun Brewery Worth The Journey

The interior of Étienne Brûlé Brewery
Ralf Joneikies/Ottawa Lookout

Please enjoy this sneak peek of what you can expect in Ottawa Insider, a members-only newsletter of Ottawa food, restaurant and events sent every Thursday.  

The folks behind the Étienne Brûlé Brewery chose to name it after the first recorded European to arrive in Ontario. He was a French explorer who pioneered the role of interpreter between the French and various Indigenous tribes such as the Huron and Algonquin peoples.

Étienne Brûlé may not have been a brewer but his name is now staked to a beer brand of which anyone could be proud. 

I first had their Notre Dame Pilsner years ago at Coconut Lagoon and was impressed by the quality of the beer. It actually tasted like a classic Czech or German pilsner and it became my standard drink at every subsequent visit. And this is true of their other beer recipes; they are accurate representations of the styles spelled out on the label. There are no shortcuts in either the quantity or quality of the hops and malts used.

They’ve got a brewpub and so, wanting to try more of their products, I drove out to Embrun. And I’ve been going back ever since. 

One change that evokes mixed feelings is the change in packaging. They once had stubby bottles but have moved to the tall can format. For beer geeks there is a difference in the taste of beer from glass to aluminum can, there’s less perceived influence of something metallic out of bottled beer. 

While I’ve never liked stubby bottles, that was only because I grew up in a time when it was fashionable to drink straight from the bottle. There was simply no flow to the beer and this meant that you were likely gulping as much air as beer. And this had the adolescent consequence of burping contests with friends. Still, I can be as sentimental as the next guy.

So it’s worth driving out for the brew but what about the food? Here they step it up as well. On each visit what comes out of the kitchen is super fresh. They also make their own dressings and sauces for wings and other smoked items such as ribs and salmon and it’s a nice reward to discover you haven’t ended up at yet another pub where everything “made” has been delivered pre-made and ready for the deep fryer. 

They have their own smoker out the back of the building, and this does make a difference in terms of authenticity. On this recent visit, I had the honey garlic wings and they were better than ever. I asked the server about this and she said they haven’t been able to use the large smoker. Well, I say stick with what you’re doing now because, while the food was always good, it was too heavily smoked for my liking. 

Despite my reservations about the use of mozzarella in the caesar salad, I order it every visit because the dressing is delicious and the quality of the bacon is first-rate. One recent addition of note is the warm pretzel with a side of mustard and a bacon-maple-onion “jam.”  They do receive it in a raw state but bake it off so that it arrives at your table steaming hot. It’s not like the pretzels back home but they’re very good nonetheless and once others catch on about the accompanying “jam” you’ll see copycats everywhere. It’s a winning combination and a terrific deal at $5. They have a kids’ menu as well as gluten-free options.

Sometimes a short trip away has a rejuvenating effect and the Étienne Brûlé brewery and all it offers is a nice reward this long weekend. They’ve set up their patio now so fingers crossed that the weather cooperates.

— Ralf Joneikies, food and drink editor

Enjoyed this story? We’re giving away 20% off an Insider membership to the next five people who join. Get more stories like this every Thursday. 

Provincial Election Round-up

Early voting opens: Good news! You can now vote in the provincial election. Early voting is open until June 1 at 6 pm. Head on over to this Elections Ontario website, enter your postal code, and find where you can cast a ballot. You still have until 6 pm next Friday to apply for a mail-in ballot, which you can find more info on right here.

