Heritage, environmental advocates form group to save Alexandra Bridge

The 120-year-old bridge is near the end of its life cycle, according to Public Services and Procurement Canada, and its deteriorating state means it will likely have to be replaced within the next decade.

120-year-old bridge could be demolished, rebuilt

A cyclist pauses on the shore of the Ottawa River near the Alexandra Bridge in November 2020. Advocates are hoping to save the 120-year-old structure from demolition. (Ian Black/CBC)

A group made up of heritage, transportation and environmental advocates has formed to oppose plans to demolish and rebuild the 120-year-old Alexandra Bridge between Ottawa and Gatineau, Que.

The bridge, which opened in 1901, normally carries nine per cent of all vehicular traffic between the two cities, and one-third of the pedestrians and cyclists crossing the Ottawa River.

However, it's near the end of its life cycle, according to Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), and its deteriorating state means it will likely have to be replaced within the next decade.

The recently formed Alexanda Bridge Coalition, however, believes the costs associated with maintaining the bridge as is would be seriously reduced if it were converted into a "green bridge" that did not carry motor vehicles.

"It is one of the most historic bridges in Canada. Esthetically, it's one of the prettiest bridges," said Jordan Ferraro, co-spokesperson for the coalition.

"[It has a] wonderful history of connecting the two provinces, reducing the two solitudes."

Currently closed to vehicles

At the moment, no vehicles are running across the bridge, which has been undergoing construction work since January that was supposed to wrap up at the end of last month, but has been extended until mid-June.

More lane closures are expected until at least 2022.

According to the coalition, converting it to an "active transportation" bridge would alleviate problems like corrosion caused by the weight of all the vehicles that make the daily crossing between the two cities.

Maintaining such a "magnificent architectural wonder" would also be in line with the City of Ottawa's long-term plans to revitalize the nearby ByWard Market, said Ferraro.

People walk along the Alexandra Bridge between Ottawa and Gatineau, Que., in March. In 1995, the bridge was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Site by the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering because its steel cantilever truss was considered an advanced technology at the turn of the 20th century. (Olivier Plante/Radio-Canada)

One possibility could involve replacing vehicles with a "tourist tram," he said. 

"The reality is, you wouldn't need that much maintenance because the stress on the bridge wouldn't be that great."

The bridge has a long history, and Ferraro feels the best way to modernize it is to return it to its past, when it was once a railway bridge with a tram running across.

Bridge needs to come down

Ferraro said environmental organizations, architects and heritage advocates agree.

"They all began to say the same thing: This is something that we really, truly feel strongly about. This is a piece of our Canadian history. This is a piece we want to maintain."

But PSPC said fixing the existing structure isn't on the table.

"The decision and the direction was quite clear to replace the Alexandra Bridge," Jean-François Lymburner, associate assistant deputy minister of the department's real property services section told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Wednesday.

He said river water has been causing "significant damage" to the bridge's steel support structure, and the rust is only getting worse.

"Every single metal part will need to be replaced," Lymburner said.

PSPC is already spending $1 million per year to maintain the bridge while it's waiting to be replaced, which Lymburner said won't happen before 2028.

With files from CBC's Julie Delaney and CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

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