For many, it’s a no-brainer to use the rail bridge near Bayview station to connect Ottawa and Gatineau. What’s at stake here, and what has changed?
Imagine the historic rail bridge of downtown Ottawa were to be restored and opened for cycling and pedestrians, public transportation – or both. The bridge would be a fantastic draw for residents and tourists alike. It would be a natural extension for the new LeBreton development and the planned Sir John A. MacDonald Park. It would be a joy to bike across or tackle on cross-country skis. At night, the bridge could have accent lighting, augmenting our beautiful city’s skyline. It would increase the options to cross the Ottawa River.
People are drawn to the space. Already, it is used informally as a creative space where people can connect with their friends, enjoy stunning views of Parliament and the river, and be outside. There are economic, social and health benefits to making the bridge safe and accessible. More than that, it is a symbol of the deep integration between the two cities.
Yet there are large obstacles to moving forward. The biggest one is the number of direct stakeholders, and their inability to agree on a cost-sharing framework. This has stalled the project, and while there is an intention at the official level to move forward eventually, no plans are currently in place to open the bridge.
A game-changing legal decision
But then! On February 16, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) ruled on an issue brought forth by MOOSE Consortium Inc. In short, they are requiring the City of Ottawa to confirm by April 30, 2018 what their intention is to do with the rail line – and by proxy, the bridge. They have two choices – either to operate the line, or discontinue the line.
Currently, the rail line and bridge appear to be in a state of long-term (or permanent) inoperability. This is not acceptable to the CTA, because the City did not follow the discontinuance processes required by law. The City can provide notice they are discontinuing the line, which would provide other parties with an opportunity to purchase the tracks.
If the City choses to operate the line, they will be required to repair the train tracks and the bridge to a baseline state where they would be operational within 12 months. This might occur if the CTA ruled that a competitor (e.g. MOOSE Inc.) is authorized to operate on the rail line.
Wait… why are the CTA involved?
The CTA are an independent, quasi-judicial agency of Parliament. They make decisions on issues relating to air, rail and marine transportation under the Canada Transportation Act.
The Prince of Wales Bridge is currently classified as an active railway, meaning the Minister of Transport is also an significant stakeholder in the future of the Prince of Wales Bridge. Before being purchased by the City of Ottawa in 2005, the railway and bridge were owned by CP Rail.
Elephant in the Room: Where will the money come from?
There have been several figures tossed around about the costs of repairing the Prince of Wales Bridge. The most common is $40 million, though it could be less than that or significantly more.
The City of Ottawa doesn’t have several million dollars of unallocated funds in their budget, so we have to understand this decision has financial implications. This is particularly true since municipalities are not permitted to have a deficit.
That being said, we are in a period where we’re investing in infrastructure. The federal government is investing more than $180 billion over 12 years through the Investing in Canada plan. Several years ago, the National Capital Commission indicated they would provide up to 33% of the funds required to renovate the bridge – presumably this is still somewhere in their budgets, especially since they continue to support a pathway on the bridge in their strategic planning documents.
What about the provinces? What about Gatineau? The number of stakeholders means that no one wants to pay for the whole thing, but perhaps through a collaborative approach we can make the numbers work.
This decision will provide a clear direction. If this isn’t a project that our elected officials are willing to pass on to taxpayers, the private sector provides an alternative. MOOSE Inc. have proposed to take on the work of renovating the bridge in order to move forward with their plan to build an interprovincial train provider connecting several cities in Ontario and Quebec – from Montebello to Arnprior, from Wakefield to Smith Falls, and from Alexandria to Bristol.
The City might appeal the CTA decision to get more time to prepare their response and revise their cost assessments. This makes sense given the City’s latest engineering analysis is a couple years old. If the City of Ottawa is going to be legally bound to complete this project, the responsible approach would be to have a reasonably accurate assessment of how much this will cost.
Still, we have some momentum here. This is an election year for the City of Ottawa. We are going to the polls at the end of October, and the question of how we move forward with the Prince of Wales Bridge should be a part of the debates.
It’s been a long-standing issue. But after years of delays and inaction, the time for a decision on the Prince of Wales Bridge has arrived.
Aileen Duncan is an infrastructure nerd, cultural writer, and a cyclist. She advocates for the Prince of Wales Bridge to be made safe and accessible in the near term. Follow Aileen on Twitter.