A summarized version of the text below, can be found on the Executive Summary page.
The Ottawa downtown truck problem has been an issue for decades and the subject of many previous solution attempts. Heavy trucks are allowed on only two of the five bridges that cross the Ottawa River, and a large majority use the Macdonald- Cartier Bridge. On the Quebec side, the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge links directly to the Highway 5 and 50 expressways. In contrast, the route between Ontario Highway 417 and the bridge follows King Edward, Rideau, Waller and Nicholas streets (referred to as the KERWN corridor). The KERWN corridor traverses both residential and commercial districts and requires a tight right and then a left turn through two heavily pedestrianized intersections. Serious and fatal accidents involving large truck traffic have occurred along this corridor.
In the early 1990s a detailed engineering study (referred to as JACPAT) was conducted by the NCC and the Ottawa-Carleton regional government of the time (i.e. prior to Ottawa’s amalgamation in 2001). The study concluded that a new bridge would be needed by 2010 and that the best location would be at Kettle Island, connecting the Aviation Parkway on the Ontario side with Montée Paiement on the Québec side.
In the time leading up to amalgamation, east-end communities and their elected representatives successfully convinced the City of Ottawa as part of an Official Plan update to remove this bridge/corridor from the Plan as well as to remove a planned roadway connection to the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge that would extend the Vanier Parkway from Beechwood Ave over the Rideau River through Bordeleau Park.
This change was appealed to the OMB by a number of individuals in Lowertown and the Rideau St. BIA. They were unsuccessful in having the Vanier Parkway Extension added back into the Official Plan; however the OMB ruled that the Official Plan should reserve the Aviation Parkway/Kettle Island/Montée Paiement corridor for a future new interprovincial bridge and that this should become a new truck route.
7 years later, in 2007 the NCC, together with the Province of Ontario and the Province of Quebec (the funding partners), launched a comprehensive study to determine where a new interprovincial bridge should be built.
In 2009 it concluded the best location was Aviation Parkway/Kettle Island/Montée Paiement. This conclusion was vigourously opposed by east-end community groups and under pressure from the Ontario government, and with the support of the Quebec government, the study was repeated again with more opportunity for public consultation, particularly to assess potential community impacts.
In 2013 the conclusion was once again that a new bridge should be built at Aviation Parkway/Kettle Island/Montée Paiement. The Province of Ontario, again under pressure from east-end communities withdrew from further participation in the study (i.e. to proceed to a detailed Environmental Assessment for a bridge at this location).
Shortly after this, the Province of Quebec also withdrew its participation citing the withdrawal of Ontario, and finally the NCC ended the effort.
In summer 2013, the City of Ottawa and the Province of Ontario agreed to co-fund a $750,000 engineering feasibility study for a downtown tunnel to connect Highway 417 to the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge.
In August 2016 the Study results were released. This Study examined several possible routes for a 417 to Macdonald-Cartier bridge tunnel and concluded that a tunnel was technically feasible. The recommended route for a tunnel would locate its southern portal near the Vanier Parkway at Coventry Rd and continue under the Rideau River, East Sandy Hill, East Lowertown with the northern portal at the southern end of the Macdonald-Cartier bridge.
The proposed tunnel would be 3.4km long, would in fact be 2 separate tunnels (one for each direction of travel), with 2 lanes in each tunnel. The cost was estimated at between 1.7B$ and 2.0B$ (2015$). It was estimated that if the tunnel existed in 2016 that it would carry approximately 1700 trucks and 20,000-25,000 cars per day. During the peak afternoon period the car traffic would approach 1400 vehicles per hour and a forecast was made that this would increase to 2500 vehicles per hour by 2031. Unfortunately the Study did not provide any forecast for how much additional truck traffic the tunnel would carry by 2031.
Ottawa City Council on Sep 14, 2016 voted 21-2 to set aside 2.5m$ in the 2017 budget for a detailed environmental assessment (EA) for this tunnel and commissioned the Mayor to approach the provincial and federal governments to also contribute to the funding of the EA on a 1/3 basis.
The Province of Ontario subsequently agreed to contribute 2.5m$ to also participate in an EA study however support from the federal government was never obtained.
By 2020 the City of Ottawa returned the 2.5m$ set aside in it's capital budget for a Tunnel Environmental Assessment
In 2019 the NCC received funding to conduct another study called the Long Term Integrated Interprovincial Crossings Study (LTIICS). This study had a broader mandate than previous studies and also considered transit solutions to the region's interprovincial transportation needs. The time horizon for this Study was to 2050.
