Downtown Bypass Tunnel - History

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This page was created in response to the screening out during the 2007-2013 Interprovincial Crossings Study of the option of a downtown tunnel connecting the Macdonald-Cartier bridge to Highway 417.

Following the abrupt termination of the 2007-2013 Study the City of Ottawa with co-funding from the Ontario Government conducted a technical feasibility study for a downtown tunnel. This Study concluded in 2016 with a conclusion that such a tunnel was feasible.

Details of the 2016 Tunnel Feasibility Study.

The rationale for a downtown tunnel

A downtown bypass tunnel from the existing Macdonald-Cartier bridge to the 417 possibly via Nicholas street was raised by members of the public during Phase 1 of the 2007-2013 NCC-led Inter-provincial Crossings Study. It was suggested this tunnel could be one lane in each direction and ideally would be open to both trucks and cars.

The reasoning that lies behind a downtown bypass tunnel idea is based on the following assumptions:

  1. There are two key problems to be solved for inter-provincial travel

    • the problem of 2500 heavy trucks per day along Waller, Rideau, and King Edward streets (and a further 900 trucks per day on Preston St)

    • projected growth in interprovincial automobile traffic

  2. There are limited options to solving the truck problem whereas the peak commuting problem can be addressed in numerous ways (most notably a plan for meaningful interprovincial transit integration).

  3. Therefore the primary road project focus inter-provincially should be on solving the truck problem

  4. The most effective solution to the truck problem is not the same as the most effective solution for the peak auto congestion problem

    • the proposed east end bridges do not provide an adequate solution simultaneously to both problems particularly because they face significant challenges in diverting the majority of inter-provincial trucks from the downtown and even those trucks which are diverted are routed into other communities in the eastern parts of the region (on both the Gatineau and Ottawa side) thus just spreading the problem around.

  5. The proposed east end bridges are focused on solving the peak auto congestion over the downtown truck problem

    • ie. the primary outcome of these bridges is solving the inter-provincial peak commuting issues while only inadequately addressing the truck problems

    • meanwhile other options could be used to address the peak congestion problem (transit, employment distribution, transportation demand management (TDM), etc

  6. A downtown Ottawa bypass tunnel from the existing Macdonald-Cartier bridge under Lowertown/Sandy Hill to the 417 is the best solution for the truck problem

    • while still also providing a potential for some improvements to peak commuting volumes (by enabling better use of the Macdonald-Cartier bridge which is underutilized today) and significant improvements to travel times for cars both at peak as well as all-day long. Such a bypass tunnel would also remove up to 20,000 cars per day that currently use King Edward, Rideau, St. Patrick, Vanier Parkway to get to/from the 417 from the Macdonald-Cartier bridge.

Consultant's 2008 memo screening out downtown bypass tunnel alternative

During Phase 1, the Study Team issued a memo in March 2008 giving a brief overview of potential downtown tunnel options and an explanation of why these options would not receive further consideration. There are numerous issues with this document and the consultation process left no opportunity for the public to question the consultant's conclusions.

We edited a version of this memo with comments highlighting some of its flaws and weaknesses. One of the most glaring of these is that it did not even consider a tunnel link to Nicholas street as one of the potential options.

Subsequently a revised version of the memo was issued in Aug 2008 which did comment on the option of a tunnel connecting to Nicholas Street. We have also created an annotated version of this memo commenting on the shortcomings in its analysis. This can be read in this Aug 2008 version of the Phase 1 tunnel screening memo. It should be apparent from reading this document that little thought or effort was put into it.

For reference, the earlier (Mar 2008) version of this tunnel screening memo and our annotations to it can be viewed here: The Phase 1 consultant tunnel screening memo.

