Regulator sparks questions about future of Prince of Wales Bridge

A decision by the Canadian Transportation Agency is sparking questions about the future of the Prince of Wales Bridge, with some in Ottawa hoping to see it back in service much sooner than expected.

Transportation agency orders city to restore rail line leading to blocked-off bridge

The City of Ottawa is mulling its options after a decision by the Canadian Transportation Agency, ordering the city either to either try and sell a portion of the rail line leading to the Prince of Wales Bridge or to instead restore the tracks. (CBC)

A decision by the Canadian Transportation Agency is sparking questions about the future of the abandoned Prince of Wales Bridge, with some in Ottawa hoping to see it back in operation much sooner than expected.

In a ruling issued Friday, the agency gave the City of Ottawa two options.

It can either try to sell a portion of the rail line leading to the Prince of Wales Bridge, which spans the Ottawa River just west of the city's downtown — which could lead to it being permanently closed if there are no buyers.

Or it can instead restore the tracks — including those that run over the bridge — so they can accommodate rail traffic within 12 months

"Faced with the potential to have to demolish the bridge or discontinue that rail line, I think most residents of Ottawa feel that it would be far preferable to put the bridge into service," said Kichissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper, whose ward's eastern border is the bridge and O-Train tracks.

"It should put a bit of a fire under city council as well as our federal and provincial partners to find a way to fund it."

The agency made its decision in response to a complaint filed in 2016 by Moose Consortium Inc., a group hoping to rehabilitate the bridge as part of its plan to offer regional rail services to outlying communities in Quebec and Ontario.

The consortium filed its complaint after the City of Ottawa ripped up a quarter-kilometre section of rail tracks just south of the bridge in order to build a new entrance to the Bayview LRT station.

In its decision, the CTA said the city didn't follow the rules that govern the discontinuance of rail lines.

As a result, the city now has until the end of April to report back to the CTA about what it plans to do now.

Costly rehabilitation work

"I don't think council is anywhere near being able to make that decision today," Leiper told CBC News.

With the city's own repair estimates out of date, Leiper said it's difficult to say how much it would cost to rehabilitate the bridge, adding it could be anywhere between tens and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper says he hopes the city can find a way to rehabilitate the Prince of Wales Bridge to allow for rail, pedestrian and bicycle traffic. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

In a memo to councillors, City of Ottawa solicitor Rick O'Connor said the city's legal team is reviewing its options, which could include seeking judicial review.

That's an option Leiper said he would support, as it would buy the city more time to make an informed decision.

Mayor Jim Watson said the city will consult with lawyers and may consider appealing the ruling. 

"I don't think it's reasonable for a federal agency to tell us to keep a bridge operational for rail when we don't have the funds to put rail across to Quebec at this point," he said.

Best case scenario

Still, Leiper said most people in Ottawa would welcome a functioning rail bridge linking Ottawa and Gatineau, helping to ease congestion and benefiting the environment.

"Everything points to the importance of keeping the bridge and getting it back in service," he said.

Though Ottawa and Gatineau have long hoped to connect their transit systems by rail, there are no still no concrete plans to achieve that goal. (Mathieu Fleury/Twitter)

The City of Ottawa has envisioned converting the abandoned bridge to light rail so it could connect with Gatineau's transit system, but there is no concrete plan or funding in place to achieve that goal.

"What the Canadian Transportation Agency's decision forces us to do is make some plans around that sooner than we might have thought," Leiper said.

Potential for local, regional service

Hull-Aylmer MP Greg Fergus welcomed the CTA's decision, which he said leaves the door open not only to local rail service over the bridge but also the regional service proposed by Moose Consortium Inc.

"The more players that are in there, the better," Fergus said.

"I really do believe rail is the future for being able to move people efficiently, quickly and cheaply, so this is good news all around."

Fergus has also voiced his support for a tramway connecting Aylmer to downtown Gatineau with a potential link over the Prince of Wales Bridge.

Joseph Potvin, director general of Moose Consortium Inc., said he wasn't surprised by the agency's decision and hopes it will accelerate plans to rehabilitate the bridge.

"There's only one way to get between the O-Train line and the Quebec side — which is along the [bridge's] tracks," he said.

Moose Consortium Inc. has submitted plans for a bypass line around Bayview Station, after the City of Ottawa ripped up unused rail tracks as part of LRT construction. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Potvin said his team recently submitted proposals to the City of Ottawa and the CTA for the bridge's rehabilitation, including plans for a bypass track around Bayview Station.

The plan also includes seismic upgrades to the bridge as well as cantilevered bike and pedestrian paths.

"There isn't a conflict with the two systems," Potvin said. "It would actually be entirely complementary."

Potvin said the rehabilitation of the bridge would cost $50 million, which the consortium proposes to finance in full.

His team has pegged the cost of bypassing Bayview Station at an additional $25 million.

In the meantime, all eyes remain on the City of Ottawa as it weighs its options in response to the agency's ruling.