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Ottawa-Gatineau ‘loop’ dominates talk as staff prefer Sparks Street tunnel for tram connection

Discussion about a potential Ottawa-Gatineau loop, which could see at-grade rail in front of Parliament Hill and Wellington Street converted into a pedestrian plaza, took up much of the conversation at Monday's transportation committee. Supporters of the Loop / McRobie Architects

Ottawa city staff are in favour of a tramway connection to Gatineau, Que., that would see rail descend in a tunnel beneath Sparks Street, though numerous councillors and delegations spoke Monday in favour of a proposed third option that could see an interprovincial loop through the National Capital Region.

Transportation committee approved a staff recommendation on Monday that would see the city state its preference for a Spark Street tunnel as part of a proposed interprovincial tramway to connect Gatineau’s west end to Ottawa’s downtown core.

The project comes from Gatineau’s transit agency, the Société de transport de l’Outaouais (STO).

The proposed rail crossing over Portage Bridge is meant to help accommodate interprovincial commuters and remove the growing volume of buses passing between the neighbouring cities on a daily basis.

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If implemented, staff said the tramway could see the number of STO buses crossing over into Ottawa during peak hours drop from the current 115 per hour to as low as 35 by 2031, rather than rising to 170 per hour under current projections without a tram. Studies on interprovincial traffic were conducted before the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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Among the biggest remaining questions to consider is which path the tram would take through Ottawa: either the staff-preferred tunnel or an at-grade option on Wellington Street.

Monday’s meeting was the first glimpse Ottawa city councillors got into the estimated costs of the project.

At-grade rail along Wellington Street is the cheaper option, coming in at roughly $3 billion should STO opt for an all-tram solution on the Gatineau side. This could also come with an option of removing traffic from Wellington entirely and converting the street into a pedestrian plaza, which OC Transpo boss John Manconi said Monday could potentially raise the final price tag.

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Construction of the tunnel, on the other hand, is inherently more expensive and riskier, warranting a range of cost estimates between $3.5 billion and $3.9 billion under the same conditions.

Transportation committee passed staff’s recommendations to endorse both options, indicating a preference for the Sparks Street tunnel but OKing the Wellington option if costs are prohibitive.

This aligns with a survey of Ottawa residents’ preferences this past summer and would allow for underground connections to the existing Confederation Line light-rail transit system.

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Now, the pressure falls to the federal government to commit to funding the project.

STO received funding commitments from the Quebec government on a previous iteration of the tram project, and Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin said Monday he has had positive conversations with federal officials to secure their funding as well.

But he said now is the time to push to get the Ottawa-Gatineau rail connection on the list of federal infrastructure priorities for the decade ahead.

“We have to get beyond words as soon as possible,” he said.

Committee also passed a motion from Kanata South Coun. Allan Hubley asking Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson to write to the feds indicating that the city’s transit priorities are focused on securing funding for Stage 3 of LRT to Kanata, Barrhaven and Stittsville as well as the Gatineau tramway, rather than investments in a sixth interprovincial crossing.

Thrown for a loop

Though it wasn’t one of the two options on the table, much of the talk at Monday’s meeting was dedicated to a third possibility: the recently revived vision of an Ottawa-Gatineau rail loop that has become the subject of public discussion in recent weeks.

This proposal would see rail cross the Portage Bridge and up Wellington Street before heading north and crossing back into Gatineau along the Alexandra Bridge. The idea has been around in some form or another for many years but has found new life with a group dubbed Supporters of the Loop.

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The timing of the proposal is ideal in terms of Gatineau’s efforts to build a rail connection into Ottawa and the National Capital Commission’s plans to replace to Alexandra Bridge in the coming decade as the interprovincial crossing reaches its end of life.

“The loop idea is not new, but its time has come,” said Bob Plamondon, a former NCC board member and representative of Supporters of the Loop, at Monday’s meeting.

Plamondon championed the eco-friendly elements of the electric rail proposal and also highlighted security benefits should the federal government take over management of and potentially remove traffic from Wellington Street.

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NCC chief executive Tobi Nussbaum has publicly expressed his support for the project, and the Loop group has gotten business leaders such as Trinity Development Group CEO John Ruddy and former mayors from both sides of the river behind its cause.

Ottawa city staff said Monday that neither the Wellington Street option nor the Sparks Street tunnel would preclude an eventual interprovincial loop, though the at-grade option in front of Wellington would be a more convenient route for any future extensions of that ilk.

Pedneaud-Jobin said there is “absolutely no contradiction” between the STO proposal and a future interprovincial loop, suggesting the STO tramway could be phase one of a project that later becomes the full loop.

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Numerous councillors expressed their interest in the loop during discussions on Monday. Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, who would see the proposed tram cut through their ward, said they’d like to see a “car-free Wellington.”

The committee also passed a motion asking staff to explore the feasibility of both the loop and a Wellington Street pedestrian mall as part of upcoming updates to the city’s Transportation Master Plan, with the understanding that any such project would be entirely led and funded by the federal government.

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