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The ground in front of Parliament Hill's Centre Block is excavated for the building of the new welcome centre on June 16, 2021.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

MPs have endorsed a plan to spend more than $250-million on new tunnels linking parliamentary buildings, citing security concerns and logistics and Ottawa’s cold winters.

The tunnels will be a late addition to the huge restoration project under way on Parliament Hill, including a $5-billion refurbishment of the neo-Gothic Centre Block, Parliament’s main building.

But critics of the plan, which has been discussed for more than 20 years by MPs and senators who have to brave Ottawa’s ice and snow to get from their offices to committees and the debating chamber, say the cost is excessive in the current economic climate.

Peter Julian, an NDP member of Parliament’s Board of Internal Economy, which approved the tunnels, says they would bring Canada in line with other legislatures, including the European Parliament, where MEPs can walk between buildings without going outside.

The British House of Commons has tunnels and overhead walkways linking Westminster office buildings, allowing MPs and their staff to travel freely within the parliamentary precinct. There are also secret tunnels – now rarely used – running under Whitehall that once led to the underground cabinet war rooms where Winston Churchill planned the Allied war effort.

Mr. Julian said it would also make the transit of goods entering Parliament less arduous and could mean an end to multiple security checks between buildings.

The Senate said a subcommittee is currently waiting to review the final cost estimate and will thoroughly consider “the spending of taxpayer dollars in a way that best serves all Canadians.”

“The Senate is supportive of the main goal, which is to provide a weather-protected network of underground tunnels that would connect all core Parliament buildings for the efficient and secure movement of people and material goods,” said Alison Korn, spokeswoman for the Senate standing committee on internal economy, budgets and administration.

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THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GOOGLE EARTH

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Potential tunnel network

Potential north-south options

Potential future tunnel

Area where a node may be located

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Centre Block

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THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GOOGLE EARTH

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Potential tunnel network

Potential north-south options

Potential future tunnel

Area where a node may be located

Centre Block

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Block

East

Block

Block 3

Block 2

Block 1

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GOOGLE EARTH

Ottawa’s plans for a tunnel network come amid growing concerns about the security of MPs. In August, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was subjected to a tirade of verbal abuse in Grande Prairie, Alta., when she was approached at city hall by a man who shouted profanities and called her a “traitor.”

Mr. Julian said there have been “an increasing number of threats” targeting MPs, which the tunnels could help mitigate.

“The Emergencies Act hearings are exposing a whole range of threats we were unaware of,” he told The Globe and Mail. “There are a number of reasons why it would make sense to have a more effective network of tunnels.”

But he said they should be simple and “spartan” and built “at the lowest possible cost.”

At a meeting in June of the Board of Internal Economy, Mr. Julian said the tunnels would mean MPs would no longer have to go through security multiple times to travel between buildings or bundle up in warm coats and hats several times a day during harsh Ottawa winters.

Currently MPs have the option of taking shuttle buses between buildings, though most walk.

The projected construction cost of the tunnels would be about $185-million, but this will account for just 40 to 50 per cent of the overall cost, assistant deputy minister Rob Wright told the board.

Tory MP John Brassard raised questions about the “ballpark” cost of the project, saying “a nice winter coat costs $199, so there’s a big difference.” He pointed out that projected costs “have a tendency to get out of hand really quickly.”

Economist Kevin Page, a former parliamentary budget officer, told The Globe that the “exorbitant cost of inflation” should be factored into the project.

“You will have to manage this project so it is completed on time and on budget,” said Mr. Page, president of the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Fiscal Studies. “This is definitely a high-inflation environment.”

In last week’s fall economic statement, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland indicated that Ottawa is committed to fiscal discipline to avoid fanning the flames of inflation.

The tunnels would link the main Commons and Senate buildings, offices and committee rooms. Tunnellers would burrow under Wellington Street – the parliamentary precinct’s main artery – and create a big circular loop between buildings on either side of the road.

MPs and their staff would be able to walk underground between Parliament’s East, Centre and West blocks, through to the Wellington building – where many committees are held – and Block 1 and Block 2, where a new parliamentary office building is to be constructed.

A second phase anticipates linking the Confederation Building, with its distinctive green roof, and the Justice Building, with its sandstone exterior, on Wellington Street.

The tunnel loop would incorporate an existing short tunnel between the House of Commons visitor centre and the West Block. It may also incorporate parts of tunnels that once linked Centre Block with West and East blocks but were decommissioned because of the visitor centre construction.

During the convoy protest in Ottawa, which blocked Wellington Street, the RCMP considered using those tunnels to access Parliament.

Michèle LaRose, spokeswoman for Public Services and Procurement Canada, which will manage the project, said the “design, which will inform cost estimates and schedule, including phasing, is still under development.”

Talks are also ongoing between Parliament and the City of Ottawa about the prospect of turning part of Wellington Street, near the Prime Minister’s Office and the Commons, into a pedestrian zone.

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