NCC Blunders

Champlain Bridge

Champlain Bridge: NCC's abysmal political skills

The Ottawa Citizen -- Final
City September 5, 1996

NCC's abysmal political skills cripple sensible bridge plan
Randal Denley

It's too bad that the National Capital Commission has managed to make the widening of the Champlain Bridge into a major controversy, because it's nothing more than a partial solution to a modest problem.

Even a casual observer of community affairs will know that it requires some salesmanship to convince the public of the merits of anything that might mean more cars.

Unfortunately, salesmanship is not the NCC's strong suit. Chairman Marcel Beaudry runs the commission as if it were the Vatican, the principal difference being that the Pope acknowledges a higher authority.

The NCC's arrogant style has diverted attention away from the substance of the issue. The problem, if it is one, is that the roads on the Ontario side can't handle the volume of traffic that crosses the Champlain now.

It's an inconvenience, but we can assume that people in Aylmer knew about the bridge before they chose to work in Ontario and live in Quebec, benefiting from inexpensive housing and low municipal taxes. The trade-off is the length of time it takes to commute, which is not dissimilar from what people in Ottawa-Carleton face.

The NCC's proposed solution to this little problem has created an hysteria in Ottawa that seems out of proportion with reality. People suspect the wider bridge will mean new roads. Not likely. Ottawa-Carleton politicians won't widen the residential streets that flow from the bridge. There isn't a vote to be gained spending regional tax dollars to improve the lives of Aylmer commuters. The NCC can make its bridge six lanes wide and reserve one for unicycles if it wants, it won't force Ottawa to speed up traffic at the narrow end.

Realizing the Ontario opposition, the NCC has chosen to make the bridge moderately more functional while conducting necessary repairs. The Champlain as it now exists can't carry buses and there is no room for cyclists.

The NCC's new bridge should help encourage public transit by providing a bus-only lane. There is also provision for high-occupancy vehicles, although they've never caught on here.

Commuters going home to Aylmer will benefit from the wider bridge and improved access roads on the Quebec side. The morning commute will be aided moderately by a widening of the ramp on the Ottawa River Parkway and a new road to Tunney's Pasture on NCC land.

It takes the corporate talents of the NCC to fumble the presentation of what appears a sensible plan.

Start with a chairman, Marcel Beaudry, who makes a hobby of real estate speculation. That eliminates him as a spokesman for his organization because he has a perceived conflict of interest due to his land holdings in the Outaouais.

The only commissioner with a local profile is former Ottawa councillor Joan O'Neill, and she's against the widening. Most of the commissioners who support the widening are out of town non-entities. Who cares what someone from Inuvik thinks about a bridge in Ottawa?

The NCC's penchant for secrecy and closed-door meetings deprives the commission of a forum to present its case. We are left to rely on the interpretations of various interested groups and the responses of NCC public relations people.

It's too bad that the NCC has fumbled the bridge issue so badly because it's one of the few areas where the commission still has a useful role. The NCC is a relic from the time when the federal government had to exercise paternal control over the capital's development because the rustic yokels running the hamlet couldn't be trusted to see the big picture.

We're quite capable of looking after our own affairs now, but bridges remain a challenge, requiring a degree of interprovincial co-operation greater than we can muster. The role of the NCC is to step in and balance the interests on both ends of the bridge. The NCC's three-lane plan occupies the middle ground between the bridge as two-lane bottleneck and a four-lane bridge, which is really what's required to move cars effectively.

Had the NCC the corporate skills of the average township council, it would have convinced people long ago that it has a reasonable plan. It takes a degree of trust to accept the NCC's assurance that the three-lane bridge isn't a sneaky way to increase future demand for road widening. It would be fair to say that local trust in the NCC is low.

How long will it take for the NCC to figure out that, through its secrecy and apparent disregard for local opinion, it has become its own worst enemy?

Copyright The Ottawa Citizen 1996 All Rights Reserved.