Past (failed) efforts to address downtown truck problem

The current congestion levels downtown from trucks and cars were created as a result of the construction of the 6 lane Macdonald-Cartier bridge in 1965. Today it would seem like poor planning to construct a 6-lane bridge so close to residential neighborhoods. King Edward Ave was a beautiful tree lined boulevard at that time. The resulting degradation of the surrounding area is widely understood. The plan in the 1960's was to continue the route from this 6-lane bridge southward by building an expressway along the King Edward corridor to what was to become the 417. This expressway fortunately was never built yet as a side effect the surrounding area has has not been immune from a long gradual period of decay.

The next alternative then became what is known today as the Vanier Parkway and the Official Plan at the time called for an extension from the southern end of the Macdonald-Cartier bridge to the Vanier Parkway at Beechwood. However around the year 2000 the communities in that area lobbied successfully to have this 'connection' removed from the Official Plan. The Rideau St BIA and Lowertown Community Asociation then formed an appeal to the OMB to have this roadway connection put back into the Official Plan however the OMB ruled that that this 'Vanier Parkway Extension' must continue to be removed from the Ottawa Official Plan. In that same ruling the OMB judge declared that an eastern bridge should be built and the truck route designation to be removed from King Edward once such a bridge existed. The OMB decision also rule that the Kettle Is. corridor should be put back into the Official Plan as a potential corridor for a future east end bridge.

This eventually led to the (2007-2013) NCC study which once again encountered significant opposition primarily because of the problem of thousands of inter-provincial heavy trucks per day and the difficulties in finding an acceptable solution to this problem. No one wants the problem of King Edward Avenue imported into their community. Finally in June 2013 once the NCC Study named the Kettle Island Corridor as the recommended location for a new bridge the Ontario government withdrew their support and all further progress towards a new interprovincial bridge stopped

It is time for the NCC and the planners in the National Capital Region to make a realistic assessment of the number of failed attempts to remedy the problem and to focus on providing what communities deem to be an acceptable solution to this truck problem. It is time for the Ontario Ministry of Transport (MTO) and the federal government to display more leadership in solving the problem that was created when the Macdonald-Cartier bridge was constructed and to fulfill their mandate to provide a link between the Hwy 417 and Hwy 5/50 expressways, one that does not require building even more high volume arterial roads through existing residential communities.

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Potential 417 access tunnel description

The following map will help in visualizing approximately where a downtown bypass tunnel could be routed. There are different possible routes that could be taken...under existing streets such as King Edward, Cumberland, or Dalhousie streets to the Nicholas 417 interchange, or bored 'cross-country' along several different possible routings to the Vanier Parkway 417 interchange. The map below is taken from the 2016 Tunnel Feasibility Study and illustrates the different tunnel routings that were considered at that time. The 2016 Study concluded that although tunnel routes to the Nicholas 417 interchange would be shorter that the geotechnical conditions were more challenging there. The study recommended instead a tunnel routing connecting to the 417 at the Vanier Parkway interchange and of several potential routes recommended an approximate routing as depicted in red colour below.

Tunnels Survey

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Tunnel benefits vs bridge options

The reasons why this type of downtown bypass tunnel is an attractive alternative to the three east end bridge corridors that have been considered can be summarized as follows:

  1. removes all of the inter-provincial 'through' trucks from Waller, Rideau, and King Edward streets

    • eliminates 10 traffic lights and 2 tight 90 degree turns from the truck journey

  2. accomplishes this without requiring trucks to be re-routed 20-30kms via an east end bridge

  3. accomplishes this without having to move trucks into new communities along the corridors of the proposed bridges all of which will still encounter the crossing of signalized intersections

    • The City of Gatineau passed a council resolution in 2009 saying it was considered unacceptable for the City of Ottawa to move 100% of the trucks onto Montee Paiement in Gatineau by banning all trucks from King Edward. Gatineau called on Ottawa to share the truck burden by leaving King Edward open to trucks along with the new bridge corridor

  4. increases volume of inter-provincial traffic that can cross the Macdonald-Cartier bridge

    • today there is spare capacity of about 600 cars per hour on this bridge as it is constrained not by its own capacity but by the capacity of the roads leading to/from the bridge. The proposed tunnel would alleviate this approach congestion on the Ottawa side and enable a higher volume of cars to get to/from the bridge

