Ottawa

NCC endorses Gatineau transit connection on Wellington Street

The National Capital Commission has recommended a plan to connect Ottawa and Gatineau’s light rail systems via Wellington Street, despite the City of Ottawa's stated preference to make the connection via a tunnel one block south.

Plan could see cars and buses booted from street in front of Parliament Hill

A representation of the proposed Société de transport de l'Outaouais tramway running along chemin d'Aylmer in Gatineau. The National Capital Commission endorsed a plan to connect the system to Ottawa's light rail network via Wellington Street. (Supplied)

The National Capital Commission (NCC) has recommended a plan to connect Ottawa and Gatineau's light rail systems via Wellington Street, in the heart of downtown Ottawa — despite the City of Ottawa's stated preference that it be connected, underground, one block to the south.

In January, the federal agency's board approved the Wellington route in principal because it saw it as opportunity to finally build an interprovincial transit loop between the two downtowns and their two transit systems, OC Transpo and the Societé de Transport de l'Outaouais (STO).

On Friday the NCC says it is formally recommending the Wellington route to the federal government after further analysis and consultation with the two cities involved.

STO's tramway is not expected to be completed for another eight years or more, but the two cities have been at odds for years about how to connect the two systems.

Gatineau officials had previously voiced support for a connection above ground at Wellington Street, and in January, the NCC endorsed the idea.

Last year, the City of Ottawa's position has been that it would prefer the connection be made via an underground tunnel at Sparks Street, one block to the south.

Public Services and Procurement Canada also preferred that option, the Hill Times reported, citing several "structural, security, and traffic issues" posed by the Wellington Street connection.

But the City of Ottawa's transportation committee also approved the Wellington Street option "should the funding for the Sparks Street tunnel not materialize."

In an email to CBC, the city said it's continuing to work with the STO and the other agencies to sort out the traffic and security issues that would make Wellington a viable alternative to the tunnel. 

A May study from consultants hired by the STO supported the underground idea, but suggested the cost — estimated at nearly $1 billion more than a surface connection — may sway the city to back running the trains via Wellington Street instead.

That idea may see the street pedestrianized, with cars and buses redirected to nearby streets.

A cyclist pedals across Wellington Street in downtown Ottawa in April 2021. The plan for an above-ground connection could see the street turned into a pedestrian mall. (Jean-Francois Benoit/CBC)

The member of parliament for Hull-Alymer Greg Fergus said the NCC's announcement is another indication the government of Canada is interested in moving forward with the project.

He said as far as he knows the STO and the City of Gatineau are very happy with the decision. 

"It has consequences which I think the STO and the City of Gatineau and the City of Ottawa are all prepared to accept to have a proposal which has great flexibility and has the added benefit of being less expensive," he said. 

An above-ground rail line would be more adaptable to the needs of the city over time, he said, as train stops can easily be moved along the line, but a tunnel is harder to shift. 

The last federal budget created an office at the NCC to oversee interprovincial transit and investigate the possibility of constructing a new crossing over the Ottawa River.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson dismissed the office at the time, saying he "does not see a reason to establish a new bureaucracy at the NCC to plan transit for Ottawa and Gatineau."

An NCC long-term plan on interprovincial transit is expected to be released in late 2021.

It's not yet clear whether the NCC or the federal government would fund the transit link.

There are an estimated 200,000 crossings between Ottawa and Gatineau each day, and the populations of both cities are estimated to increase by 26 per cent or more in the next 30 years.

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