Building bridges between Ottawa and Gatineau

Ottawa bridge

Recent flooding has forced officials to close a vital link between Ottawa and Gatineau: the Chaudiere Crossing, parts of which date back more than 100 years.

To the east, the Alexandra Bridge – another critical interprovincial connection – is slated to close for renovations and is pushing 120 years old, having been adapted for cars after the removal of railway crossings two generations ago.

The Macdonald-Cartier Bridge, constructed in 1963, is a regular traffic snarl, connecting a highway in Gatineau with a boulevard in Ottawa, forcing truck traffic through a once-vital neighbourhood.

The Portage Bridge is from 1973, but is a poor truck route, since it is not connected to any major road systems in Ottawa suitable for the more than 3,000 trucks that cross the Ottawa River each day. With the exception of the pedestrian and bicycle boardwalk on the side of the Alexandra Bridge, none of these routes accommodates pedestrians or cyclists well, despite a 30 per cent increase in commuting by bike in the last decade.

It’s telling that none of these crossings are less than 40 years old, with most far older. And it’s no wonder: Building a new interprovincial bridge is likely a $1 billion exercise, and no one wants a new bridge in their backyard.

But earlier this year, the federal government announced funding to update studies for a sixth interprovincial bridge – a surprise move that’s set to kick off a fresh round of contentious debates.

What to do? 

Several years ago, the National Capital Commission determined that a new bridge at Kettle Island would be best, but this was opposed by municipal political leaders at the time and remains a non-starter with current politicians.

A tunnel is an expensive option – likely double the cost of a bridge – and may not be able to accommodate all the material that’s shipped by truck through our region, depending Ministry of Transportation regulations. It would also send a significant number of trucks down the Vanier Parkway from Highway 417, something that would affect surrounding communities at least as much, or more, than sending them down the Aviation Parkway to Kettle Island.

Closing our eyes to the problem isn’t going to work. We can wish for a day when we don’t have heavy truck traffic, but that’s unlikely to materialize in the near future.

We need to have a public conversation about the route that makes the most sense, and achieves the best result for the most people.

A strong vision for the capital

We cannot afford to wait for another generation to make the decision while more pedestrians and cyclists are killed on our streets.

Any new connection must have a high design quality, and create a positive pedestrian and cycling link, while serving as a gateway to our city.

We need a vision for how to route truck traffic, create streets for people and connect our communities. This could include:

  • Investing in the Prince of Wales and Alexandra bridges as part of a continuous loop of transit, linking Ottawa, LeBreton Flats, the ByWard Market, museums, residential and commercial hubs with frequent, free, hop on/off services to benefit tourists and residents alike;
  • Using the same loop, create strong pedestrian and cyclist networks to boost multi-modal ways for residents to work, play and shop;
  • Terminate the truck route off-ramp and remove the Nicholas Bypass, rebuilding King Edward Avenue and reconnecting our communities, removing this scar on the landscape as a truncated highway through our city;
  • Create at least one new bridge, and plan for the replacement of existing bridges, with a focus on the best public value for trucking routes, linked to existing highways and major industry;
  • Set a vision for existing needs and growth so future generations have a roadmap, and funding, for bridge construction and repair;
  • Establish a long-term design vision to connect our population growth projections with design vision for high quality, public investment in the built environment. This allows gradual funding, consensus building, and sustained planned growth to support a long term vision.


Design matters

When we design a bridge, we have to think about how it will function and last for the next 50 or 100 years.

We need to imagine how we can create sustainable reinvestment in our existing infrastructure to adapt to new uses and set safety, beauty and quality on equal or better footing with shaving a few minutes off a commute. We need to plan, create, fund and reinvest in our built infrastructure to create the society we aspire to.

We need to have public conversations on the role of the built environment in society, culture, the economy and environment. This is, in large part, the role of architects and purpose of an architecture policy for Canada (#riseforarchitecture). This can’t simply be a traffic engineering exercise, nor designed to the minimum standard.

We need to galvanize attention on action, not just more studies that fan the flames of division. The time is now.

Toon Dreessen is president of Ottawa-based Architects DCA and past-president of the Ontario Association of Architects. For a sample of Architects DCA’s projects, check out the firm’s portfolio at bit.ly/DCA-portfolio. Follow @ArchitectsDCA on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

From the archives