Ottawa

People may be able to drive past Parliament Hill again pending a city vote

Nearly a year after the capital's most recognizable roadway was closed to traffic, Ottawa city council is considering reopening Wellington Street to vehicles — despite the federal government's desire to keep it barricaded.

Bylaw to close down part of Wellington Street expired at end of 2022

A protester carries a Canadian flag on Wellington Street across from Parliament Hill Feb. 17, 2022. That month, council voted to keep traffic off Wellington Street for the rest of the year to prevent another convoy protest from taking over Ottawa's downtown streets. (The Canadian Press)

Nearly a year after the capital's most recognizable roadway was closed to traffic, Ottawa city council is considering reopening Wellington Street to vehicles — despite the federal government's desire to keep it barricaded.

Mayor Mark Sutcliffe said he's "really excited" to hash out a long-term plan for Wellington Street with the federal government, but a final decision is more than a year off.

In the meantime, he'd like to see the concrete barriers removed.

"I'm open to listening to what everybody has to say about it, including other city councillors and members of the public," Sutcliffe told CBC.

"But my inclination would be that unless there's a really good reason for it to be closed in the short term, that we should consider reopening it."

He said that Wellington Street worked just fine before closing for the 2022 vehicle convoy protests and the city shouldn't let what happened dictate how residents move around their city.

"I don't like the way it looks right now — it's a reminder of the convoy," Sutcliffe said.

"If we're going to close the road to traffic, it should be because of a bigger plan that we have for Wellington and for downtown Ottawa, not because the convoy happened for three weeks in 2022."

A man in a suit sits in front of a microphone and a laptop and delivers a speech.
Sutcliffe says he's keeping an open mind on the long-term plans for Wellington Street, but he's also leaning toward reopening the road in the short term. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

The member of Parliament for the area disagrees. 

"It's my view that it would be premature at this time to consider reopening, even on a temporary basis, when there are active conversations that are taking place between the federal government and City of Ottawa," said Yasir Naqvi, the Liberal MP for Ottawa Centre.

He concedes that Wellington feels "abandoned," but suggested short-term additions such as banners and flags, lighting and benches — as well as programmed events like last summer's street hockey tournament — would make it more welcoming.

"I don't think that running cars and buses [on Wellington] results in a better look for the street," said Naqvi.

WATCH | Federal and municipal goals for Wellington Street:

Reopening Wellington Street in the short-term would be 'premature,' Ottawa MP says

14 days ago
Duration 0:48
Ottawa Centre MP Yasir Naqvi said instead of allowing cars and buses along the capital's most recognizable street, "we need really to focus on finding ways to liven up Wellington Street."

Bylaw expiring

After a massive police operation moved the convoy protesters out of the parliamentary precinct last February, council moved to keep Wellington closed to public vehicles between Bank and Elgin streets for the rest of the year to prevent similar protests.

The decision on whether to reopen it was to be made at the first transportation committee meeting of this term of council, which is set for next Thursday.

That committee chair is also leaning toward reopening Wellington until the city strikes a final deal with the federal government.

"It's ugly," Coun. Tim Tierney said frankly of the current look, "and it doesn't represent the capital of Canada."

WATCH | Closing part of the street makes it more ugly, says city councillor:

Councillor says Wellington Street closure a 'problem' as public servants return to the office

14 days ago
Duration 1:32
Coun. Tim Tierney said "a lot of lessons" were learned from the Freedom Convoy and the Emergencies Act inquiry about how to effectively close the street temporarily.

Standing on a largely deserted Wellington Street, Tierney pointed to drivers who were ignoring the signs — officially, the road is open only to authorized vehicles travelling eastbound and active transportation such as cycling, but it's possible for cars to sneak around the barriers.

Both Tierney and Sutcliffe say the city and the police services are better prepared to prevent the sort of truck protest that jammed downtown streets and closed local businesses for weeks.

"No one wants to see that again," said Tierney.

"But at the same time, we have a beautiful backdrop here in their city and I think a lot of people want to actually get access to it again."

Heavy equipment operators move fencing along Wellington Street in the Parliamentary precinct Feb. 20, 2022. The street has been largely empty to vehicle traffic for the last year. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Procedure unusual

The procedure around how council will decide on the reopening seems unusual.

For council decisions of any magnitude, city staff usually prepare a report with recommendations on what elected officials should do.

That hasn't happened here.

Instead, the city's director of traffic services Phil Landry sent a report to transportation committee members on Tuesday with an update on the Wellington Street temporary closure.

According to the six-page memo, the closure has caused some increased congestion on nearby roads like Queen and Slater streets.

Detoured traffic has resulted in more right and left turns, which has the "potential to lead to greater conflict and safety hazards between turning vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians in crosswalks."

Concrete barriers have closed off a section of Wellington Street to motor vehicles since the end of the convoy protests in late February 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Still, wrote Landry, "the current closure has not had a significant negative impact to the transportation network," although it's unclear how the public service's partial return to the office could impact traffic in the future.

Tierney said that he and other council members were hearing from constituents that downtown traffic was starting to pick up.

The report also says that consultant company Parsons is undertaking a major traffic study on the consequences of closing Wellington permanently — the study is being paid for by the federal government — but it's not expected to delivered to council until late this year or early 2024.

Landry makes no recommendation on what to do in the meantime.

Instead, Tierney said he will move a motion at next week's committee meeting regarding the reopening — whether to leave Wellington closed or to open it.

If it's the latter, it will take weeks or even months for the road to reopen. The councillor said there would have to be consultations with emergency services and repairs to the road. Two traffic lights that have been taken down in the past year would have to be replaced.

Whatever the committee decides will need to be approved by the full city council.

Tierney is encouraging the public to come talk about the issue at the transportation committee next week and is asking his council colleagues to spread the word to their constituents.

Feds want Wellington closed

Reopening Wellington Street could strain relations between the city and its federal partners.

The federal government has made it very clear it wants Wellington Street to stay closed to traffic, although it is open to other modes of transportation — think bike lanes and tramways

Last month, after hearing from dozens of witnesses, a House of Commons committee recommended that security for Wellington Street fall under federal jurisdiction. 

Liberal members of the committee want the government to enter into land transfer talks with the city to make Wellington Street part of the parliamentary precinct.

An aerial shot of a city skyline in daytime with many tall buildings and a river to the left.
A drone photo captures an aerial shot of downtown Ottawa, with Wellington Street running down the middle, on Nov. 1, 2022. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

But a land transfer, which would probably come after the Parsons report due in a year, could take months to negotiate and the city would be looking for money or a land swap before giving up an iconic, if sometimes troublesome, street like Wellington.

Outside of expropriating the road, the federal government has no say in whether it reopens in coming weeks or months.

"Whatever decisions are made in the short term are the decisions of the City of Ottawa because Wellington Street is under our jurisdiction," said the mayor. 

"If there's going to be any change in that, if it's going to become part of the federal jurisdiction, that needs to be part of a discussion and a negotiation between our two levels of government. So in the meantime, we have a decision to make."

Mayor Mark Sutcliffe says he’s leaning towards reopening it, without a good reason to keep it closed to vehicles. Joanne Chianello has the latest.

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.

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