In Jan 2021 the final report of this Study was presented to the NCC board of directors. This study considered transit, bridge, and downtown tunnel approaches to interprovincial transportation needs. The final recommendations included that a transit crossing west of the downtown was needed ASAP as well as a new bridge somewhere east of the downtown.
The LTIICS study declined to comment on when a new bridge would be required citing the considerable uncertainty in travel patterns resulting from the COVID pandemic. The study recommended that new studies of interprovincial car and truck traffic first be undertaken before any further recommendations could be made. The study confirmed the conclusions of the 2007-2013 Bridge Study that even with a new east end bridge the majority of trucks would continue to prefer the existing downtown route and other measures would be required to force trucks onto any new bridge.
The LTIICS study also considered the proposed downtown tunnel alternative claiming that 33% of trucks would use such a tunnel by the 2050 timeframe. This was in contrast to the 2016 tunnel study which projected that 65% of trucks would use a tunnel (the remaining trucks being ones that were making stops in the downtown before crossing the Ottawa River). The LTIICS study made no effort to explain this wide discrepancy in its results and the NCC refused to provide the public copies of the technical analyses.
The Interprovincial Truck Problem Today
Daily interprovincial truck totals are currently about 2600 trucks/day on the Macdonald-Cartier bridge with about 2300 of these moving along the KERWN portion of the corridor (King Edward, Rideau, Waller, Nicholas streets).
Some of these 2300 make local stops in the downtown. The 2016 Tunnel Feasibility Study estimated that of the total 2600 trucks/day, 1700 move directly through the downtown without stopping as the connect to the 417. (A further 900 trucks per day use the Chaudière bridge).
About 2/3 of the 2600 trucks per day are large tractor trailers.
The peak period for trucks is mid-morning and mid-afternoon (to avoid the rush hour) and reaches about 200 trucks per hour, which translates to a truck going by every 20 seconds (with the majority of these being tractor trailers).
About 5% of the trucks are classified as carrying "dangerous goods" and most of those are gasoline tanker trucks which are common on arterial roads throughout the city as they service local gas stations.
Origin-destination surveys for these interprovincial trucks have been performed and it has been determined that on average 1500 (40%) of the daily interprovincial truck trips are 35kms or less in length, 2300 (63%) are 100kms or less in length and 1400 (37%) are longer than 100km.
93% of the truck trips either start, or end, or both start and end, within the National Capital Region and only 6% of the trips start and end outside of the NCR (i.e. are just transiting through).
2007-2013 Bridge Study Results: other technical details emerging from the studies
A new bridge at Aviation Parkway/Kettle Island/Montée Paiement would become a preferential truck route for about 40% of today's truck traffic. For the remaining 60%, the existing Macdonald-Cartier and Chaudière bridges would still be a preferred route.
With the projected population growth and growth of the economy to 2031, it was forecasted that, even if 40% of the trucks were diverted to the new bridge, the number of trucks for which KERWN (King Edward, Rideau, Waller, Nicholas) was the preferred route would rise to about the same number of trucks as are present today.
Questions were raised as to whether the City of Ottawa would be able to prevent trucks from using the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge and KERWN corridor (i.e. force the trucks to use the new bridge). A conclusive answer was never given. Therefore, there was a degree of ambiguity as to whether the existence of a new bridge would lead to the removal of the majority of trucks from downtown Ottawa.
In Jan. 2009, (the City of Gatineau passed a resolution that called on the City of Ottawa NOT to force trucks off KERWN (i.e. not to restrict trucks from using the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge) and to leave both the new bridge and the current one open to trucks. The reason was that the City of Gatineau was opposed to forcing 100% of the truck traffic onto Montée Paiement, which is flanked by a mix of commercial/retail/residential development. Gatineau did not consider it acceptable for Ottawa with the stroke of a pen to impose the truck problem 100% onto City of Gatineau roads via a new bridge. In their view the only reasonable path forward was to leave both the new bridge and the current downtown route open to trucks. This issue of whether it would be acceptable for Ottawa to off load 100% of the inter-provincial truck problem onto Montee Paiement in Gatineau was never discussed during the 2007-2013 Bridge Study
In addition to the truck traffic, there are currently 70,000 cars per day using the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge and about 30% of those (~20,000 cars per day) travel directly between Quebec and Highway417 (i.e. they are only transiting through downtown Ottawa).
The 2007-2013 studies also looked at the impact to transit ridership of building a new bridge in the east end and concluded it would have a negative impact on public transit ridership.
