Residents prefer Sparks Street tunnel for STO tramway, survey says

Sparks Street tunnel
A tunnel under Sparks Street is one of the options being considered as a route for the proposed tramway linking Gatineau and Ottawa.

A “strong majority” of Ottawa and Gatineau residents want a proposed electric tramway connecting the two cities to run in a tunnel under Sparks Street rather than above ground on Wellington Street, according to a recent online survey.

That’s one of the key findings in an interim report on the tramway proposal that’s slated to be presented at Wednesday’s Ottawa transportation committee meeting. The city staff report looked at various aspects of the Société de transport de l'Outaouais’ proposal to build a rapid transit system that would link western Gatineau with the downtown cores of both Gatineau and Ottawa.

The STO plan calls for two key transit corridors in Gatineau, along Boulevard des Allumettières/Plateau and along Chemin d’Aylmer and Boulevard Alexandre Taché. The tramway would then cross into Ottawa at the Portage Bridge and travel on one of two proposed paths: along Wellington Street in a route that would include three stations, or through a tunnel underneath Sparks Street that would feature two stations.

In an online survey of 1,500 residents of Ottawa and Gatineau conducted from mid-June to mid-July, most respondents said they preferred a tunnel to an above-ground tramway. The option of a Wellington Street route closed to all other traffic between Bank and Elgin streets garnered slightly more support than an alternate plan that would keep at least one lane open to vehicles.

In addition, a significant number of residents said they were concerned an above-ground system would block views of Parliament Hill and damage the esthetics of the Parliamentary precinct.  

Esthetics a concern for councillors

“Nearly half (48 per cent) of Ottawa/Ontario respondents do not agree that a tramway on Wellington is compatible with preserving the image and heritage value of the Nation’s Capital and Parliament Hill,” the report said.

Capital Coun. Catherine McKenney and Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury, whose wards include the proposed routes, also said esthetics were a factor in their backing of the tunnel option.

“For the various scenarios being contemplated, I believe that underground options are desirable as they are less visible and offer opportunities to improve surface beautification,” Fleury said. 

Planners say a new rapid-transit link would significantly reduce the amount of traffic congestion in downtown Ottawa and Gatineau. 

“Regardless of which corridor is selected, traffic modelling suggests that the addition of a more efficient public transit system (like the tram) connecting Gatineau to Ottawa would reduce the total vehicular demand during peak periods by approximately 15-20 per cent,” the report says.

The Wellington Street option would require a “full reconstruction” of the busy downtown thoroughfare, the report notes. Three stations would be built at or near Lyon, Bank and Elgin streets, and planners are proposing a pedestrian tunnel to link the Lyon tram and LRT stations.

While the route would be cheaper and easier to build than a tunnel under Sparks Street, the report notes it would “significantly” impede access to the Parliamentary precinct, disrupt the “visual esthetics” of Confederation Boulevard and create more pedestrian traffic on an already busy street.

'All-tram' vs. 'hybrid' options

“The feasibility of the Wellington option hinges on whether many of the (Parliamentary) accesses can be closed and consolidated,” the report says. “(Public Services and Procurement Canada) is assessing this proposal as part of their long-term planning.”

Meanwhile, staff concluded that a 1.2-kilometre tunnel under Sparks Street with stations at Lyon Street and between O’Connor and Metcalfe streets would be “feasible,” but said the plan also has a number of “constraints.” 

Noting that underground infrastructure such as the combined sewer storage tunnel would have to be avoided or relocated, the report said the overall cost of a tunnel would be much higher than the Wellington Street option, while the street’s narrow right-of-way of only 17 to 18 metres would limit design options.  

The STO is also proposing two operational options for the system ​– an “all-tram” scenario that would reduce the number of Gatineau buses crossing the river to Ottawa by about 70 per cent, or a “hybrid” scenario that would run trams on one of the Gatineau corridors and buses on the other. Under that plan, the number of Gatineau buses in Ottawa’s downtown would be cut by between 30 and 45 per cent.

The report notes that the City of Ottawa likely won’t be expected to fork over any money for the tramway.  

“Full funding to implement this project has not been confirmed and STO expects that the federal and provincial governments will cover all capital costs,” staff say. 

Ottawa city council is expected to decide on its preferred plan for the tramway system at a meeting in November.