Ottawa mayor doesn’t support federal budget pledge to revive plans for new interprovincial bridge

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There were some “big wins” in the 2019 federal budget for the City of Ottawa, according to Mayor Jim Watson — but there was one item affecting the national capital that the mayor says he didn’t expect and doesn’t support: a proposal to renew abandoned plans for a sixth interprovincial crossing between Ottawa and Gatineau.

The Liberal government’s latest budget, tabled Tuesday afternoon, pledges to “address the demonstrated need for an additional National Capital Region crossing by refreshing existing studies and developing a long-term integrated interprovincial crossing plan.”

WATCH: BC1 — Federal Budget coverage 2019 part 1
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The budget document proposes tasking the National Capital Commission (NCC) to lead this revived plan, in collaboration with the Ontario and Quebec governments and the municipalities of Ottawa and Gatineau.

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This pledge “came as a surprise” and doesn’t align with the city’s priorities, Watson said on Parliament Hill on Tuesday afternoon. The mayor said he’d rather see those federal dollars used elsewhere.

“Our priority is [public] transit,” he said. “If we’re going to be serious about reducing greenhouse gases and improving transit, we can’t push and pull at the same time.

“We can’t go and promote a bridge, which would just be primarily for cars, while we’re trying to build a transit link over to Gatineau.”

There are five interprovincial crossings that carry traffic back and forth over the Ottawa River: the Champlain, Chaudière, Portage, Alexandra and Macdonald-Cartier bridges.

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Together with the NCC and the provincial government, the city worked for years on a controversial proposal to build a sixth bridge connecting Ontario and Quebec through Kettle Island, located across the river from the Manor Park neighbourhood northeast of downtown Ottawa.

Watson said there was widespread opposition to the project; many residents living in the area were reportedly worried about the impact an increase in traffic would have on their neighbourhoods. The city withdrew its support from the project, the province eventually “pulled the plug” in 2013 and the NCC followed suit, the mayor said.

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“If this is sort of an opportunity to try and look at Kettle Island again, I’m dead set against that,” Watson said of the proposal in the 2019 budget. “I don’t want to see those series of neighbourhoods — Manor Park, Lindenlea, New Edinburgh and Montfort — eviscerated with a bridge going right through their community.”

The Kettle Island proposal had been one of three possible sites in Ottawa’s east end for a new bridge. The 2019 budget document didn’t provide any details about where a new crossing might be located, nor did it provide a dollar amount for what it will cost the NCC to bring the plan for a sixth bridge back to life.

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BC1: Federal Budget coverage 2019 part 2 – Mar 19, 2019

According to the budget, the five interprovincial crossings over the Ottawa River collectively carry nearly 150,000 vehicles and 9,000 pedestrians and cyclists every day, representing an increase of more than 15,000 since 2015.

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“These bridges are aging, with the newest bridge having been opened in 1973, and were built in an era when the National Capital Region had a much smaller population, fewer interprovincial commuters and far less congestion due to truck traffic,” the document reads.

But Watson said he believes a better way to tackle increased congestion in the Ottawa-Gatineau region is through light-rail transit, and he’d rather see federal money injected into a different bridge that he wants to be a part of Ottawa’s LRT network.

“My priority — if the federal government has additional money — is not to study a bridge for cars, it’s to study opening up the Prince of Wales Bridge for O-Train going from Bayview through the Prince of Wales Bridge to the [Alexandre-Taché] bus station in Gatineau,” he said.

READ MORE: Handover of Ottawa’s Confederation LRT line delayed for a third time

The City of Ottawa and the Canadian Transportation Agency are currently locked in a legal dispute in Federal Court over the Prince of Wales Bridge.

If not a bridge, the city has other infrastructure projects on its wish list, too. Watson said the municipality has advocated for cash to fund an environmental assessment for an underground tunnel that would relieve truck traffic running through downtown Ottawa via King Edward Avenue, Rideau Street and Waller Street.

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The idea picked up some steam, according to the mayor, but he said the city “never got any commitment from the federal government.”

READ MORE: Alexandra Bridge could be replaced within 10 years

As for the existing five interprovincial crossings, the federal budget also proposed to replace the 118-year-old Alexandra Bridge but didn’t indicate how much the government would contribute to that project, or when it would happen.

The Alexandra Bridge is already in line for a series of repairs between June 2019 and December 2022. The demolition and replacement of the bridge would likely take about three years, according to Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), raising questions about the pressure this would add on the other crossings during that time.

Approximately nine per cent of the vehicles that travel between Ottawa and Gatineau on a daily basis use the Alexandra Bridge; that number rises to 33 per cent for pedestrians and cyclists who cross the river on the bridge’s boardwalk, according to PSPC.

The Liberal government also pledged to spend $80.4 million over a decade to “support the rehabilitation and ongoing maintenance” of the other crossings, including the Chaudière and Macdonald-Cartier bridges.

—With files from Rick Woodard

WATCH: BC1 — Federal budget coverage 2019, part 3
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BC1: Federal Budget coverage 2019 part 3 – Mar 19, 2019

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