STO Interprovincial Transit Proposal

City staff will be presenting a report on Ottawa-Gatineau transit crossings based on the STO tramway plans at the next city of Ottawa transportation committee, which I am a member of, on November 16, 2020. 

I first shared my initial thoughts on this plan when the City received a technical briefing on May 15, 2020. It can be found here. Following this briefing, the “STO Transit Study for Gatineau’s West End: Integration with Ottawa” was presented to the Transportation Committee on September 2, 2020. 

The tramway options proposed would see a transit connection via Gatineau into Ottawa by:

  • Building a transit tunnel under Sparks Street
  • Allowing an STO streetcar on Wellington Street

Recently, leaders in Ottawa have joined the conversation regarding transit, specifically expressing their desire to see the STO’s proposal come to life for a better transit connection through the downtown cores of Ottawa and Gatineau. They want to see a transit loop connect major city attractions like the National Art Gallery, Byward Market, and Museum of History while travelling down Wellington Street, crossing into Gatineau on the Alexandra Bridge, and returning to Ottawa over the Portage Bridge. This idea is based on an Ottawa Citizen op-ed piece from former NCC Board Member Bob Plamondon. It has since been endorsed by residents of Ottawa-Gatineau as well as three former Ottawa mayors: Jim Durrell, Jackie Holzman, and Larry O’Brien, and most recently, the current head of the NCC, Tobi Nussbaum, and regional federal members of parliament, who see this as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to shape the Capital.

So far, the STO has not included the loop into their proposed plan. Their proposed all-tram option would see a projected 70% reduction in STO buses in Ottawa’s downtown core, which works towards our goal of reducing STO buses on our city’s streets while helping both cities reduce their GHG emissions. According to the STO’s online public consultation, which took place between June 22, 2020 and July 19, 2020, the majority of participants prefer the Sparks Street tunnel option. This includes a majority who wants to see less STO buses on our city’s streets, while 64% of Ottawa respondents also prioritized the importance of maintaining motor vehicle accesses.

When considering the two major options that were presented, underground connections to Sparks Street or trams at grade along Wellington Street, we must remember the significance of our country’s capital precinct and not only make decisions based on costs. With the parliament buildings on Wellington Street, I do not think that we should entertain a plan that would give favourable access to our capital city’s gem, the parliament buildings, unless it offers our capital a specific benefit like connecting major attractions. Transit must be welcomed and celebrated by all of our city’s residents. The older members of our community often remind us of Ottawa’s historic electric streetcars and how wonderful of an experience their presence was, but the evolution of this system amplifies the fact that transit must be carefully planned, developed and coordinated with the goal of creating life-long users. According to City staff, Public Services and Procurement Canada has indicated that the Wellington option’s proposed access restrictions to the Parliamentary Precinct create security risks that would have to be mitigated. Beyond this, at least three new transit stations would need to be built at Bank Street, Lyon Street and Elgin Street. Where would these go? Why would we give the STO access to our capital city’s most desirable space?

City staff have advised that the surface street options on Wellington Street would constrict segments of Wellington Street which would not accommodate AODA approved sidewalks, cycling infrastructure and public spaces. Specifically, this option would jeopardize the current active transportation plans on Wellington.

For me, an above-ground option that does not support Ottawa’s interests raises challenges. Would City Council have permitted OC Transpo to run an on-street rail service through Ottawa’s downtown core with the current LRT? The Wellington option presented also raises concerns about the number of protests and demonstrations that take place in this area. Parliament Hill is the doorstep of our country’s democracy, where debates and discussions take place. Last year alone more than 100 demonstrations took place there. Most of these would have drawn service of the STO’s proposed on-street tram. When considering above-ground transit options on Wellington, one question that has yet to be answered is: How would protests affect above-ground transit options?

It’s also important to consider financial impacts. As an elected representative of Ottawa, I must ensure that transit dollars available at both the provincial level (in Ontario) and the federal level advance our city’s transit plans and objectives. 

STO confirmed on November 6, 2020, that the all-tram options range between $3B-$3.9B and the STO has not resolved the project funding and property requirements with the federal government. 

The loop proposal is valuable to residents of both cities as it would connect transit through the downtowns of both the city of Ottawa and Gatineau. STO efforts, including the loop, need to advance our goals of encouraging transit use and reducing vehicular congestion, reduce both city’s GHG emissions, all while benefiting our city’s industries through easy-to-use tourism and employment transportation access.

I believe that the city of Ottawa and its council have the obligation to ensure that the interest of the residents of our nation’s capital city, Ottawa, be clearly defined and presented in this decision-making.   

Many elements need to be properly factored into this plan, starting with the current COVID-19 pandemic, which has created new realities and may be contributing to a shift of Ottawa’s employment nodes. This includes major shifts to the federal public service. To seriously consider the STO’s project, we must ensure cohesion between the city of Ottawa and its federal partners. This plan must advance efforts that benefit STO riders, OC Transpo customers, and tourists visiting the capital. We need a commitment to only consider underground options through Ottawa’s Parliamentary precinct area. The underground options allow an important pedestrianization of the Parliament plaza, it safeguards the transit impacts of events and demonstrations, and above all, since we know that rail investments will be used by more than one generation, it is important to design underground access that is forward-thinking and allows for seamless system integration with the City of Ottawa investments in the LRT.

Without factoring in the loop, the City’s report on the two all-tram options favours the underground Sparks Street connection as it would bring the tramway corridor closer to the O-Train Line 1, mitigate property requirement and access issues, all while limiting other methods of transportation.

I encourage officials of both cities to continue to work on fine-tuning this solution in order to find an option that not only improves our city’s transit connections but also our image, without limiting transit integration options for residents and tourists.

You may find the full report presented at Transportation Committee here.

I also brought a motion to to transportation committee on the STO options for a tram ( underground Sparks or end of line on Wellington). This motion makes it clear that if the STO Sparks underground proposal does not proceed, that the Loop concept be preferred as a way to connect City of Ottawa and City of Gatineau’s downtowns.

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