Health-care workers key vote bloc: PC MPP Jeremy Roberts won Ottawa West — Nepean by less than half a percent in the last election, and that riding is still a battleground. Health-care issues are key to residents, many of whom are on the front lines. It’s also home to many older residents, concerned about long-term care. If the Progressive Conservatives are able to win this riding again, it could be a sign they’re in line for another majority government. [CBC]

Horwath, Schreiner test positive: Two of the main party leaders tested positive for COVID since the debate earlier this week. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner both had to stop campaigning in person. So far, PC Leader Doug Ford and Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca have tested negative for the virus. [Global News]

City Hall Update

Taxi fares to rise: A city council committee voted to increase taxi fares by 10 percent. It will be the first increase in a decade if the full council passes it. The base fare will be $3.80 for the first 150 metres, and $0.18 for every 86 metres travelled after that. If approved, the fares would go into effect June 11. [CBC]  

Renovicted tenants’ homes saved: The low-rent Manor Village development off Woodroffe Avenue could be saved by a new plan to elevate a future LRT line down the centre of the road. The beneficiary of that won’t be current tenants who fought to save their homes. Instead, residents of the townhomes are being evicted while the developer raises rents to $3,200 per four-bedroom townhome, or $750 per roommate. [Ottawa Citizen]

Vacant property owners to need permit: Owners of a vacant property may soon need to buy a yearly permit for $1,703. It would apply to buildings without an occupant for more than 120 days. The new system would allow for dedicated bylaw officers who could make proactive inspections of vacant properties, rather than having to react to complaints. There is an 800-case backlog currently. If approved by the whole council, it would go into effect November 2022. [CBC]

Doors Open Ottawa returns: Ninety buildings across the city will be open for in-person tours June 4 and 5. It’s the return of Doors Open, after two years of virtual-only events because of the pandemic. The full list of buildings will be available May 30. Earnscliffe Residence and the U.S. embassy are both open for pre-registration.

Stories You Might Have Missed

Lich back to jail? The Crown wants convoy leader Tamara Lich’s bail revoked. They were in court yesterday, and again today, to argue her acceptance of a freedom award for her convoy leadership breaches the conditions of her release from jail. [Global News]

Public service negotiations hit impasse: Talks between the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the federal government have broken down over wages. The government is offering only a 1.75 percent increase over four years, and the union is seeking 4.5 percent per year. [CTV]

Ottawa’s rat problem: Reports of rats to the city are once again high. Residents in many neighbourhoods blame construction for stirring up the rodents, forcing them to migrate to quieter residential neighbourhoods. [CBC]

Tourism bullish on summer season: This summer is looking like a good one for the city’s hospitality sector. The return of Canada Day, Bluesfest, and other festivals has the industry looking at a much better season. There are some concerns as hotel bookings lag slightly. [OBJ]

Community Highlights

  • He’s probably a few dozen six-strings into it, but it’s the fall of ‘22, as Bryan Adams announces his tour will come to town. Tickets go on sale next Friday. [CTV]
  • The Ottawa Police Service will test-drive a new cruiser over the next few weeks, so don’t be surprised if you see a police car with a strange paint job and Quebec plates.
  • Prince Charles and Camilla spent the day in the city Wednesday with a busy day to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee. [CTV]
  • Great news for Redblacks fans, as the CFL and the players’ union have reached a tentative agreement. [CBC]
  • One woman is leaving disposable cameras across the city for people to discover the joys of photography. [CBC Radio]
  • Smokey is a shy cat who’s just waiting to come out of his shell at the right home. [CityNews]

What to do this weekend:

Daily COVID Stats

All infection and vaccination data via Ottawa Public Health. You can find the status of the wastewater tracking here. And you can find vaccination stats here.

  • Active Cases: 688 (+76)
  • Deaths: 801 (+2)
  • Ottawans In Hospital: 9
  • Ottawans In ICU: 1
  • Acute Beds Occupied: 99% 
  • ICU Beds Occupied: 78% 
  • ICU Ventilator Beds Occupied: 28% 

Previous Lookout Editions

  • Construction season in Ottawa kicked off - read more
  • Police arrest student at dress code protest - read more
  • The city is demolishing a pedestrian bridge, with no timeline for a replacement - read more
  • Nepean MPP Lisa MacLeod got $44k in allowances over three years - read more
  • Gas prices hit record levels - read more

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