Opinion: Commentary: Railing against Ottawa traffic

Ottawa’s traffic congestion is growing worse, and I believe I have a solution.

It is this: build a highway bypass on the city’s southern outskirts and ban, or severely restrict, truck traffic through downtown.

I don’t expect either of these things to happen – at least, not in the next 20 years. But unless we take drastic action in the near future, I believe Ottawa’s traffic will become as nightmarish as it is today in Toronto.

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Heck, if it helps to get it done, let’s make this southern bypass a toll road, just as they have done in Toronto.

We, the 900,000-plus citizens of this city, are spending billions of dollars on a light-rail system that could see fast and efficient train service between Bayshore in the west and Place d’Orleans in the east by 2023.

I just checked the dictionary to confirm that a billion is a thousand million. So every billion spent on light rail costs every person in this city more than $1,000. Yes, provincial and federal taxpayers are helping foot the bill, but that’s us, too.

I don’t begrudge this cost. Arguably, such a system reflects Ottawa’s growing size and maturity. But I don’t believe light rail will greatly alleviate Ottawa’s growing road traffic problems, because most rail travellers will be those who now take a bus.

And those traffic woes are all too real. According to the latest survey from GPS manufacturer TomTom NV, the average Ottawa commuter spent about 85 hours stuck in traffic in 2014, up from 81 hours a year earlier. The study said the capital had the 10th-highest rate of traffic congestion in North America, just behind San Jose and Toronto.

Ottawa’s traffic headaches are compounded by the fact the city sits on Ontario’s border with Quebec. Many of the trucks that rumble through the heart of downtown began their journey in Quebec and end their journey in Quebec.

Ottawa’s truck problem is mostly a Quebec problem. But it has proved impossible to get agreement among the federal government and the two provincial governments on whether to build, or where to build, one or more new highway bridges across the Ottawa River.

Ideally (strictly from a traffic viewpoint), there would be two new interprovincial bridges, one in the east end, one in the west end. But no one wants a bridge built anywhere near his or her  neighbourhood.

Arguably, Quebec would benefit most if there were one or two new bridges, and it should pay the bulk of the cost.

Ottawa is an east-west city stretched out along the Ottawa River and the Queensway is the preferred route for most motorists headed downtown or going from one part of the city to another.

It would greatly ease Queensway congestion if trucks passing through the city were compelled to avoid this downtown route. And that’s where the southern bypass makes sense. Such a bypass would also be an alternative route for lots of motorists travelling east-west across the city.

For years, the knock on a southern bypass was that it would encourage “urban sprawl.” That’s nonsense. Sprawl is just an ugly word for growth, a favourite of those rich enough to live close to downtown.

Believe it or not, a southern bypass already partially exists. Look at a map and you will see that Highway 417 in the east end runs almost north-south on the approach to the city from Montreal.  Highway 416 from Toronto in the west end also runs almost north-south. Thus, it would be possible to create a highway ring road on the city’s southern outskirts, running south of the Ottawa airport, by building a link between Highways 416 and 417.

If trucks were prohibited from using downtown as a shortcut to or from Quebec, it would be up to the Quebec government to decide whether to take the initiative to build a new interprovincial bridge on Ottawa’s outskirts.

I got to thinking of a toll road as a partial solution to Ottawa’s traffic woes after a recent visit to southwestern Ontario via Toronto. Travelling across Toronto on the 401 is now a hellish experience that I never wish to repeat.

Much of the 401 through Canada’s largest city has three express lanes in each direction. These lanes are segregated from so-called collector lanes of traffic entering or leaving the highway.

Of the three express lanes, the left is reserved for high-occupancy vehicles with three or more occupants and the other two lanes are occupied by constant streams of trucks, an alarming number of which veer dangerously close to the dividing line.

Never wanting to experience that again, my wife and I opted for the privately operated 407 toll road, just north of Toronto, on the return trip. We have not yet received the bill for this stretch of about 100 kilometres, but I expect it to be almost $30.


Michael Prentice is OBJ’s columnist on retail and consumer issues. He can be contacted at news@obj.ca.

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