NCC Blunders

Champlain Bridge

Champlain Bridge: NCC powers ahead

The Ottawa Citizen -- Final
City August 11, 1997

NCC powers ahead
Susan Riley

The recent court decision that clears the way for expansion of the Champlain Bridge is not only a disappointment, it is a defeat for democracy.

That may sound melodramatic -- after all, we are talking about a construction project, not about tanks rolling down Sparks Street -- but, in its essence, the Champlain Bridge controversy illuminates the immense and absolute power the National Capital Commission wields in this area.

Now that the court case launched by opponents of the bridge is lost, there are few avenues of appeal. Barring an unforeseen intervention, the commission will begin work next spring on an expanded bridge that will eventually drive more traffic through Ottawa's west-end neighbourhoods.

There will still be debate on how many lanes to paint on the bridge (two, three, or four) but that hardly matters. A widened bridge will accommodate more cars -- although it won't necessarily improve traffic. To fend off critics, the commission has promised to widen the bridge but not to fix a potential bottleneck on the Ontario side. How this will ease traffic for Aylmer commuters, the main rationale for the project, is unclear. As Regional Councillor Alex Cullen says: "It makes no sense whatever to expand the capacity of the bridge, when there is no ability to expand the surrounding road network."

The larger arguments against bridge expansion have already been made and ignored and better sites for a future bridge -- in Cumberland, or further west across the Ottawa River near Kanata -- have been given short shrift. Federal Court Judge Francis Muldoon, who ruled on the community appeal last week, declared that environmental assessments of the project met federal requirements. But does anyone doubt that more traffic on the bridge will be more disruptive to the national environment? Does anyone believe the fate of birds, fish or fauna matters to an institution that holds its human opponents in such low regard?

As for the heritage aspect of the bridge -- which remains a physical and architectural link with a disappearing past -- that has barely been mentioned. Instead, this has turned into an Ontario-versus-Quebec battle, and Quebec, despite its smaller population and uncertain future within Confederation, has won. (Not that traffic jams on the bridge, already laughably short by urban standards, will be significantly reduced. By some NCC estimates, an expanded bridge will shave three to five minutes from the drive home and have no impact on morning traffic.)

What really rankles, however, is the arbitrariness of the decision. The NCC only makes a show of public consultation; it always has. From the beginning, NCC Chairman Marcel Beaudry and his officials have been determined to widen the bridge when time came for a major restoration. As the court ruling proves, nothing -- not even elected councils -- can stop them. Judge Muldoon himself noted that "unfortunately, the applicants do not have a democratically, directly-elected level of government whom they could hold responsible for the actions which so displease them."

The NCC board, dominated by non-locals, tends to rubber-stamp staff recommendations. Beaudry, like all chairmen before him, has personal power equal only to the Pope in Vatican City. The heritage minister, nominally responsible for the NCC, is always too busy with more pressing matters. And local MPs, all Liberal, were divided on the bridge issue. In any event, they aren't in the business of embarrassing their own government by highlighting the NCC's anti-democratic ways.

As for opposition MPs, what do they care what happens in Ottawa? If they've heard of the NCC at all, they see it as a benign organization that mows the lawn on Parliament Hill and organizes Canada Day. As a result, the NCC is untouchable. The Senate is a model of representative democracy by comparison.

There is one glimmer of hope: the recent appointment of former municipal politician Joan O'Neill to the board. Well-respected locally, O'Neill publicly opposed the bridge expansion and led a futile battle to open NCC meetings to the public. But she has had limited success because she is so isolated.

There are NCC board openings pending, including an Ottawa position (and O'Neill's may be soon vacant, too, if she wins a seat on regional council). If Heritage Minister Sheila Copps wants to check on Beaudry's power, she should appoint two trouble-makers, outspoken champions of democracy, people like her. If we can't abolish the NCC, lets make it squirm.

Copyright Ottawa Citizen 1997 All Rights Reserved.