No new bridges til we use the old ones first

Are existing Ottawa River bridges really at capacity? We traditionally measure capacity in vehicles carried, and by this measure some bridges are very busy.

But if we measure capacity by people carried, the story changes. Typically, in North America, bridges carry fewer people each year because the vehicles get emptier. With driverless cars, we can expect a number of vehicles to be carrying no one at all.

The focus should first be on carrying people. Sometimes this is best done in cars.  And sometimes it might be most effective on LRT transit. The scarcer the infrastructure, the more important it is to prioritize the number of people carried rather than the number of containers they are in.

New bridges to the east or west will effectively promote single occupancy car travel and suburban development. The City will get a lot less accessible to all those who haven’t cars (about 30% of us). Life will get much more expensive for all those that find they need a car or multiple vehicles per household to get around in a car-centric city. Congestion won’t be reduced, anywhere.

Before we go that route, I hope we look at some alternatives to a new bridge. 

First, consider the structurally sound Prince of Wales Bridge that extends north of Bayview Station where the L1 and L2 meet. The bridge only needs upgrading to be put in use carrying LRT trains to and from Gatineau.

It doesn’t even need to be “double tracked”.

The bridge has Lemieux Island in the middle of it. There is plenty of space for a passing siding here, should one be wanted. The bridge has a 16′ width between the trusses, there is room to put an ‘evacuation’ surface beside the tracks. [If a desired add on, a proper bike and pedestrian facility would require an additional cantilevered deck on the downstream side of the bridge, but that isn’t required to use the bridge for transit.]

Single car Citadis trains carrying 300 passengers could depart every 2 to 3 minutes in each direction (same frequency as the Confederation Line). This is 6000 to 9000 passengers per hour. On an existing bridge that the City owns and currently isn’t carrying anyone.

This is the equivalent to 4000 – 6000 cars on a road bridge. All of which have to be handled with high capacity roads on each side of the river. Traffic and roads that no one wants anywhere near them.

It would take a LRT train less than a minute from leaving Ottawa’s Bayview Station to get to the passing track on Lemieux Island, and less than a minute to reach the Quebec shore. It would be easy to double track the “shore” portions into each station. The Gatineau end would most likely be their Alexandre-Tache Rapibus Station.

Once popularity is established, it would be easy to employ 2-car trainsets, doubling the capacity. Without building more bridge(s)!

Physically, it would be possible to continue the Prince of Wales bridge LRT service to the south on the Trillium Line, or north on a Fleur de Lis Line. But for various political, jurisdictional, linguistic, and economic reasons that shuttle on the POW is likely to just run from Bayview Station to Gatineau.

And this huge increase in river crossing capacity could be up and running, even with bridge “upgrading”, before any study on a new crossing could be completed, let alone a new bridge built.

But wait, there’s more !

The Alexandra (Interprovincial) Bridge is reported to be in bad structure condition due to neglect. The bridge design is vulnerable to catastrophic collapse when it fails, so repairs or replacement is urgent.

A new road bridge is likely to have more vehicle capacity than the existing bridge. But why do we want to bring thousands of cars an hour into the ByWard Market area? Or to build a fabulously expensive Big Dig tunnel under Lowertown and New Edinburg? To take people in cars where??

Why not just run a surface rail line, call it a LRT or a “streetcar”, from Gatineau’s Rapibus transitway past the Museum of History/downtown Hull, over the bridge and along Mackenzie Avenue or Sussex?

The Alexandra bridge is fairly short, so there would only be one track on the bridge, carrying either a northbound or southbound train at one time. The bridge would still be available for promenade decks and views, and still usable for motorcades should that still be a NCC must-have. At 50kmh, it would take less than a minute for a train to cross the river on the single track section.

On the Ottawa side, this interprovincial street level line could possibly terminate beside the Chateau, with a new entrance in the Daly Building Plaza down into the Confederation Line Rideau Station.

Or, it could even be continued a bit further south along the Colonel By right of way to stop at the underpass of the Ottawa U Campus station, which would surely be a major destination for users on that route.

Ironically, this surface rail line between Gatineau and Ottawa would be restoring the cities to the pre-Greber plan days, when the Alexandra bridge had trains and streetcars, and the Colonel By alignment passenger trains.

