— Municipalities can access $2.2 billion more in gas tax transfer revenue as a one-time top up, helping fix or expand infrastructure
— The federal government is challenging municipalities to come up with ways to speed up affordable housing construction
A national capital bridge battle has been revived by the Liberal government, to the chagrin of mayors on both sides of the Ottawa River.
Among those studies is one dating back to the early 1990s that recommended building a bridge connecting the Aviation Parkway and Montée Paiement across Kettle Island, but the plan was set aside in the face of vehement opposition.
Tuesday’s federal budget proposes to kick-start the process to create a new interprovincial bridge, threatening to reopen old wounds from the last time the federal government, two provincial governments and two municipal governments tried to find a location to build a new crossing between Ottawa and Gatineau.
And if the National Capital Commission didn’t have enough on its plate with the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats, the federal government has tapped the agency to take the project’s lead “by refreshing existing studies and developing a long-term integrated interprovincial crossing plan.”
"The city has been very clear we don't support a bridge at Kettle Island. That would eviscerate a number of different neighbourhoods, and we're not on for that," Watson said.
Both Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin said they were surprised by the mention of an interprovincial bridge in the federal budget.
Watson said he has “no desire” to go down the road of another fight over where to put a crossing — a proposal to locate a Gatineau-connecting bridge over Kettle Island in east Ottawa was shelved almost six years ago after community uproar.
“I think the top-down approach failed a few years ago. We have to try another approach,” said Pedneaud-Jobin.
He disagreed with the budget’s assertion that there is a “demonstrated need for an additional National Capital Region crossing,” and said both Ottawa and Gatineau are instead focused on investment in their public transportation infrastructure, including interprovincial links between light rail transit systems in both cities.
Also named in the budget, improving interprovincial crossings in the capital region. The government says the five crossings between Ottawa and Gatineau carry nearly 150,000 vehicles and 9,000 pedestrians and cyclists each day, which is an increase of more than 15,000 since 2015. The budget says it will replace the Alexandra Bridge, which is more than 100 years old. The government also will task the National Capital Commission with studying and developing a plan to address the need for more crossings, with consultations with the cities of Gatineau and Ottawa as well as the provincial government. The budget will also provide up to $80.4 million over 10 years for the maintenance of crossings including the Chaudière and MacDonald Cartier bridges.
“I think that should be the priority, not starting a process about a future bridge,” said Pedneaud-Jobin.
The 2019 Budget also announced money to improve Canadas preparation and response to disasters and emergencies. The budget proposes an investment of $151.23 million over 5 years, and $9.28 million per year ongoing, to improve emergency management in Canada. Furthermore, the budget proposes $260 million over 2 years on a cash basis to Public Safety Canada to support provincial and territorial disaster relief and recovery efforts through the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements Program.
The federal government says it will replace the aging Alexandra Bridge, potentially knocking out a key crossing for a significant period. However, the budget is silent on when the Alexandra Bridge replacement would happen, or if it would happen after a new crossing is built.
The NCC and the Ontario and Quebec governments started a project to build a new interprovincial bridge back in 2006, with the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau providing support.
A new Ottawa River bridge in the east end over Kettle Island, connecting Ottawa’s Aviation Parkway with Gatineau’s Montée Paiement, was the preferred location for a new $1-billion crossing.
The 2019 Federal Budget also says it is committed to bringing affordable rental housing to Ottawa through its Rental Construction Financing Initiative. The initiative offers benefits, including low-cost loans, to developers.
Ottawa residents who lived around the proposed bridge corridor were worried about the impact of highway-type traffic cutting through their communities.
Just months before the end of the NCC-led bridge study, and after gauging the drama in those east Ottawa communities, the former Ontario Liberal government in June 2013 said it wouldn’t support a crossing at Kettle Island.
All the work from the study was shelved and the City of Ottawa started looking at other ways to divert trucks from downtown and specifically from the King Edward Avenue truck route.
Truck traffic in downtown Ottawa is a major part of the interprovincial bridge saga. The hope was that a new bridge would drastically reduce the number of trucks downtown, making the current truck route on Nicholas Street and King Edward Avenue much safer for pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists.
The city, with the province’s financial support, commissioned a feasibility study on building a tunnel from Highway 417, through Sandy Hill and Lowertown, to the mouth of the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge. The study established that building a tunnel is possible, and would cost as much as $2 billion, but an environmental assessment has never started.
There were some “big wins” in the 2019 federal budget for the City of Ottawa, according to Mayor Jim Watson — but there was one item affecting the national capital that the mayor says he didn’t expect and doesn’t support: a proposal to renew abandoned plans for a sixth interprovincial crossing between Ottawa and Gatineau.
It was never clear which government would pay for an Ottawa traffic tunnel. The city’s transportation priority is rapid rail transit and the upper levels of government together have committed more than $2 billion for the Stage 2 O-Train expansion project.
Watson said there was widespread opposition to the project; many residents living in the area were reportedly worried about the impact an increase in traffic would have on their neighbourhoods. The city withdrew its support from the project, the province eventually “pulled the plug” in 2013 and the NCC followed suit, the mayor said.
With the federal government now indicating it wants to get moving on a new interprovincial bridge, a traffic tunnel could be out of the picture.
At the same time, restarting the interprovincial bridge project raises the possibility that communities could once again be pitted against each other, with downtown residents calling for a solution to having big rigs rumble through the core and east-end residents rallying against a truck-diverting bridge near their neighbourhoods.
The federal budget doesn’t say if the interprovincial bridge process will scout other locations for a new crossing, other than the three east-Ottawa corridors that were shortlisted in the original study.
If not a bridge, the city has other infrastructure projects on its wish list, too. Watson said the municipality has advocated for cash to fund an environmental assessment for an underground tunnel that would relieve truck traffic running through downtown Ottawa via King Edward Avenue, Rideau Street and Waller Street.
There is a growing need to provide more transportation access across the Ottawa River in the National Capital Region.
The five interprovincial crossings together carry 150,000 vehicles, plus 9,000 pedestrians and cyclists, each day. According to the federal government, that number has increased by 15,000 since 2015. Of all the morning peak-period traffic in the region, about 11 per cent of it is interprovincial.
The Liberal government’s latest budget, tabled Tuesday afternoon, pledges to “address the demonstrated need for an additional National Capital Region crossing by refreshing existing studies and developing a long-term integrated interprovincial crossing plan.”
Pedneaud-Jobin argued that a new crossing for drivers between Ottawa and Gatineau is not the answer to this growth in traffic. “We need a heavier transportation mode as soon as possible, so the answer is that project connecting to the LRT.”
Last June, Gatineau unveiled a $2.1-billion, 26-kilometre light rail plan to service its expanding west-end population. Connections across the Alexandra and Prince of Wales bridges to Ottawa’s LRT were planned .
At the time, Pedneaud-Jobin called the exact locations of the crossings a “delicate” point, but said these two bridges “are extremely interesting” from Gatineau’s point of view, giving access to the Rideau Centre and to the Bayview station and Tunney’s Pasture.
In light of the federal budget announcement, Pedneaud-Jobin said he’s planning a discussion with the NCC. “I’m quite convinced that Mr. Watson and I will have the same language on this issue. We have priorities, very clear priorities, and they have to be fulfilled before we start any other process.”
The federal budget also earmarked $80.4 million over 10 years to repair other interprovincial crossings in Ottawa-Gatineau, including the Chaudière and Macdonald Cartier bridges.