Analysis

Tunnel could solve Ottawa's truck problem — as long as we don't have to pay

A $750,000 study commissioned by the province and the City of Ottawa suggests a tunnel could deviate trucks off the bridge from Gatineau, Que., away from downtown streets on the way to Highway 417.

Feasibility study gives thumbs up for a tunnel connecting Macdonald-Cartier Bridge to Highway 417

A $750,000 study commissioned by the province and the City of Ottawa suggests a tunnel could deviate trucks off the bridge from Gatineau, Que., away from downtown streets on the way to Highway 417.

Every day, a few thousand heavy trucks wind their way off the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge from Gatineau, Que., and pour onto the streets of Ottawa, inching their way through traffic toward the highway laden down with everything from heavy oil to construction material to beer. 

They share intersections with cyclists and pedestrians, and over the years a number of tragic accidents bring to the fore why most major cities in Canada don't do this.

But for several decades, efforts to find a solution have been dashed. The last project — an interprovincial bridge over the Ottawa River east of the downtown core — fell apart when communities there didn't want the truck problem shoved into their neighbourhoods.

Now the city is trying something new.

Instead of a bridge, what about a tunnel?

"So if you can't go over, then the next option is to go under," says Coun. Keith Egli, who chairs the city's transportation committee.

City Coun. Keith Egli, chair of the transportation committee, says the city is hoping the province and the federal government will share the $2-billion cost of a new tunnel. (CBC)

Tunnel could accommodate 20-25K vehicles a day

The city commissioned a $750,000 feasibility study, split 50-50 with the Ontario government, to examine whether it's possible to build a tunnel off the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge that would connect traffic to Highway 417.

The preferred option is 3.4-kilometre route leading up to the highway at the Vanier Parkway.

The study suggests the tunnel could accommodate 20,000 to 25,000 vehicles a day, deviating two-thirds of truck traffic from city streets.

"This removes the safety concerns that we had, the pollution concerns, and certainly the economic development challenges that we see along that corridor," says Coun. Mathieu Fleury, adding that his community was "ecstatic" with the prospect.

Steven Boyle, a senior project manager with the City of Ottawa, says there are plenty of good reasons why an underground tunnel moving traffic to and from Gatineau should be paid for by higher levels of government. (CBC)

Who will pay?

But tunnels are pricey, and the study suggests it could cost $1.7 billion to $2 billion. 

Keep in mind, that's the estimate if we build it right now.

We're looking to our federal and provincial partners and we'd like to see them pick up 50 per cent each ...- Coun. Keith Egli

In three years, following an environmental assessment, Egli says inflation will force that estimate up, and there isn't $2 billlion available in the city's transportation master plan budget.

So, councillors and the mayor are hoping the province and the federal government warm up to this pitch:

"We're looking to our federal and provincial partners and we'd like to see them pick up 50 per cent each of the project, and that, as a trade-off, perhaps the city would be responsible for the maintenance and operation of the tunnel," Egli says.

The new Champlain Bridge, funded through a public-private partnership with the federal government, is scheduled to be ready for Dec. 1, 2018. (CBC)

Why the city shouldn't pay, according to the city

Steven Boyle, the City of Ottawa's senior project manager of transportation planning, says there is precedent. Consider the federal $4 billion public-private partnership to rebuild the Champlain Bridge into Montreal, and the provincial $1.4 billion public-private partnership to build the Rt. Hon. Herb Gray Parkway project in Windsor, Ont., deviating traffic heading into the United States.

Boyle says the argument for higher levels of government to support the Ottawa tunnel is clear. 

"You see that for those large, large projects, and ones not serving the local need. These trucks through King Edward [Avenue] are not there because they're going to King Edward locally," says Boyle. "It's really province to province and we really do need partners for all of this."

In the past, funding has been one of the major obstacles moving toward a resolution to Ottawa's truck problem. Local community associations want to see the city begin lobbying to secure that money now. 

Peter Ferguson, with the Lowertown Community Association, says it's easy to get frustrated with the decades-long wait for a solution, "but that's not going to get you anywhere." (CBC)

Just get the tunnel done

Peter Ferguson with the Lowertown Community Association has been waiting several decades for the city to find a solution.

"Yeah, it's easy to become frustrated, but that's not going to get you anywhere," he says.

The city shouldn't wait to ask other levels of government to commit to this plan. 

"We hope the municipal government isn't waiting for the environmental assessment," says Ferguson, who wants the assessment to be part of an already approved project. "Just get the tunnel done."

The plan for an environmental assessment should come before city council this fall. An assessment could take two or three years, according to Egli.

Ferguson says he's undaunted by the long wait, and he described the community's winning strategy: 

"Persist. Absolutely persist."

About the Author

Amanda Pfeffer

Amanda Pfeffer has worked for the CBC across the country, including Montreal, Vancouver, Fredericton, Quebec City and Ottawa. She welcomes story ideas and tips at amanda.pfeffer@cbc.ca.