The devil rides Watson’s new LRT route

Warning: long post. Go pee or get your coffee before you start reading.

After so much huffing and puffing, the City has detailed its final LRT route and station locations, and their costs, to Council and the Public.

The most noteworthy change has been to move the tunnel from the “cross country” deep alignment under Albert Street, then Queen Street … to one that traverses the downtown always under Queen.

I have read the available material from the City justifying the move. It is a very political document, light on the technical stuff. It’s way more PR oriented than the previous reports.

Getting the stations “shallower” is obviously a significant and good achievement. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. This change of course for the downtown OLRT will be great fodder for a MA or PhD thesis in a few years. The student will have to be good at spotting missing information and changes in what’s considered good, between the original tunnel routes and the new one.

For example…

1. the shallower tunnel is under Queen. Funny enough, the original reports considered numerous tunnel route options, including Queen, Sparks, and Wellington. Queen was rejected back then. Why? It was too far north.  The original studies drew “catchment area” circles around the stations, and identified the route that captured the largest market. Those circles are conspicuously absent from this revised route and report. Is that because they capture lots of area inhabited only by feral cats and fish in the Ottawa River? How much of the rapidly developing condo belt south of the office building core, and centretown itself, is now further away from the stations, and thus less likely to find them convenient and useful?

I would like to see the catchment circles of the old route compared to the new route, just to be sure that we aren’t getting a cheaper route at the price of a less useful route. (And yes, I would like both sets of circles to either include or exclude the descent time, for consistency).

2. One of the oft-cited advantages of the deep tunnel was that the station accesses could come up to the surface in a sort of stepwise procession, arriving a block or two away from the end of platform. Thus while there were two downtown stations, and four entrances, the entrances could be blocks apart rather than 120-150m apart. For many users, this would put the apparent proximity of a station closer to their place of residence or employment.

This is not as likely for a shallow tunnel. The advantage is now that entrances will come up short, vertical rises. But this is at the price of users having to walk further on the surface to get to the entrances that will be barely 150m apart, in the same block, and on the same side of the street, in the case of the downtown east station.

For the downtown west station, the document shows the station under Queen at Lyon as having one entrance on the sidewalk by the front entrance to Towers A and B of Place de Ville (in front of the Ticketmaster Office windows) and the other would have been just meters west at the Crowne Plaza (now Delta Downtown) parking ramp. Hmm. How useful is that?

To avoid this, they have instead called for a one-block-long underground tunnel running horizontally south four stories down under Lyon, to emerge at … the “old-route” station location at the corner of Albert/Lyon, opposite the Baton Rouge. This is apparently selected to service the proposed development of the block currently occupied, in part, by the CS CoOp building. Note that they bypassed the half-empty block occupied by Barbarella’s Strip Club and adjacent parking lots (now there’s a sponsorship opportunity …). When I asked the consultants why they weren’t tieing this in to the proposed Claridge development for the Queen/Lyon/Albert block (3 tall towers of 27?, 25?, and 20? floors, but the exact numbers keep changing…) they were totally unaware that there were any development proposals for the site at all. Oh oh. My faith is shaken.

The location of a station entrance west of Lyon, and the increased emphasis in the report on Transit Oriented Development, particularly places of employment, makes me wonder how much longer the long-standing divide of offices-east-of-Lyon and residental-west-of-Lyon will remain in place. The Anglican Cathedral and St Peters will certainly rejoice and check the collection plate carefully when the office zone expands west.

3. Much is made in the new report of better connections to the “underground city”. Except … the previous reports indicated that a city the size of Ottawa cannot support two different active pedestrian environments. Other mid-size cities that have tried a Plus-16 pedestrian network (eg Minneapolis) or underground pathways, have found that both the grade separated and sidewalks died, much the way the Esplanade Laurier internal mall killed surrounding public sidewalks and 240 Sparks helped to  create a deader Sparks Street Mall. And the pinnacle of Place de Ville’s street level (above the fabled underground city) is … office space and a Tim Hortons. Before we rejoice in having an underground network of shops, we need to know if there is enough life downtown to support two circulation systems. My feeling is no, we can’t, and the current proliferation of empty storefronts, conversion of ground floor spaces to dentist offices and government office space, tells me the death of the current public sidewalk space is marching forward hand in hand with the dominance of the downtown by civil servants (the kiss of death to retail, one leasing manager explained to me).