Downtown Tunnel Solution - What is it?
A connection between Highway 417 and the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge under downtown Ottawa. It would not be a new link under the Ottawa River.
It would carry only traffic travelling directly between Highway 417 and the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge (i.e. no connections on/off of the KERWN corridor).
Primarily intended to carry trucks but the ability to also carry car traffic could take approximately 20,000 car trips per day out of downtown Ottawa streets.
Was the subject of a $750,000 feasibility study from 2014-2016. (50/50 co-funded by City of Ottawa and Province of Ontario). The Study results were first made public in Aug 2016
Several different possible routes were studied and the preferred technically feasible route was recommended to run from the Vanier Parkway near Coventry Rd to just south of Macdonald-Cartier Bridge (3.4km). Estimated cost would be in the range of 1.7B$ to 2.0B$ (2015$)
On Sep 14, 2016 Ottawa City Council voted 21-2 to seek funding from the Provincial and Federal Gov'ts on a 1/3 basis each to proceed to a detailed environmental assessment (EA) for the preferred tunnel route.
The detailed EA was expected to cost 5-7m$ and take 3-4 years to complete and 1/3 contributions to it's funding was requested from the provincial and federal governments.
Although the provincial government indicated it would participate in such a study, support from the federal government was never received.
Similar Tunnels in other Cities
Miami and Dublin are two cities with very similar situations to Ottawa. In those cities downtown streets had been major truck routes toward the city seaports. Both of these cities built tunnels to solve this problem (Dublin in the mid 1990s and Miami in 2013).
The Miami tunnel was a collaborative project which received funding from the City, County, and State, as well as loan assistance from the Federal government. It was constructed via a public-private partnership in which the construction consortium also provided some of the capital for the project and will be responsible for ongoing operations and maintenance. This is very similar to the financial arrangements for Ottawa's LRT project.
In Windsor the main truck route to the USA follows major urban arterial roads to reach the Ambassador Bridge. The Ontario Government spent $1.5B to construct a new freeway (Hon Herb Gray Parkway) to bypass these roads which includes 11 tunneled sections (to minimize the impact of the new freeway on the city). This project was completed in 2014. The Federal Government is now building a new bridge to Detroit from the endpoint of this new Ontario highway with completion expected by 2024.
In Quebec City a 9km tunnel has been proposed connecting major freeways under the St. Lawrence River tunneling under lengthy sections of the downtown. The proposed 6 lane tunnel will also provide reserved transit lanes and has a preliminary cost estimate of 6.5B$. The project has received a commitment of support from the provincial government and discussions are ongoing for federal government support. A final plan for the project is anticipated in 2025.
Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Brisbane, Auckland, Oakland, and other cities have all recently completed, or are in the process of constructing, tunnels for cars/trucks under their downtowns.
Most recent tunnels have been constructed on-time and on-budget. The Boston "big dig" is a standout exception. Ottawa's LRT tunnel, currently under construction, is mostly completed and is on-time and on-budget thus far.
Tunnel Solution - Pros/Cons
Solves the problem, once and for all: All through interprovincial trucks are diverted from the KERWN corridor. Also provides the potential opportunity to divert as many as 20,000 cars from the KERWN corridor and the Vanier Parkway. The reduction in traffic could then make it possible to reduce the traffic lanes and widen sidewalks, add bike lanes, etc for both King Edward Ave and the Vanier Parkway.
Avoids opposition: No trucks are shifted to communities elsewhere in Ottawa or Gatineau. Avoids the highly contentious process of forcing a new bridge and corridor leading to significantly increased numbers of cars and trucks in other neighbourhoods.
Does not encourage more urban sprawl and does not add new interprovincial capacity across the river to accommodate future growth in car traffic (and associated carbon emissions) as was proposed with a new east end bridge. This may be considered either a pro or a con, depending on one's perspective.
Cost: A tunnel will be an expensive project. It should be noted for context however that the estimated cost of the Kettle Island interprovincial bridge and associated approaches, as contemplated in 2013, was over $1.2B (2012$, updated to 1.8B$ in a 2019 review). This cost included major road works on both sides of a bridge (widening portions of Aviation Parkway, overpasses of Ogilvie Rd., Montreal Rd. and Maloney Blvd., new interchanges with highways 417 and 50, as well as modifications to Montée Paiement).
May not be able to accommodate trucks with dangerous goods, which represent potentially about 5% of the total truck volume. Currently there are no federal legal restrictions which prevent trucks carrying dangerous goods from using tunnels; however it is common policy not to allow dangerous goods in many tunnels.
