Ottawa·Analysis

Fencing off Ottawa's Prince of Wales Bridge an unpopular move, but the right one

The fact is, the bridge was never open. Nor should it be — at least in the short term, Joanne Chianello writes.

Favourite Ottawa River hangout a 'liability waiting to happen,' Joanne Chianello writes

People who want Ottawa's Prince of Wales Bridge open to the public attend a picnic protest on Sept. 7, 2016. (CBC)

It was the loveliest protest ever.

As the sun began its early evening descent over the Ottawa River Wednesday, a Gypsy jazz band played Django Reinhardt tunes for the two dozen folks chatting at the western entrance to the Prince of Wales Bridge, while a couple of police officers looked on with apparent unconcern.

Gypsy jazz band plays at bridge protest

6 years ago
Duration 0:20
Gypsy jazz band plays at bridge protest

The newly formed Ottawa Rail Bridge Project was expecting a crowd in the triple digits to help advocate for turning the disused rail bridge into a public space. (Some may have been scared off by the more robust police presence earlier on, before most officers retreated once they realized no one was going to charge onto the bridge.)

Still, with most news outlets in town covering the event, it was successful in its goal of attracting public attention to the group's cause. 

The only problem is that the group's cause is wrong — at least in the short term.

Bridge a liability waiting to happen

The Prince of Wales Bridge has captured the imagination of many in Ottawa as a place to sit and watch the sunset, cross the Ottawa River, or even have a spectacularly romantic dinner.

But all of these uses are illegal. Everyone knows this, because getting on the bridge requires squeezing through a deliberately made hole in a fence and ignoring trespassing signs.

Unfortunately for those who want to use the bridge, Transport Canada knows it's illegal, too.

Even though the city bought the bridge a decade ago for $400,000 with the idea of using it as an LRT extension, Transport Canada still regulates the disused railway crossing. And Transport Canada isn't happy.

After a Dec. 2, 2015 meeting with officials from the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau, Transport Canada wrote to make it clear it expects them to "permanently barricade the bridge to stop trespassers." The letter included a pointed reminder that the city is obliged to protect the safety and security of the public while they're on the property.

So what's the city to do? The bridge does not have railings on it, and is missing boards. People have been known to jump off it into the current below, and, in at least one case, hang a hammock off it.

The place is a liability suit waiting to happen, notwithstanding the fact that — despite Mayor Jim Watson claiming he was "sick" of people suing the city — there have been no reported complaints about injuries incurred on the bridge. Nevertheless, once the city was officially warned by the feds to do something about the bridge, it had to take action.

Bridge was never open

But when that action turned out to be spending at least $250,000 to install imposing gates, the public reacted. For those who love the Prince of Wales Bridge — and there seem to be a lot of vocal folks who do — it was bad enough that the city's plan to turn it into a cycling and pedestrian path was shelved after Gatineau wasn't willing to cough up its share of the $10.5-million cost.

Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers' own money to keep them off the bridge, instead of finding a way to keep it open, was just too much.

The fact is, the bridge was never open. And while it might seem reasonable to want the money spent on restricting access redirected to making the bridge safer, $250,000 falls woefully short of what's needed to transform the 1.3-kilometre bridge into a safe public attraction. The High Line in New York cost $150 million US, with that city contributing a third.

Gate plan shut down

Activists — including local councillors Jeff Leiper and Catherine McKenney — have been successful is stopping the city from spending a quarter-million to block off the bridge. Instead, city officials now say they'll put new fencing across the bridge entrances, as well as more signage. Cost: $46,000.

(Note to those who keep cutting down the fences: maybe leave it intact this time if you want to keep the city from installing the Black Gate of Mordor.)

Trespassers can gain east access to the Prince of Wales Bridge through gaps in the fence like this one. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

But there are things the city should do when it comes to the bridge.

First, work with the Ottawa Rail Bridge Project. It's a generally well-informed group, engaged in making the capital more engaging, trying to encourage discussions between Ottawa, Gatineau and the National Capital Commission.

City officials should also be clear about what it would take to "open" the bridge. What are the minimum standards for public safety, and what would that cost? Is a boardwalk allowed, or must the pathway be paved? 

And is there an opportunity to do something in the second phase of infrastructure funding soon to be announced by this cycle-friendly federal government?

Because while the city is in the right to close off access to the bridge this fall, it would be wrong to leave it that way.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.

now