Plans are moving ahead to bore a three-kilometre tunnel just blocks from Parliament Hill as Ottawa joins other Canadian cities hoping light rail is the answer to downtown traffic jams and deep commuter frustration.
The $2.1-billion construction project is scheduled to run right through Canada's 150th-birthday celebrations, wrapping up a year after the 2017 festivities.
Ottawa follows Vancouver, Toronto and other growing Canadian cities that are making major investments in transit systems - but at $600-million, the nation's capital is getting more federal cash for light rail than any other.
"We're amongst the worst in the world," said Berry Vrbanovic, the president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, pointing to a recent Toronto Board of Trade report showing the average commuting time is now 80 minutes in Toronto and 76 minutes in Montreal. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that those kinds of numbers are hurting our economic competitiveness as a country."
Ottawa's commute has been a frustration for residents for years. Ottawa's main highway through the city - the 417 Queensway - slows to a crawl every rush hour in spite of recent expansions. Commuters who opt for the bus still find themselves caught in traffic as all routes to the suburbs cram the same downtown streets.
"At the moment, we have a downtown transit bottleneck that is slowing trips and will strangle the bus system over time if it is not fixed," said Ottawa mayor Jim Watson. "Moving ahead with light rail saves money when measured against the alternative."
Ottawa has come late to light rail. Mr. Watson is a former Ontario municipal affairs minister, but even his support for light rail was uncertain until he endorsed the plan Thursday in a City Hall speech.
The former council approved a light rail plan in 2008, but Mr. Watson had said he would not give his full support until he was assured it could be done for $2.1-billion. The mayor is now asking council to support a slightly revised plan that he says will meet that budget because it is not as deep and won't run under existing buildings.
The tunnel portion of the project will be 3.2-kilometres long. The entire light rail line will span 12.5 kilometres with 13 stations but it will not extend to Ottawa's suburbs. Instead, the buses freed up from travelling downtown will be added to systems linking residents to the new line.
Beyond the tunnel, Ottawa's light rail line will run along an existing route currently used for buses only. That existing system slows down as the route goes through downtown, where it faces traffic lights and particularly clogged streets during the city's snowy winter months.
The city claims the project will reduce downtown bus traffic by 50 per cent and reduce the city's greenhouse gas emissions by 38,000 tonnes per year.
The federal and provincial governments have each pledged $600-million toward the project, leaving the city to cover the rest - including any cost overruns. Ottawa is also funding light rail projects in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto. Other cities have received federal funding for bus-based rapid transit programs.
But experts worry that the country-wide transit spending spree is unlikely to last in the face of years of expected government restraint, even as reports warn soaring commuter times are hurting Canada's economy.
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities is concerned that most federal infrastructure funding is now spoken for and there are currently no major programs for transit and other city needs beyond 2014. The hope is that the federal government will replace one-off programs with something permanent.
Federal funding for light rail transit (LRT)
Public transit is not a federal responsibility, but Ottawa increasingly funds municipal bus and light-rail expansion under various infrastructure funds. Municipalities also receive regular federal funding from the transfer of federal and provincial gas tax revenues. The Canadian Urban Transit Association has warned that Canada is the only G8 country without a long-term federal transit policy.
- Plan: 11-kilometre Evergreen Line linking Coquitlam, Port Moody and Lougheed
- Federal contribution: $416.7-million
- Plan: Improvements to existing LRT system
- Federal contribution: $90-million
- Plan: 3.1-kilometre extension to the existing LRT system
- Federal contribution: $100-million
- Plan: LRT or Bus Rapid Transit plink from Conestoga Mall in Waterloo to Fairview Park Mall in Kitchener
- Federal contribution: $265-million
- Plan: Sheppard East LRT
- Federal contribution: $333-million
- Plan: 12.5-kilometre LRT line, including a downtown tunnel
- Federal contribution: $600-million
Source: Sept. 2010 report from the Library of Parliament called "Federal support for bus rapid transit and light rail transit systems"