4. Connectivity in the underground city — NOT. Place de Ville has the biggest  underground mall. It was to benefit from the previous tunnel route, and will again from the new tunnel route, by virtue of straddling both Queen and Albert Streets. However, the PdeV mall has never connected with the Delta project to its west, or the 240 Sparks to the northeast, or to Constitution Square or Minto Place to the south, even though architects and building owners in all those buildings designed connections to the PdeV underground and were willing to pay the costs. Basically, PdeV wants a monopoly on the underground connection, to capture the benefit for its tenants of superior connections to the LRT. Even on the “old plan” when Constitution Square almost had a connection to the LRT, it was several stories down, and it would have been very circuitous (and may have required a transit pass or paying a fare) to get from one building complex to the next.

The required measure, if we want a connected underground city from 240 Sparks to PdeV to Consistution Square to Minto Place and other new towers, will be for the City to require Place de Ville to permit connection (with a cost sharing formula) to adjacent properties as a condition of accessing the LRT stations. If they won’t do that, I’d go to considerable lengths to ensure PdeV isn’t connected the LRT either. Play ball or go home.

5. The flexibility bonus promised in Watson’s LRT programme — contractors could either bore a tunnel or cut and cover, their choice — reminds me of the guy who murders his parents then pleads for mercy because he is an orphan. One of the benefits of the “deep-dive tunnel” was that it could be bored and the stations excavated all from the tunnel itself (except, obviously, for the last bit when station entries punched up to street level). Thus the downtown was spared years of digging, trucks, mud, noise, and traffic chaos. All the excavation material would exit at LeBreton portal, and be trucked or railed away.

Is a cut and cover construction method something we really want? It will mean one to two blocks at a time, maybe even all the blocks, would be closed to all traffic while the contractors dug deep pits, removed the sewers, water mains, Bell lines, and telecom lines, to reach four to 9 stories deep down (remember, the east part is still wa-a-a-a-y down). All that debris gets trucked away at street level. And new, temporary water, sewer and telecom lines would be strung about. If merchants are pissed at the Laurier SBL, wait till they face three or four years of no vehicular traffic on Queen and sidewalks hemmed in by high plywood construction fences.

Is the NCC really going to allow a cut and cover operation to cut through the cliff face at the west end of Queen, beside the Juliana Apartments? Do we want that prominent western viewpoint (sadly underdeveloped right now) to eventually have a five storey concrete band-aid on its face? Is Watson planning to pick up the War Memorial plaza for a few years while someone digs a ditch? If these features are to remain in place, then tunnelling is still required. And if it isn’t a deep bore starting at LeBreton Flats, but is instead a series of mined tunnels, then a series of deep pits, access holes, similar to open pit mines, will be required to haul up and out all the spoil. And those open pit mines will be on Queen Street.

I suspect the benefit of the cut and cover operation is all cheap cost, and has nothing to do with any benefit to the downtown residents, merchants, or cubicle farmers. This report is way to silent on how cut and cover might work, and its consequences. But recall that the original route was selected, in part, because it avoided cut and cover.

6. street width in downtown Ottawa is a problem when constructing an underground system. There isn’t enough room in the public right of way to locate a station, side platforms, and access routes to the surface. The old routing located its stations where there was some vacant lots so access could be designed into new developments. The all-Queen routing follows a street that is almost all fully built out with few setbacks (exceptions include the Podium redevelopment at PdeV where the three storey former cinema building is to be replaced by another highrise office building).

Thus, the ventilation shafts for the new tunnel are shown coming up through the public sidewalks (to be artfully disguised somehow). And the station access entrances are flush with the curb line, forcing pedestrians to detour over the private properties adjacent to buildings such as the Sun Life complex. It is hard to make out some of the tiny drawings provided with the report, but I suspect that in at least one spot the on-street parking has been sacrificed to insert a subway entrance, rather akin to the down-ramps to World Exchange Plaza replaced street lanes/on street parking with an entrance to a private parking garage.

7. the Rideau Centre station is still very very deep, with convoluted access from the surface. I remain unhappy with the previous station design, and this new one. Plus this new one has unaddressed consequences, such as the steep climb for trains required to get up and out of the station when going west.  I would like some reassurance that the single deep station won’t have deleterious operating consequences and expenses. Save some bucks today, pay for it forever after Watson’s gone?

Conclusion: the Watson new route documents are very thin on detail, compared to the details in the previous route documentation, which makes comparison difficult. Much is made of the shallower tunnel, without any reference to the changes in service catchment area. Nor is there any hint that the underground connections will be extensive rather than a windfall for Place de Ville landlords. The shallow tunnel could be constructed cut-and-cover, but this has huge negative impacts on the downtown, which like a bastard child, are hidden away in the attic.

Will some student in the future be writing for degree, documenting that Watson traded the better route, the more useful route, the cleaner-t0-build route, just to be cheap?

