The federal government has been sitting on key findings from a new study into a sixth bridge over the Ottawa River, including cost estimates and the advice of experts on the best corridor for the project.
According to a report obtained by Radio-Canada, the "preferred" corridor for the new bridge between Ottawa and Gatineau would cross Kettle Island and cost an estimated $1.81 billion.
That's about $300 million less than the two other corridors under study, both located farther east.
These findings were not made public on June 25 when the National Capital Commission (NCC) unveiled a report produced by engineering firm WSP. The 34-page, $440,000 report didn't name a preferred corridor, nor did it lay out the estimated cost of the three corridors being evaluated. The report didn't include a rationale for a sixth interprovincial crossing, either.
There was no mention at the time that WSP had produced additional work on the bridge project for Public Services and Procurement Canada at a cost of $1.4 million. The report done for PSPC comes in at more than 150 pages, but bears the same title and graphic design as the NCC report.
Asked why the full report was not released to the public, PSPC told Radio-Canada that the findings were intended "for internal use."
According to the full report, the five existing bridges in the National Capital Region (NCR) are currently "functioning at capacity, such that virtually no additional traffic can be accommodated in the extended commuter peak hours."
The report predicts that despite changes in transportation models, "increasing travel demand will exacerbate the current capacity constraint over the Ottawa River," and notes that "addressing these deficiencies would improve transportation and goods movement in the NCR as well as support a breadth of economic, quality of life, safety, environmental and community benefits."
'Community impacts' of preferred route
The full report concludes that the Kettle Island route, which would connect Highway 50 at Montée Paiement in Gatineau to the Sir George-Étienne Cartier and Aviation parkways on the Ottawa side, is the "technically preferred corridor."
The NCC does not use that expression in its publicly available summary.
The Kettle Island Corridor would be the least costly of the three proposed routes, would attract more truck traffic and public transit, offer "manageable environmental effects" and provide the biggest boost in terms of economic development, according to the report.
On the other hand, the report found that the Kettle Island corridor would create greater challenges in terms of "community impacts" because it passes through more densely populated areas.
The WSP report studied the potential impact each corridor on air quality, land use, the aquatic environment, transportation and economic development.
It concluded that the other two options — the Lower Duck Island corridor and the McLaurin Bay corridor — would cost $2.11 billion and $2.15 billion respectively. The Lower Duck Island corridor would link Highway 174 on the Ontario side to Highway 50 at Lorrain Boulevard, while the McLaurin Bay corridor would link Highway 50 to Highway 174 in the vicinity of the Gatineau airport.
The WSP report lays out a case for a sixth bridge by saying it would improve the quality of life for residents on both sides of the river, reduce auto emissions, accelerate the transit of goods and people, and reduce the movement of hazardous goods through the city cores.
Mayors oppose 6th bridge
A sixth interprovincial crossing, to be funded by the federal government, has been under discussion for decades. Proponents of the project argue it's urgent because the Alexandra Bridge is nearing the end of its lifespan and heavy transport traffic continues to clog downtown Ottawa.
However, both Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson and Gatineau Mayor Maxime Pednaud-Jobin oppose the project.
On Sept. 9, both mayors told Radio-Canada they would rather invest the money into improving public transit.
"That is the future in our view, not building a new bridge to send more traffic onto highways 417 and 416," Watson said in French.
"If we build a new bridge, cars will simply be stuck on a bridge instead of being stuck on Highway 50. There is no added value. The solution remains on the side of public transit," Pednaud-Jobin added.
The bridge report was commissioned as part of the 2019 federal budget. The federal government pointed out at the time that the five existing bridges are becoming steadily busier, with an estimated 150,000 vehicles and 9,000 pedestrians and cyclists crossing them daily.
The Liberal MP for Gatineau, Steven MacKinnon, supports the project.
"The need for a sixth crossing is urgent," he told Radio-Canada last week. "Transportation will remain, and even grow, as the main priority for elected officials in the region."
PSPC said there's still much work to be done before a final decision is made on a new bridge, including collecting more data about the impact of new public transit systems in both Ottawa and Gatineau.
"We will also examine the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on commuting and commercial traffic in the region and undertake consultations with residents and other stakeholders as part of our path forward," said PSPC spokesperson Michèle LaRose.
The NCC said that it's waiting for direction from the federal government, but said next steps would include an impact assessment and public consultations.