If rail could be converted to roads in the 50’s, maybe we can turn them back to rails before the next 50’s.


It would be interesting to see how making better use of existing bridges, along with a focus on moving people rather than cars, would compare to building new highway bridges to the east or west. I suspect politicians are a bit further ahead in their thinking than the general public, in realizing that it is physically impossible to grow the city and somehow magically stuff 30-50% more cars onto existing roads. Capacity is what matters for our city now, and capacity comes from transit.


For keeners on the Prince of Wales bridge being LRT, here are some more helpful pictures.
First, the City’s illustration of the Trillium Line right of way which extends to Gatineau’s University du Quebec campus and within a few metres of the Alexandre-tache Rapibus station:

Here is an aerial view of the line running across Lemieux Island today. A passing siding would be located just west of the existing tracks, along the fenced parking lot:

And lastly, an aerial photo of the line running under the Sir John A Macdonald Parkway. The overpass here dates from the 1960’s and is likely to be replaced. But that isn’t a condition of running the train, nor is it required to bring the double track right to the Ottawa end of the POW bridge, as the cycle path was pushed right to the abutment edge specifically to leave enough space for double tracking:


So how do we convince the politicians to make better use of our existing bridges before building another road bridge?



23 thoughts on “No new bridges til we use the old ones first

  1. What about the tracks that extend to Terrasses de la Chaudiere ? That’s were commuters are going.

    1. Ian: If the train terminated at T de la Chaudiere it would be wonderfully convenient for Ottawa (especially Ottawa south) residents to go to work at TC or PdP. But many of those dont go through the downtown now, and if they do they will be in a tunnel. The mayor wants to get rid of the STO buses that clog the downtown — we didn’t spend a billion dollars on LRT to give the core over to STO. Connecting to the Rapibus corridor connects both transit systems, and over time both with intensify and have lots of new development along the lines making for a useful less subsidized transit. It is indeed unfortunate that the Rapibus doesn’t go to old downtown Hull, but that’s where the Alexandra Bridge connector streetcar line comes in …

  2. The original Greber plan provided for 2 additional bridges , one in the east and one in the west to divert car and truck traffic around the core and decentralise the City.

    Adding LRT lines on downtown bridges would certainly improve downtown public transport by removing some cars and buses off of downtown streets.

    This however would not solve the downtown truck problem ( eg King Edward Truck Route) nor reduce the increased traffic congestion feeding existing Bridges.

    I live near the SJAM and Island Park Bridge and I see the ever increasing car queues on the SJAM, Island park Drive, Chemin D’Alymer, and Boul Lucerne feeding the Island park Bridge. As Gatineau continues to grow and with increased Intensification along Richmond Rd local car congestion will continue to grow.

    An update is needed to the Greber plan to address the above issues

    1. Don: is the solution to car congestion really to build more roads so people can live in more spread out areas? Or is it to grow the city towards a form where people can live closer to their jobs, in pleasant places, without hours of commuting? I acknowledge the Pleasant Places bit is a bit of a stretch given our current fetish for tall towers surrounded by miles of 5 houses per acres… I favour more development along key transit lines. Old Ottawa is getting close to that now, but the suburbs …

    2. The Greber plan is decades old. It did not contemplate a number of now existing challenges.

      From the east, we have have a lot more heavy trucks arriving from the east along Hwy 417, on their way to Gatineau. An east end bridge is a necessity, not a nice to have. That east end bridge is unlikely to have any meaningful impact on LRT usage. It would, on the other hand, take a lot of hazardous traffic out of the core.

      To the west, Kanata did not exist when the Greber plan was drawn up. It has a significant employment base. Residents of the Aylmer sector of Gatineau who work in Kanata (attracted by the illusion of a higher salary and lower housing costs) find themselves having to drive east, then south over the Champlain Bridge, then west again. A bridge that joins the western end of Aylmer to the western end of Kanata (west of Shirley’s Bay) would allow this traffic, and those vehicles on their way to Hwy 416 to move in a relatively straight line. This would reduce congestion, and green house gases.

      Both of these examples are part of what a proactive planning (a repetition of terms) mindset would have addressed. Rather we have been and remain stuck with a retroactive planning (an oxymoron) mindset. We reap what the municipal, provincial and federal government planners have failed to sow.