Note to the reader: Do NOT assume that I favour the old route, and dislike the new route. There is a lot of merit in the new route. But the sales pitch for it reeks of the superficial, the happy headline, the politically attractive. I want to see the old and new routes compared, using the same criteria. And I want to see a lot more detail. This proposed train ride needs the Devil’s Advocate to buy a ticket and have a good poke around. We have to make informed decisions.

22 thoughts on “The devil rides Watson’s new LRT route

  1. Thank you for going into the details of this plan for us. I share your concerns about the lack of info provided. I’m not in favour of cut and cover for this depth. As well, the northern route really doesn’t serve the city well. I’d like to see a possible route a few blocks south. What would that look like for serving the people of Ottawa?

  2. Good Post!
    All the PR spin on the new route raised one question in my head. Apparently the old route had to be soooo deep because they had to tunnel under many deep parking garages under the towers on Albert street. What ever happened to the idea of expropriating some lower parts of these parking garages? I would imagine using existing holes in ground would be cheaper than either Cut and Cover or Tunneling…

    1. Those parking garages also hold up the buildings above them. It’s not a simple or cheap thing to fiddle with the ground and structure that holds up an entire building, especially when that building wasn’t built to be fiddled with.

      If I recall correctly the top of the tunnel under those garages was going to have to be at least two tunnel widths below the pilings the building rests on to ensure it didn’t undermine the building above.

  3. I still remember a contractor saying they could bore that tunnel in 9 months. I would dread the problems that cut and cover would create. I’m surprised that would be an option.

  4. Matthew: it would be a structural and legal problem to insert a subway through an existing parking garage. The tracks would have to run exactly parallel to the pillars rather than at a diagonal. Vibrations would be an issue. The standard pillar separation of 18′ is too close to allow two tracks together. And property owners have subterranean building rights that would have to be expropriated. The old tunnel was deeper than any likely parking garage, but still affected property rights and had to pay for that impairment. A shallower tunnel under a building (and future new building lot) would make a lot of owners uncomfy.

  5. Isn’t this only 1 block further north. My gut reaction is that this is more than compensated for by the shallower station location.

    Having entry points a block or two from a station isn’t that great a benefit. Long featureless tunnels aren’t my cup of tea, and I have no faith that OCtranspo would have anything but long featureless tunnels. A station entrance close to the physical station has the benefit that people then know where the station is physically. It is more connected to the streeetlevel. Having it 9-10 stories down where you can pop your head out in any number of locations disassociates the station from the street level mental map you have of downtown.

  6. All good points, except one of the reasons cut-and-cover was avoided previously was due to the transit disruption during construction. Of the downtown streets, Queen has the fewest buses, allowing Albert and Slater to operate more or less at Status Quo during construction.

  7. Cut & cover also permits the reconstructon of the underground utilities – you know, those things we’re replacing on Bank and that failed in Barrhaven.

    Methinks Ottawa residents like to whine a bit too much – we want transit, but no inconveniences to get it into place. We want bike lanes, but not if they impair parking.

    The “old” tunnel, with peopel walking hundreds of metres underground to get to the actual rail,. was poor design; this is better. I say this as a former user of underground systems in Montreal and Toronto.

    Next stop: O-Train to Gatineau! (I think a heightened system of inspections of interprovincial transit buses in Ottawa might be beneficial – harass the STO enough to get agreement to a train over a rail bridge)

    1. “Next stop” as in “next stop after the DOTT”? or as in “next stop, coming up before the DOTT”? Because there’s no real reason, other than the usual soup of bureaucratic inertia, lack of will and vision, and turf-protection, that an extension to Hull (and a Gladstone infil station) couldn’t be part of the O-Train enhancement package now on the table.

  8. DFG: having the tunnel one block north isn’t a huge deal for people south of the line? We know how far people are willing to walk, that’s why the transit experts draw those circles around the station. I want to know how many people are in that radius. However, it is from the north that the biggest change occurs – moving the line north one block pushes the prime catchment area to include more of the Supreme’s front lawn, the riverside bike path, some of the foamy Ottawa River, and “excludes” the offices and condos to the south. This might be a non-issue, so lets see the figures. But alas, the report to council requesting authorization for the new route excludes this data. I just gotta be suspicious.

  9. Did i read right? Are we discussing how different the project will be if they move the line ONE BLOCK north????

    I also think the distance between stations at the surface is anon questions, because you walk the same, you either do it in the sidewalk on the surface, when the entrances are close together or walk the same distance but in a tunnel under the street. What is the practical difference? I tend to think that walking in the sidewalk is somewhat better 8 months per year…

  10. I would like to see the catchment circles of the old route compared to the new route, just to be sure that we aren’t getting a cheaper route at the price of a less useful route.

