Impact of LRT roadwork to be felt today

The first visible sign of Ottawa's ambitious five-year light rail transit line construction begins this week as crews work at Nicholas Street in preparation for the excavation of an underground train tunnel.
The dream of a light rail system for Ottawa is finally moving beyond the drawing board. 2:12

A look at the some of road closures and alterations the city plans in the next few years to accommodate construction of the LRT. Red lines indicate work scheduled to begin in 2013, with blue lines representing work planned from 2014 to 2016.

Work on Ottawa's ambitious five-year light rail transit line construction began earlier this year, but for commuters the first visible sign begins today as crews work at Nicholas Street in preparation for the excavation of an underground train tunnel.

Lane reductions at Nicholas and Laurier Avenue and work at Laurier from Nicholas to Waller Street start Tuesday as workers begin widening the streets to eventually accommodate OC Transpo buses. While much of the work is slated for the evenings, the city is cautioning that there will be midday lane closures.

LRT Timeline

As the project gets underway, CBC Ottawa will be monitoring its progress. Check out our LRT page, with an interactive timeline featuring video, audio, maps and before and after pictures of all 13 stations.

The move is just one piece of the $2.13 billion light rail construction puzzle, a project the city hopes will transform Ottawa's transportation landscape, revitalize the downtown core and pave the way for future expansions.

2013 work includes 417 widening, tunnel entrances

By widening Nicholas and Laurier, OC Transpo will be able to redirect buses off the transitway, allowing boring machines in July to begin digging an entrance to the LRT tunnel at a point south of Laurier.

The east tunnel entrance — close to the arts building at the University of Ottawa — is one of three main entrance points for the LRT tunnel. The west entrance is near Lebreton Flats, just below the bit of escarpment at Bronson. Fencing has already been set up in the parking lot where the work is to begin.

There will also be a shaft dug in the parking lot across from Holt Renfrew at Kent Street and Queen Street.

An illustration of the road header excavator that will dig the underground tunnel underneath the city's downtown. (City of Ottawa)

Building the tunnel

Gary Craig, the head of the city's rail implementation office, said Rideau Transit Group will be using a piece of equipment called a road header, a smaller version of a tunnel boring machine, to carve out the tunnel.

"Basically they're scratching at the rock the same way that a big tunnel boring machine is," said Craig. "But one of the reasons RTG has selected that method of tunnel construction, is it's less impact from a noise and vibration perspective and also allows them to work in four directions at the same time."

At each of the three excavation points, dump trucks — about three an hour — will be hauling away bedrock the road graders dig up.

Craig said with much of the work being done at depths of 15 to 25 metres below street level, the work shouldn't be any noisier than at a typical construction site.

"We don't expect this method of tunnel excavation will have any impact on the surface… you shouldn't feel any more vibration than walking down the street today," he said.

The other major work connected to the light rail project planned for this summer is the widening of Highway 417 from Nicholas to Blair Road.

Rideau Transit Group is taking on the project in addition to the LRT work. They'll be widening the road, adding one lane on the right, or outside, of the highway in each direction, and they'll also be narrowing the ramp onto the highway from Nicholas Avenue and closing the on ramp to the eastbound 417 from Lees Avenue.

Taking the transitway offline

Both the Nicholas work and the 417 widening have the same goal: provide access for OC Transpo vehicles when work begins in 2015 to convert the transitway into a rail line.

Mayor Jim Watson said tying the 417 work to the LRT construction is crucial.

"By adding the extra lane on either side of the 417 that will act as the temporary bus lane when the transitway is under construction for light rail," he said.

"You can't take on a project of this magnitude without having some kind of disruption, what we're trying to do is get all of the projects working together to speed it up and get it done as quickly as possible," said Watson.

The other LRT project scheduled in the summer 2013 is the demolition of the buildings on the site of the Maintenance and Storage facility on Belfast Road, just east of the train station.

The work on the facility itself is scheduled for later in the year.

LRT impact to be felt in 2015 

Any commuter headaches this summer, however, won't be limited to LRT work, as the timetable for a host of other projects (see maps below) have been accelerated to avoid even worse disruptions in later years.

That's because the real impact on traffic from LRT work is likely to be felt in later years — particularly 2015 and 2016.

Among the highlights:

  • After the eastern 417 widening work is complete in 2015, the transitway will be taken offline and converted to a rail line. While the 417 will have dedicated lanes for OC Transpo buses, the city and RTG expect disruptions as the buses get on and off the ramps to the highway.
  • Similarly in the west end work will begin to widen Albert and Scott in preparation for 2016, when the west transitway is taken offline and buses are rerouted onto Scott/Albert.
  • Beginning in 2015 there will intermittent road closures on Queen Street downtown as entry shafts down into the tunnel are dug along the route.

Work on the stations themselves — most of which will be completed from 2015 to 2017 — will also cause local traffic disruptions, and will have an impact on commuters, particularly at the sites of LeBreton and Rideau stations.

'Short-term pain for long-term gain'

Ironically, the purpose of all of this work will be to relieve traffic congestion by increasing the OC Transpo's capacity to transport people in and out of the city, and — with regards to the tunnel itself — get some of the public transit traffic off the roads in the downtown core.

David Jeanes, the president of transportation advocacy group Transport Action Canada, said he is concerned that when the transitway is taken offline, the disruptions may hurt public transit and lead to more commuters taking their cars.

"There's always the danger they won't come back to public transit when the system is finished," he said.

But city officials are optimistic the work to build the line will be worth it in the end.

"This is going to test the patience of some residents," said councillor Steve Desroches after the city announced the 2013 summer construction schedule. "But I think we have to recognize this is short-term pain for long-term gain."

Traffic disruptions Summer 2013

Above map: a complete look at the construction projects planned for 2013. Zoom in and out to see work planned in your region of the city. Below map: the city's estimates of how all of this construction will impact traffic this summer. Red lines indicate high impact, yellow indicate medium impact and green indicate low impact.