NCC Blunders

Champlain Bridge

Champlain Bridge: Troubled waters over a bridge

The Ottawa Citizen -- Final
City Editorial March 31, 1997

Troubled waters over a bridge
Andy Rapoch

Notes Andy Rapoch is a member of Communities Before Cars.

The National Capital Commission's decision last October to widen the Champlain Bridge to potentially accommodate three lanes of traffic was a tragic decision for the whole region. It was a missed opportunity to demonstrate vision, leadership and integrity. A coalition of 14 community groups is taking the NCC to court tomorrow in an attempt to invalidate that decision.

In voting for a third lane, the commissioners also voted against considering alternative solutions, such as integrated public transit that serves both sides of the river; more incentives for car-pooling and less expensive, priority parking downtown; more incentives for bicycling and walking; and, most logically, another bridge where it is really needed, in Kanata or West Carleton.

A 1995 survey of bridge traffic conducted for the NCC found that more than half the morning traffic heads west, less than 30 per cent is going downtown, and the remainder wants to get to the Queensway to go east. A bridge farther west linking West Quebec with the high-tech industries of Kanata is an obvious response. Not only would it get people to and from work faster, it would get them to play easier: West Quebecers to the Corel Centre and West Carleton residents to the Gatineau.

Championing such a bridge is precisely the job Parliament entrusted to the NCC in its role of planning and preserving the national capital. Instead of doggedly trying to patch today's problems on the Champlain Bridge with yesterday's solution, more asphalt, the NCC should be addressing tomorrow's infrastructure needs.

The point is not that such a west-end bridge is the magic solution to West Quebec's traffic problems, nor should it be built without full and meaningful consultation with those affected. The point is that the NCC refused to factor it into the search for genuine region-wide solutions. It failed to do its job. Its mind was made up long ago and it refuses to be swayed by facts, logic or its own legislation, which is why it is now before the Federal Court. Every study reminded the NCC that the goal is to move more people across the region's bridges, it is not to move more cars; that public transit and traffic demand management -- car-pooling, HOV lanes, synchronized lights -- have to be part of the solution. Given that one bus equals about 50 full cars, if the Champlain Bridge were simply strengthened to carry buses, and the buses took people where they want to go via the transitway, would the problem still exist? Probably not. But the NCC never asked that question; it did not want to know.

Public transit is more than diesel-powered buses. It also includes light- rail systems such as the LRT in Edmonton. For years, groups like Transport 2000 have advocated a light-rail system that capitalizes on the existing bridge at Lemieux Island and the network of track in the region.

The idea of a clean, quiet LRT that whisks passengers between the Gatineau Airport and the MacDonald-Cartier Airport with stops at major bus transit connections is a compelling vision of the capital of the future, one that all residents would be proud of. But it is not a vision the NCC is interested in. It has never seriously studied the LRT idea and excluded it from any discussion of the Champlain Bridge.

Every study told the NCC the bridge is not the problem. To paraphrase former U.S. presidential adviser James Carville, they said, "it's the traffic, stupid." It wouldn't matter if the bridge were 10 lanes wide, the roads cannot handle any more traffic. They are already full, and not just at rush hour. Island Park Drive, Parkdale Avenue and Kirkwood Avenue already operate at volumes well above their recommended capacity 17 hours a day. The City of Ottawa and the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton have rightly decided they will not destroy established neighbourhoods to build four-lane roads. The only viable solution is reducing the volume of traffic.

The NCC's motto is "building pride and unity through Canada's Capital Region." Yet in its handling of the Champlain Bridge issue it has done the exact opposite. It has pitted one side of the river against the other. Its multi-million dollar "solution" -- a third lane -- is precisely the one that every professional study agrees will not work. Instead of pride it will create anger and fear. Because a wider bridge won't work, Quebec motorists will be doubly angry: not only will they still be stuck in traffic, but they will see they were lied to as well. Ottawa residents are justifiably afraid this anger might translate into irresistible political pressure to start bulldozing their neighbourhoods.

The tragedy is that all of this is unnecessary and avoidable. There are other, wiser solutions and better approaches to finding them. If the NCC had exercised the leadership, vision and integrity demanded by its legal mandate it would have looked for them. But it chose not to. This is why 14 community associations, representing about 85,000 people, are asking the Federal Court to force the NCC to do its job properly.

Copyright Ottawa Citizen 1997 All Rights Reserved.