      1. Now if ever is the time to move on the Confederation Blvd. loop. Eliminating car traffic on the Alexandra in favour of transit and active transportation would have a huge impact on the quality of the core.

        If we’re going to build a bridge to remove trucks from the core, let’s build a toll bridge and make it the designated interprovincial crossing and lift that designation from all the other bridges.

        1. Erinn, are you sure you want a truck from Aylmer to go all the way to kettle island or similar, then return thru the city to get to Kanata? Toll bridges, sure. Toll roads too. Why does only transit have a user fee??

          1. Probably less than ideal, but at least they would be making their way through the city on the highway, not through dense neighbourhoods.Seems like a better alternative to the King Eddy and Booth Street options in place today.

        2. Erinn, I am a big fan of toll bridges and expressways. The bridges between Canada and the US charge tolls, and nobody complains. The $35 (not transponder) it costs to bypass Toronto on the 407 is worth every penny in reduced aggravation and improved travel time.

          It is time to challenge the political rhetoric in Ontario that toll roads are only acceptable if there is a free route nearby.

  3. Just get the city to open the POW bridge to cyclists for now. What a perfect way to extend cycling to thousands of commuters who need to get to Tunney’s from Quebec.

    I dream of riding that bridge every time I ride under it on the Ontario side, and across the lonely track crossing on the Quebec side. This is a bit of cycling infrastructure that can never be reproduced at any cost, if that bridge is allowed to crumble.

  4. One of the major issues regarding interprovincial bridges is removing truck traffic from Ottawa’s downtown. That is a motivator for examining another bridge crossing.

  5. You have eloquently put out a concept which would cost hundreds of millions less tna a new bridge. Great idea, not new but alas often forgotten or denied in the selfish interest of politicians and complex regulations which no one is willing to modify. This solution suffers only form administrative obstructionism. We need popular demand to make it happen. Perhaps with a new wind blowing at the NCC, they should be first approached and concurrently some activism as we update the Ottawa (and Gatineau?) Masterplans.

  6. You say “I suspect politicians are a bit further ahead in their thinking than the general public, in realizing that it is physically impossible to grow the city and somehow magically stuff 30-50% more cars onto existing roads” and I must disagree, based on this famous little lecture:

    “He proceeded to examine oddly reassuring statements from “experts”, the media and political leaders – statements that are dramatically inconsistent with the facts.”

    Most people, including politicians, especially politicians receiving money from developers, don’t understand, and don’t want to understand, that you can’t have continued growth against a finite resource.

    1. Ian: the general public I think (maybe i am underestimating) sees only the one road segement they experience congestion on and want it widened or “improved”. They fail to understand that the next intersection, the next block, etc must also be widened if that traffic is go anywhere; nor do they picture how that road can be widened, especially in built up areas where all the space is already wanted. We have seen the city vote to increase density and intensify neighbourhoods without widening the roads, much to the dismay of the “there’s too much congestion” already crowd. Eg, many new buildings will go up along Richmond Rd in the next decades, but the road is being kept to 1 lane in each direction.

  7. Imagine diesel commuter rail from Fallowfield to the VIA station. Cheap, easy, and never going to happen . Sigh.

  8. Some excellent information in this post. Building new or upgrade bridges doesn’t make sense when you can’t upgrade the roads that service those bridges. The capacity of the bridges is not the issue it’s the roads that lead to and from them that is the real problem. Using the POW bridge to move people across the river is great because Ottawa is spending billions to build the LRT to move those people in all directions quickly and relatively cheaply.
    We have to remember what we are trying to do. We are trying to move people (not their car) from A to B. Ottawa has grown far past the point where moving people by transit is the most effective way.

  9. Ron Benn

    The reason people don’t take issues with tolls on bridges is its cheap $4.50 each way while people in Ottawa want it to be $20 each time you enter the downtown core and a 80% increase in parking rates.

  10. It would be interesting if it could be possible to have a line go from Bayview across the river to hook up to the major STO sites and office buildings (possibly even the museum if it was far enough from other stops and if the route came near it) and then come back across the Alexandra Bridge as you mentioned in the article to connect at Rideau.

    People coming from the east going to Gatineau would not have to go through downtown so it might make the trip shorter for them. I would expect STO would set up connections to their Rapibus network on either end (near each bridge) to allow people to quick crossing.

Comments are closed.