Ottawa councillors responsible for prioritizing transportation projects had “the loop” whirling in their minds Monday as they debated the future of an interprovincial rail line.
The transportation committee endorsed recommendations by Ottawa staff to support two options for bringing trams over the Portage Bridge and into downtown Ottawa, with an expensive Sparks Street tunnel, in the committee’s opinion, being the “optimal” method compared to running a twin-track tram on the surface of Wellington Street.
The Société de transport de l’Outaouais (STO) is planning the new transit system between Aylmer and Ottawa’s parliamentary precinct. No money from City of Ottawa property taxpayers would be required, but council on Nov. 25 needs to give its blessing to STO and the City of Gatineau to pursue the project on Ottawa streets.
Meanwhile, advocates of a transit loop connecting the downtowns of Hull and Ottawa using the Portage and Alexandra bridges, combined with Wellington Street in Ottawa and Laurier Street in Gatineau, have seized the opportunity and successfully planted the idea in the minds of Ottawa councillors.
Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin, who attended the virtual committee meeting, said he doesn’t want the idea of a loop to get in the way of authorities making prompt decisions on the current STO plan, which goes no farther than Elgin Street in Ottawa.
While Pedneaud-Jobin said he sees “no contradiction between the loop and our project,” he considers the current STO plan as a first phase before building a transit loop.
Pedneaud-Jobin and STO need the federal government to provide funding for the transit plan. The Quebec government has signalled its commitment to the project, but, as Pedneaud-Jobin pointed out, the province wouldn’t be interested in funding infrastructure on the other side of the Ottawa River.
The difference in cost between the Wellington Street and Sparks Street options is significant.
The Wellington Street surface option with three stations would cost $3.03 billion. The Sparks Street tunnel option with two stations would cost between $3.53 billion and $3.9 billion.
The money is just one factor — albeit a big one — in the decision to build rail on the surface or underground. The future of Ottawa’s prime tourist attraction, Parliament Hill and the surrounding precinct, is a top concern when it comes to the prospect of running trams on Wellington Street.
Coun. Matthew Luloff called the Parliament Buildings “most iconic vista we have in the city” in voicing his preference for a tram running in a tunnel under Sparks Street, whose pedestrian mall could benefit from increased foot traffic from two stations.
Other councillors see an opportunity too good to pass up with the prospect of a tram running on Wellington Street.
Coun. Catherine McKenney, whose Somerset ward includes the parliamentary precinct, said the city should commit to removing traffic from Wellington Street, though McKenney recognized that the city would need to figure out how to reduce the traffic impact on other streets.
Ottawa transportation planners, however, prefer to keep some traffic on Wellington Street if STO leans toward a surface tram.
The group Supporters of the Loop has released concepts of what a pedestrian mall on Wellington Street could look like with the addition of trams and the removal of cars.
Only three people signed up to address the committee on the STO rail plan and they were all advocates who’ve signed on to Supporters of the Loop.
Bob Plamondon, who leads the group, asked for the committee to endorse a study on the loop, which he called a “nation-building initiative” that could be funded by the federal government.
The National Capital Commission would be the likely leader in organizing such a study.
“The loop idea is not new, but it’s time has come,” Plamondon said, stressing that the loop can’t be merely an add-on project at some point in the the future since the momentum is happening now.
Coun. Mathieu Fleury formalized the city’s interest in examining the loop by winning the committee’s support to include it as part of the next transportation master plan if the study is totally funded by the federal government. The feasibility of converting Wellington Street into a pedestrian mall should also be part of that study, the committee decided.
The message was clear from the committee that City of Ottawa money shouldn’t be spent on the STO project or studies on a transit loop.
Another motion presented by Coun. Tim Tierney and passed unanimously by the transportation committee said if a tramway runs on Wellington Street, the vehicles should “reflect the colours and symbolism of our country.”
STO’s brand uses green and blue as dominant colours.