  5. removes up to 20,000 cars per day destined to Hwy 417

    • reduces cars on Waller, Rideau, King Edward, Dalhousie, St. Patrick, Vanier Parkway

    • eliminates 10-14 traffic lights shortening trip times by 5-10 minutes for these 20,000 daily drivers

  6. does not face the same level of community opposition as the proposed bridges

  7. traffic to/from Nicholas & 417 would be flowing counter to rush hour flows

    • ie. peak inter-provincial traffic flow on the 417 and Nicholas would be away from downtown in the morning while Ottawa peak 417 and Nicholas flows are into the downtown. (and visa versa in the afternoons)

    • in contrast east end bridges add traffic to the 417 (or 174) in the already congested direction.

  8. does not result in significant negative impacts on undeveloped natural environments on both ON and PQ sides of the Ottawa river as is the case for all of the three short-listed bridge corridors.

The NCC in the early stages of the study eliminated this tunnel from any further study or analysis on the basis that it did not result in a large enough increase in flow for cars across the Ottawa River in order to meet the levels of future projected demand.

While it is certainly true that a new bridge would enable a greater number of cars to get across the river, the NCC has not been able to articulate a solution to the problem of thousands of trucks per day travelling through residential neighborhoods. In fact, the recommendation from Phase 1 and Phase2B of the 2007-2013 bridge study was that after a new bridge was built 60% of the truck traffic would prefer to take the routing through downtown streets and 40% would be moved into new areas in the east end.

This approach of spreading the negative impacts of trucks into even more areas of the city in order to focus on reducing the congestion level of peak hour auto commuters is dubious and merits some serious public discussions about public good and planning priorities. Unfortunately the NCC and the associated Study Partners showed no willingness to engage on this topic in the public consultations during the 2007-2013 Bridge studies. The NCC failed once again to undertake a robust discussion on the differing merits of a bridge vs tunnel discussion during their "Long Term Integrated Interprovincial Crossings Study" which occurred over the 2019-2021 period. Furthermore, for those public consultations to have been meaningful thorough information should have been available to the public and to decision makers regarding all available alternatives such as the tunnel option described here.

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Downtown bypass tunnel examples in other cities

In Canada we do not have much experience with tunnels and they can be perceived as highly expensive or impractical projects. However in other parts of the world tunnels are much more common. Some research will reveal in fact recent examples where road tunnels are being built to solve problems very similar to the truck problems in Ottawa-Gatineau.

In the City of Miami, trucks bound for the port travel through downtown streets. Construction was started on a tunnel in 2010 that will connect the port to the nearest expressway eliminating all trucks from the downtown. The city of Dublin Ireland also had the same issue of trucks travelling through the downtown to reach the port. Dublin finished its downtown bypass tunnel in 2006. Seattle too started in 2012 a downtown tunnel that will carry trucks to/from its port.

These as well as several other recent examples of road tunnels are summarized in the table below. The intent of providing this information here is to demonstrate that there are numerous contemporary examples where cities have taken the step of undertaking tunnels similar to the kind of tunnel being proposed here.

Tunnel Sites

Further information about these projects can be obtained at these links:

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A major new urban east end bridge: 60's style planning.

There could be a time when an additional bridge east of the downtown is needed. However, an important discussion that has not been happening is whether the current proposed solution is the right kind of bridge and whether now is the right time.

The three options the NCC carried forward were all major 4-lane divided arterials designed for highway speeds, to become major truck routes, and interconnecting (albeit clumsily) freeways on the Ontario and Quebec sides of the Ottawa river. The attempt to satisfy the diverse set of objectives with a single solution like the ones which were proposed resulted in too many compromises (poor truck solution, overly disruptive to existing communities, poor 417 to 5/50 freeway inter-connect route, highly disruptive of natural greenspace, etc).