Only minor reductions of pollution compared to the status quo (i.e. some reduction due to less idling traffic on surface streets). It should be noted though that a tunnel would require a ventilation system and this does provide the possibility to add pollution control equipment to significantly reduce pollution from particulate matter in the downtown area. It would not lead to any meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Other Potential Alternatives: Logistics Based Solutions
Logistics based solutions is a term that encapsulates a broad set of measures, all involving changes in the goods transport industry that could reduce the number of interprovincial truck trips. These could be enacted via legislation banning trucks, or certain sizes of trucks from traversing the downtown or imposing a hefty fee for all truck trips through the downtown. Either or both of these actions could result in the industry evolving to make fewer trips (by combining them together in loads, or even moving them in other modes of transport such as rail or ferry across the river), or even relocating business operations so that fewer interprovincial truck trips would be required.
Lower Public Cost: No public funds would be spent on a project such as a bridge or tunnel. It should be noted, however, that both the provincial and federal governments have committed to investing considerable sums in public infrastructure projects, including roads, in the next 10-15 years. If those funds are not spent in Ottawa, they will likely be spent on roads elsewhere.
Partial Solution: What might be the most optimistic outcome of this approach? Suppose the number of truck trips were reduced by 50%. 50% of today's truck volume would still leave 1500 truck trips per day on downtown Ottawa streets.
Time: Any changes involving this approach would take a long time for the industry to implement/adjust to.
Costs: Higher costs would be imposed on businesses, which would likely eventually have an impact on the cost of goods and/or potential economic activity in the region.
Difficulty: How easy will it be for governments to enact legislation/regulations that force changes to how businesses operate? Which level of government has the authority to enact such regulations, given that the issue involves two municipalities, two provinces and the federal government?
Does not remove car trips: In addition to the 2500-3000 truck trips/day, there are about 20,000 car trips per day that use the KERWN corridor to connect directly between Highway 417 and the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge. Logistics based solutions will not impact levels of car traffic through the downtown.
Elected Representatives/Public Institutions
During the 2007-2013 Interprovincial Bridge Study Period, the City of Ottawa was committed to completing the study and, while contentious, the City supported the final recommendation for a new bridge located at Kettle Island/Aviation Parkway.
The NCC led the 2007-2013 Bridge Study and would not consider any other options to solving the downtown interprovincial truck problem other than an additional bridge.
Some provincial and federal politicians on the Ottawa side supported the bridge study but withdrew their support when the recommended location was Aviation Parkway/Kettle Island. After rejecting the outcome of the bridge study, these politicians supported a feasibility study for the alternative of a downtown truck tunnel.
Mayor Jim Watson stated that he does not support a new bridge at Aviation Parkway/Kettle Island and that moving the downtown truck problem to another community is not an acceptable solution. The mayor made statements to the effect that solving the truck problem should involve a fresh approach and supported the initiative to study the feasibility of a downtown tunnel.
Gatineau City council did support the recommendation for a new bridge at Kettle Island (Montée Paiement on the Quebec side) but it passed a resolution saying it was unacceptable to route all of the interprovincial trucks onto the new bridge and called on the City of Ottawa to leave the KERWN corridor open to continue carrying trucks.
On the Quebec side, during the 2015 federal election campaign, the successful candidate in the Gatineau riding said that a new bridge across the river was the top infrastructure priority for east Gatineau. The candidates on the Ontario side all supported a tunnel as a possible option.
The Lowertown Community Association (LCA) has had a long history of advocating for a solution to the truck problem and was a strong supporter of the 2007-2013 bridge study. They had no position on which was the preferred corridor for the bridge and limited their involvement to highlighting the impact of the current truck problem in their community, stating that a bridge should be built as soon as possible.
Action Sandy Hill's position was similar to LCA's with the added nuance that the study should also include a more detailed analysis of the alternative of a downtown tunnel because it had the potential to provide a more complete/effective solution to the truck issues and because it could potentially face less opposition.
A wide array of east-end community groups were all strongly united in opposing a bridge in their areas. Orléans, Blackburn Hamlet and Beacon Hill based groups opposed any potential bridge corridors through the Greenbelt while groups in Manor Park, Rockcliffe Park, Linden Lea and surrounding areas opposed any potential bridge corridors along the Aviation Parkway.
Recreational users of the Ottawa River were strongly opposed to a bridge.
Gatineau residents were split on the issue but on the whole they did not engage at as active a level as Ottawa residents in the 2007-2013 studies.