    Nuts to circles!

    “Walking radiuses” are meaningless in a built-up environment. It’s not that difficult to map walking distances – which aren’t the same thing as cute circles. Such subtlety is lost on the non-walkers at City Hall.

  11. WJM & Circles: yes, of course, the compass-drawn-circle around a station is unrealistic, and a walking radius would be more useful. However, the study to date has used the “short hand” or quick and dirty version of a concentric circle. I’d just like to see the old and new stations compared using the same criteria, whichever circles they draw.
    One small advantage of the concentric circle is that it isn’t tied in to the current land use. A walk circle around a station using current land uses might be circuitous, whereas when old land uses are replaced a better more direct ped route might appear. City Hall planners are well aware that improving direct paths will be part of evaluating infills.

    As for the O-train, that is a very political question. Quebec doesn’t like foreign govt such as Ottawa extending into their territory, so running the O-train into Quebec is a no go until we offer some sort of partnership to STO, and with all their eggs going into BRT that isn’t on the agenda now. Of course, a Little Italy/Gladstone station should be built with the current O-train expansion … and I do fear just as we converted the Alexandra rail bridge to a road, and Colonel By Drive replaced rail, that the dear POWales bridge will become a bus bridge for the rest of our lives.

    1. Eric: There are many tools that can be used to “gently persuade” Gatineau to go along. My proposal to do regular inspections of all the buses crossing the river is one; increasing the number of OC Transpo buses to clog their streets is another… in short, make going along with rail the lesser evil.

      Of course, provincial support would be needed – and as we know far too well, Dalton wants nothing to do wit standing up for Ottawa.

    2. 1) In the built-up downtown, the streets and their sidewalks aren’t going anywhere. Non-circle walking calculations will be valid essentially forever.

      2) We need to play hardball with Gatineau. If they want PoW for interprovincial transit, it’ll be a train. Our terms. Not theirs. Not their buses.

      3) Quebec doesn’t mind the idea of a high-speed rail link between Montreal and New York, which is not in Quebec. Again: hardball. That, and cost-sharing on an equal footing with whatever Ottawa is offered from the senior levels of government, if the Province of Toronto is willing to kick in anything more.

  12. Where did you get the idea that you can’t fit two tunnels and a station along with its accesses in the public right of way?

    Tunnels are about 4 m diameter, so 8 m total. The RoW of Queen is about 18 m, so that’s 10 m left over for a central platform and anything else. So long as you’re prepared to come to the surface in one of the lanes (say, take out some parking), it can all be fit in the public RoW.

    1. Except, it looks as if the stations under Queen are going to have SIDE platforms. This will make it easier to construct the rail line (consistently in the center of the ROW) and add a station where ever we can connect to a building. The east-bound and west-bound platforms don’t even need to be across from each other.

      On the down-side, a side-platform station needs to provide both up and down facilities to each platforms, which will increase capital and operating costs over a central-platform station.

  13. The only problem withusing insections to harass STO is that they could use them against us: both STO and OC Transpo are federally regulated systems. That, and it’s a juvenile approach to a more complex issue.

    My only observations about the tunnel alignment are that:

    a) it’s called Bank St. It should have a station unto itself

    b) we could at least brag that unle Toronto, where it has been almost 70 years of the idea being discussed, Ottawa will likely have a Queen Street subway before them. A Stanley Cup next?

  14. Great digging Eric. I followed the big announcement with interest, as it showed most of all how well oiled and incisive the Watson political communications machine is. It was indeed a “cut and cover” sell-job, and did gloss over all the nuances that a staff-led presentation would have drilled into in with messy subterranean detail. But hey, at this point, I think I’m ready to be railroaded a bit – as long as the train arrives some time in my lifetime.

    The most serious point you raise is about the willingness to consider cut and cover vs. deep drilling. It will be interesting to see how the City will factor in surface disruption to business, pedestrians, and utilities in the proposal scoring process as opposed to just construction cost. I’ll read that as a clear signal whether Jim Watson will be hoping for a third term.

    1. On the up side, cut-and-cover means that the abyssmal, bone-rattling surface of Queen Street might get re-done some time this century. It *has* to be contributing to maintenance costs, especially on artics.

  15. There are new images and maps on the city’s light rail website, but they are all too small to read. Do you have a link or access to larger versions? I am especially interested in the ‘context’ images for Lebreton and Bayview. I also am trying to figure out where the tunnel will “end” now – will it come right out of the escarpment and run above ground to Booth?

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