Ottawa-Gatineau residents prefer Sparks Street tunnel for tram, but cost still unknown

A tunnel beneath Sparks Street is many residents' preferred connection for a planned rail connection between Ottawa and Gatineau. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Lars Hagberg

A recent survey shows residents on both sides of the Ottawa River have “strong support” for a planned interprovincial tram system to use a tunnel beneath Sparks Street rather than proceeding at-grade over Wellington Street, but the viability of both options remains uncertain.

Ottawa’s transportation committee received an update Wednesday morning on the planned light-rail system that would connect the nation’s capital to Gatineau’s booming west end via the Portage Bridge.

A recent survey of more than 1,500 people — nearly 600 from Ottawa and roughly 900 from Gatineau — showed a vast majority of respondents were supportive of an interprovincial rail link that could see up to 70 per cent of Société de transport de l’Outaouais (STO) buses removed from Ottawa streets.

Read more: Portage Bridge proposed for new tram system connecting Ottawa to Gatineau

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A study by Gatineau transit officials shows the expected growth in daily commuter traffic between the two cities is unsustainable, prompting plans for a tram system to offset car and bus trips across the existing interprovincial crossings.

Data recorded before the novel coronavirus pandemic began showed 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. Roughly a quarter of those commuters use transit.

One of the major questions left to resolve is whether the planned rail crossing would make use of a new tunnel beneath Sparks Street or travel at-grade along Wellington Street in front of Parliament Hill.

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

Survey respondents indicated “strong support” for the Sparks Street option, the committee heard Wednesday.

While the underground option will allow for more direct connections to Ottawa’s existing light-rail transit system and provide better protection from the capital’s harsh winter weather, this option will undoubtedly be more expensive than the alternative.

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STO officials say the Quebec government has signed on to finance 60 per cent of the project and the transit agency is applying to the federal infrastructure fund to make up the funding gap.

The City of Ottawa is not expected to shoulder any of the final bill.

The proposed system has yet to be fully costed, which concerned some councillors on the transportation committee.

“If one of the options that is on the table might not be feasible due to cost, then that’s not really an option at all,” Innes Coun. Laura Dudas said Wednesday.

The Wellington Street option comes with its own issues to mitigate.

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

The proposed tram route would affect the flow of traffic on the road and surrounding streets, with some options removing vehicles entirely from Wellington to provide more space for pedestrians and cyclists.

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Orléans Coun. Matthew Luloff said during the meeting that he was worried removing lanes in favour of the tram could have knock-on effects that would end up complicating the commute for many interprovincial workers in his ward.

“I’m very concerned that we’re solving one problem and creating five,” he said.

The train track would also cut off vehicle turning options into the Parliamentary Precinct, an issue that’s set to be reviewed by the federal government.

The feds could therefore put a kibosh on the Wellington Street plan, leaving the expensive Sparks Street tunnel as the default option.

If that’s too pricey, a bus-based solution to rising traffic volumes is the only way forward, according to the Gatineau city councillor who chairs the STO board.

“If we cannot find a way to get a tram in Ottawa, it will be buses,” Myriam Nadeau said in a call with media after Wednesday morning’s meeting.

OC Transpo’s Pat Scrimgeour said Wednesday that while both options would improve transit services for residents travelling to Gatineau and could eliminate the need to send Ottawa buses across the river, the Sparks Street tunnel would be easier to align with the city’s existing LRT system.

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