The current alternatives had echoes of 60's style planning that prioritized automobile commuting by building major arterial roads. Because of the high volumes of cars that were planned to be added to the Aviation Parkway and Montee Paiement intersections like at Ogilvie Road, Montreal Rd, and Maloney Blvd were all planned to be changed into mini-overpass interchanges (similar to Airport Parkway over Hunt Club Road). These kinds of changes would not lead to the making cities of liveable spaces for people and would most certainly not have been encouraging of more human scale and environmentally friendly travel modes such as public transit and cycling. There is an increasing body of evidence that cities are better served by more moderate scale road projects (or even reducing roadway capacity) and focusing primarily on making cities more liveable places. The recent inter-provincial crossings project was diametrically opposed to this view.

A downtown bypass tunnel alternative puts the human element back into the planning conversation, providing the only real solution to the region's inter-provincial truck challenges while still also bringing incremental benefits to the driving public without introducing significant additional disruption to the natural environment, existing eastern communities, or facilitating further urban sprawl.

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Some tunnel challenges discussed

The idea of constructing tunnels usually leads to conversations concerning potential challenges such as cost, funding, and the transport of dangerous goods. In this next section these will be discussed in more detail.

Cost - Other City Examples

During 2002 when the City of Ottawa was considering options for the reconstruction of King Edward Ave as part of the sewer rehabilitation project several different tunnel configurations between the Macdonald-Cartier bridge and the 417 were briefly explored. At that time estimates ranging from 90m$ to 240m$ were produced (depending on tunnel configuration). These 'high cost' numbers were cited by the NCC in the first phase of the study as one of the reasons that a tunnel option should not be studied. At the end of Phase 1 the Study team recommended a bridge crossing and associated road modifications with a total cost of 400-500m$. As we approached the culmination of Phase 2B, an updated set of 2012 based cost estimates were released pegging total project costs at 1.2B$ (for corridor 5) and 1.4B$ (for corridors 6 and 7). By 2020 an updated costing by the federal government pegged the cost of a bridge at Kettle Is. at 1.8B$. These numbers do not contrast significantly from the cost of a tunnel of 1.8B$ to 2.1B$ as published in the 2016 Tunnel feasibility Study.

The potential tunnel costs are not out of line with what was estimated for the proposed bridge corridors and hence cost should not be used as a criteria for screening out this tunnel from the list of valid alternatives.

Dangerous goods

There are no national regulations prohibiting the transport of dangerous goods in tunnels. However on a case-by-case basis dangerous goods are disallowed for many tunnels. This could likely be the case for the downtown bypass tunnel proposed here as well, although perhaps dangerous goods transport in the tunnel could be reasonably accommodated at restricted hours.

A companion question that needs to be simultaneously considered is how effectively any of the proposed east end bridges would accommodate dangerous goods. All of those bridge corridors (except for the corridor to the very farthest east) also pass through already built-up residential areas. The residential and pedestrian density may not be as high as along the current downtown road corridor but nevertheless a reasonable case could be made that the proposed east end bridges do not provide a particularly good solution to the transport of dangerous goods either.

The issue of inter-provincial transport of dangerous goods remains relatively unsolved in the National Capital Region regardless of whether a downtown bypass tunnel or an east end bridge is built.

One option that a downtown bypass tunnel could enable would be the possibility of closing the tunnel to all traffic between midnight and 4AM and requiring that trucks carrying dangerous goods use the tunnel at that time.

It should also be noted that at the Detroit-Windsor crossing dangerous goods are prohibited from both the bridges and the tunnels. In fact in this corridor all dangerous goods transport must be done by ferry. Should this be the right answer to this problem in Ottawa-Gatineau as well?

This OECD_Survey provides more information about the regulation of the transport of dangerous goods in tunnels internationally (including a summary of the rules in Canada).

The best source of information available on the transport of inter-provincial dangerous goods in this region comes from the inter-provincial roadside trucking survey from the year 2000. In that survey it was determined that 145 out of 3570 trucks (4.1%) were carrying petroleum/chemical products. The vast majority of these are tankers delivering gasoline supplies to gas stations. This is a fairly common and unavoidable form of dangerous goods transport within cities. A detailed view of the types of commodities travelling across the inter-provincial boundary is available in this chart.

