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Tunnel or at-grade? Transit officials seeking feedback on proposed Ottawa-Gatineau rail link

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

Transit officials in Gatineau, Que., are looking for feedback from both sides of the Quebec-Ontario border on the route for a proposed tram system to help commuters cross the Ottawa River.

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

The proposed tram system, likely similar to those seen in Waterloo and Toronto, would see the Portage Bridge lined with rails to help ferry the growing number of daily commuters between Ottawa and Gatineau.

READ MORE: Portage Bridge proposed for new tram system connecting Ottawa to Gatineau

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, according to the STO. A quarter of those commuters currently use transit, per STO figures.

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Once the tram crosses from Gatineau into Ottawa, however, there are some choices as to where the system will go.

One option would see at-grade rail placed on Wellington Street, while another would see a tunnel built out beneath Sparks Street.

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In partnership with the City of Ottawa, STO has opened up a new survey for residents of both Ottawa and Gatineau to give feedback on the preferred route and work done to date on the transit proposal.

New information posted on the STO website also lays out the pros, cons and a few logistical differences between the two routes.

Wellington Street

wellington street route
A proposed route for the Ottawa-Gatineau tram link featuring an at-grade integration on Wellington Street. via STO

A proposal to take the tram down Wellington Street would see three tramway stations implemented at Lyon Avenue, Bank Street and a terminus at Elgin and Queen streets.

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These stations would put the Ottawa’s Confederation Line LRT just a five-minute walk away for those transferring.

This proposal would come with a few possible disruptions to traffic and planned development of a cycling lane along Wellington Street, as well as some security and accessibility concerns given the proximity to Parliament Hill.

One integration could see vehicle traffic maintained in concert with the tram, but another could see cars booted from Wellington Street between Bank and Elgin streets with extra space for pedestrians.

The Wellington option could also allow for a future transit loop via the Alexandra Bridge.

Sparks Street

sparks street tram route
A proposed route for the Ottawa-Gatineau tram link featuring a tunnel excavated beneath Sparks Street. via STO

Though STO has not provided a fully costed estimate for the tram system yet, one of the biggest downsides associated with the idea for a tunnel beneath Sparks Street is the higher dollar figure that would surely be associated with the excavation.

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The construction process is also more complex and carries more risk than the simpler at-grade option on Wellington, according to the STO.

The Sparks proposal would also come with only two tram stations, one at Lyon Avenue and a terminus at O’Connor Street.

The closer proximity to existing Ottawa LRT stations could allow for underground connections for commuters, however.

READ MORE: Ottawa LRT maintenance closures set to extend to end of week

The public’s feedback will give transit officials and stakeholders on both sides of the Ottawa River an insight into which option’s traffic impacts and overall transit outcomes are preferred, though the entire proposal still rides on securing government funding.

STO received a commitment from the Quebec government to fund 60 per cent of the project based on an earlier proposal involving the Prince of Wales bridge, and Gatineau transit officials say they’ve applied to the federal government to fill in the rest of the needed financing.

Ottawa transit commission chair Allan Hubley has expressed concern that any federal commitment to the interprovincial tram proposal could affect Ottawa’s odds of securing funding for the third phase of LRT.

Gatineau officials have said they expect the line to be built out in the next eight to 10 years.

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Public consultations on the tram system are open until July 19.

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