Portage Bridge proposed for new tram system connecting Ottawa to Gatineau

An early stage vision of a proposed tram system connecting Gatineau's west end to downtown Ottawa. via STO

The transit agency in Gatineau, Que., is proposing a new tram system across the Portage Bridge to help funnel a growing number of daily commuters across the Ottawa River.

The Société de transport de l’Outaouais (STO) presented its early stage ideas for a rail-based interprovincial crossing to Ottawa councillors Friday morning.

The concept would see a tram system, likely with some supplemental bus service, built across the Portage Bridge to connect Ottawa’s downtown core to Gatineau’s booming west end.

The tram, likely similar to systems seen in Toronto and Waterloo, would either proceed downtown via at-grade rails installed on Wellington Street or through a tunnel excavated beneath Sparks Street.

An early stage vision of a proposed hybrid tram-bus system connecting Gatineau’s west end to downtown Ottawa. Presented to Ottawa city councillors on Friday, May 15, 2020. via STO

Gatineau transit officials presenting Friday morning said the expanded system, which would result in a net decrease in the number of STO buses travelling through Ottawa’s downtown, is needed to accommodate the expected growth in commuters crossing the provincial border on a daily basis.

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There are currently 3,500 people per hour crossing the Ottawa River during the peak of the morning commute, a figure that’s expected to at least double by 2031. A quarter of those commuters currently use transit.

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Studies on how to advance interprovincial transit in the National Capital Region have been underway in some form or another in the past decade.

STO’s research has shown an option without a tram would require an additional 170 buses per hour between Ottawa and Gatineau, which the transit agency has since ruled out.

There are no cost estimates yet for an interprovincial tram system, though an earlier plan that included rail crossings at both the Prince of Wales and Portage bridges was priced at $2.1 billion back in 2018.

Ottawa councillors seeing the updated STO plan for the first time Friday morning questioned why the Prince of Wales Bridge idea, which would have connected to Ottawa’s light-rail transit lines at Bayview Station, was discounted.

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The priority in connecting the neighbouring cities is to deliver residents from the Quebec side to Ottawa’s downtown core — the destination for roughly 80 per cent of commuters — and to move public-sector workers living in Ottawa to Gatineau’s Terrasses de la Chaudière federal workplace, according to STO officials.

Funnelling those workers through a transit station farther west such as Bayview Station, therefore, didn’t make sense.

Ottawa councillors countered by mentioning that federal government offices are becoming increasingly decentralized, highlighting the new Department of National Defence campus on Carling Avenue, and that a Bayview Station connection might be better for long-term transit demands in the National Capital Region.

But Ottawa has its own long-term LRT plans to consider.

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A Prince of Wales connection would require reconfigurations at Bayview to adjust for the added traffic of Gatineau commuters, which could remove future capacity at the station for planned extensions to Ottawa’s own LRT line out to Kanata and Barrhaven.

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Allan Hubley, chair of the city’s transit commission, expressed concern that if the interprovincial crossing is given funding from the federal government, it could risk the amount of cash available to finance Phase 3 of Ottawa’s LRT.

Myriam Nadeau, a councillor in Gatineau, said Friday the project received a funding commitment from the Quebec government of up to 60 per cent back in 2018, when the price tag was set at $2.1 billion.

Nadeau said officials have applied to the federal government to fill in the outstanding funding.

The new transit system is expected to be up and running in the next eight to 10 years.

The massive interprovincial infrastructure project will require signoffs from a number of stakeholders in the region, including the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau, the Quebec government, the National Capital Commission and the federal government.

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