Ottawa digs in for light-rail line

December 5, 2012

After years of debate and delays, the City of Ottawa unveiled final plans for a $2.1-billion light rail "Confederation Line" that will run underground through the city's downtown core.

At a joint announcement with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and local federal Conservative MP Royal Galipeau, the city announced the winning construction team that will build and maintain the line, as well as absorb any unforeseen costs.

The winning bid by Rideau Transit Group is from a consortium of more than a dozen private-sector firms with experience in the field. The group includes SNC-Lavalin Inc., the Montreal-based engineering firm that is currently battling negative publicity. Last month, Montreal police laid fraud charges against former chief executive Pierre Duhaime and former SNC vice-president Riadh Ben Aissa in relation to allegations of improper payments made to help win construction projects.

In an interview with The Globe, Ottawa mayor Jim Watson said he has faith in the new leadership of SNC-Lavalin and noted that the contract was awarded with the help of a fairness commissioner and Infrastructure Ontario.

"They've done the due diligence," he said. "Notwithstanding the fact that SNC has had some challenges in the past, we have confidence in their new management team."

Should city council approve the plan later this month, construction on the 12.5-kilometre, east-west line would begin early next year. The entire line is not expected to be fully running until 2018, but work on the the 2.5-km underground tunnel portion is expected to be finished by 2017, when the national capital will be focused on celebrating the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation.

The line will have 13 stations and will run from the Tunney's Pasture complex of government offices west of downtown to the existing Blair bus rapid-transit station in the east. The rail line will not run to Ottawa's suburbs, but commuters will be able to reach the neighbourhoods of Barrhaven in the south, Kanata in the west and Orleans in the east using existing bus rapid-transit lines.

Proponents of the light-rail line argue the city's downtown core can't handle any more buses, which back up at rush hour and are delayed by traffic lights. The city expects dense urban development will spring up around the new LRT stations.

"You see that in large cities like Toronto and Montreal, where development in housing and retail and so on has grown up around the transit stations, and so there's lots of opportunities, particularly in the east end," Mr. Watson said.

The federal government contributed $600-million toward the project from the Building Canada Fund and a further $192-million through federal Gas Tax Fund transfers to the city. The government of Ontario contributed $600-million directly and $287-million through Provincial Gas Tax receipts to the city. The rest of the cost will be covered by the municipality.

Images of the proposed stations show the designs will feature high ceilings with lots of glass walls. Earlier plans for four downtown stops – including one at the National War Memorial – were scaled back. There will now be three downtown stops, including one connected to the Rideau Centre mall.

The selected train is the Alstom Citadis, which is already in use in more than 40 cities, including Paris, Barcelona and Istanbul. Documents from the city claim the train is proven in heavy snow and cold, has a top speed of 100 km/h and will be assembled in Ottawa.

Travel time from one end of the line to the other is projected to take less than 24 minutes.

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