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The funding of an inter-provincial bridge typically would have been the responsibility of the federal government. In addition, the proposed bridge corridors also incorporated significant road work on both the Ontario and Quebec side of the river and it was unclear what arrangements had been entered into between the federal government and the provinces with respect to the sharing of the overall total cost (1.8B$ - 2020 estimate) of the project. It was also the expectation of the municipal governments in Gatineau and Ottawa that they would not contribute to construction expenses for the project.

With an Ottawa downtown bypass tunnel alternative there is technically speaking no longer an inter-provincial crossing component and different funding arrangements would be likely needed. Since the City of Ottawa had not budgeted any funds for the construction of an east end bridge in its long range infrastructure planning, it is likely the case that the City would not have sufficient resources to finance a bridge alternative such as a downtown bypass tunnel.

This clearly represents a challenge to the funding of a tunnel alternative. If we take for example the Miami downtown truck tunnel the authorities there worked constructively to put together a viable financial plan that involved all three levels of government together with an external partner in a public-private partnership.

It could be argued that the Ontario government should take the lead in financing the construction of this tunnel since it should be seen as the completion (finally after waiting since 1965) of an adequate connection between the Quebec expressway system (Hwy 5/50) and that of Ontario (Hwy 417). The lack of such a connection has resulted in significant deterioration of Ottawa's downtown. The Ministry of Transport of Ontario (MTO) should play a leading role in providing a solution to this problem.

It could also be argued that the beautification of the capital via the elimination of thousands of inter-provincial trucks per day from the urban core also falls to some extent within the mandate of the NCC and the federal government. The NCC in fact contributes to the compounding of the current downtown truck problem since it prohibits the passage of trucks on the Parkways leading to the Champlain bridge thus funneling even more trucks through Ottawa's downtown. A downtown tunnel will also bring the benefits of reducing the delay by 5-10 minutes for 2600 interprovincial truck trips per day (almost 1 million per year) This falls within the mandate of the federal government for facilitating more interprovincial trade.

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What about auto congestion?

One of the main purposes quoted for the inter-provincial crossings project was to provide additional capacity to meet the projected increases in the number of interprovincial car trips over the next 20 to 50 years. In fact, this need originally was deemed critical enough to discount this downtown bypass tunnel alternative from further analysis even though the tunnel clearly delivers a vastly superior solution to the truck problem than any potential bridge while also providing immediate benefit to drivers as well.

The tunnel would both contribute towards an increased peak inter-provincial auto volume capacity (since the Macdonald-Cartier bridge is currently under-utilized due to congestion on the access roads) as well as improved auto travel times (by eliminating 10-14 traffic lights from the 20,000 or so trips per day to/from the 417). Unfortunately the NCC led Study team never tried to quantify these benefits, combine them with the truck solution benefits and then compare the total net benefit alongside the bridge options that were being considered.

Presumably, the Study Team considered these additional benefits a tunnel would provide for auto travel as insufficient. This is because the projected increases in peak period auto demand exceed the additional capacity a tunnel would extend to autos. Several things need to be said here.

Firstly numerous alternatives to dealing with increased peak period auto demand are available. These include more ambitious goals for transit, more efforts to encourage car-pooling and cycling, changes to employment and land use patterns, etc. The increasing acceptability of work-from-home ushered in as a by product of the Covid-19 pandemic is an example example of this. However, there are no such other alternatives available for reducing the movement of heavy trucks through residential areas. This is one more reason why a solution to this ongoing truck problem needs to be given a higher priority.

Secondly, predicting future peak auto demand is a difficult challenge and predictions often need to be revised(usually downward). Click on the following link if you would like to know more about the challenges to the auto demand projections. These challenges should give planners yet another reason to pause and contemplate whether the most important issue to be solved by any new proposed project is peak period auto travel or inter-provincial through-truck travel.

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