Hybrid downtown transit

Even if you’ve been doing nothing but glimpse at the headlines of Ottawa’s major dailies, you doubtless know about the “rising” costs of the City’s light rail plans. With the first phase projected to top $2 billion, the province is starting to get cold feet over helping to fund the project, and it seems like many people are getting antsy over exactly how much the City will have to shell out to get things done.

Others have already done an excellent job of deconstructing the numbers that are floating around, showing that things may not be as bad as they seem, but the fact remains: the plan is now percieved as being too expensive. Regardless of the plan’s actual value and cost-effectiveness, it’s possible that it will need to be scaled down in order to secure funding from higher levels of government. So my thought is, why not a combined surface and underground system in the downtown core? Here’s a map I threw together:

Picture 3

Blue is surface rail, red is tunneled. Train symbols represent potential stations. Map created using Google Maps.

In this proposal, rail would follow the Transitway to Lebreton, where it would divert north along the current alignment of Wellington Street—currently used for tour bus parking, I believe—before diving underground for a short tunneled section at Commissioner Street. A slight curve under Bronson Park would line the rail up with Sparks Street, where it would come aboveground just after Bay. From there, it would run along Sparks with stops at Lyon, Bank, and Metcalfe, before diving back underground to curve around to Mackenzie King and Campus stations.

Before I go on, I should say that this is entirely conjecture. I’m not certain if any of these curves or climbs would actually work for LRT vehicles, it just seemed like the most logical way to do things at the time.

I think there would be a number of advantages to this idea. Most notably, it would remove nearly a kilometre of tunnel, which, at a guess, would probably shave $60–70 million off the bill, along with allowing for surface stations instead of underground stops, also representing a significant savings. Furthermore, I chose Sparks Street for the surface section for a reason: having trains running along that corridor would do a lot to improve the liveliness of that half-abandoned pedestrian mall, giving people a reason to be there outside of office workers on their lunch breaks.

Of course, there would be obstacles. The National Capital Commission would of course be reluctant to allow trains on Sparks, something that would need to be heavily negotiated. And it still wouldn’t be cheap, just somewhat less-expensive, so it would hopefully be more palatable to the McGuinty government.

Sparks is not the only option for surface rail, either. Albert and Slater could theoretically be used, as they are now, however I think it would be difficult to remove the need for tunneled sections entirely. If the current Transitway lanes were used, leading to the Mackenzie King Bridge, then an extremely tight turn would be required to align trains up for the run to Campus station. Either a tunnel would be needed to make a more gradual turn, or a serious reconstruction of the area around the east end of the bridge would be necessary.

In all, while it would require a lot of work and a lot of inter-agency co-operation, I think Sparks Street is the most logical place to build a section of surface rail, if we decide it’s neccessary to reduce the plans cost. At this point, I think it would be premature to scrap the current tunnel plan entirely, but it is at least worth considering our alternatives.

7 Responses to “Hybrid downtown transit”

  1. 1 Ken
    October 29, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    I do not think sparks is wide enough anymore to be a suitable route. All of the restaurants with outdoor patios and the other amenities that make it a pedestrian mall make very little room for two train tracks and platforms.

    I was thinking over the weekend about this (and its place in history so to speak). A question I posed was, What would the world look like today if it was decided that the Panama Canal was too big a job, or that no country would adequately fund it? Today it is one of the most important shipping routes in the world and cost about $389M (1914 Dollars) which is about $8.3 Billion Dollars adjusted for inflation (and was totally funded by the US). My conclusion (and point) is that when we are thinking about giant public works projects, we need to look to the future, as well as the present, to fully determine the cost-benefit analysis.

    All that to say, I think we need some form of efficient transit system in our downtown, if it ends up costing $2Billion dollars than that is the price of doing business. However, I do not like the current plan that is out and would much prefer a hybrid system (above ground and below ground) possibly like Buffalo where the downtown core is fareless.

    • 2 David McClelland
      October 29, 2009 at 5:08 pm

      Yeah, I’m unsure of the width of the street, that is an important question. It was able to manage bi-directional streetcars back in the 50s, so I would imagine it would have room, but it’s hard to say for sure without going out and measuring. Another possibility might be to have one direction on Queen and one on Sparks…

  2. October 29, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    things like this are not as easy as you make it seem. for instance, even the ‘simple’ process of getting a giant tunnel boring machine in and out of the ground an extra time would jack up the tunnel drilling cost. not to mention the money it would cost to devise even more strategies, and the amount of time these things will be pushed back even more.

    they picked a plan. lets embrace a train and get it built.

    • 4 David McClelland
      October 29, 2009 at 5:01 pm

      I agree, I would much rather see the current plan get built. However, if the province decides they don’t like it (and their comments certainly haven’t been positive) then we may not have any choice but to go back to the drawing board.

  3. 5 Ken D
    October 30, 2009 at 9:49 am

    This project and its discussion have been going on for so long I lose track. Is there a real strong argument against surface trains on a dedicated Slater or Albert street?

    • 6 David McClelland
      October 30, 2009 at 1:33 pm

      The fact that trains would be in mixed traffic, I think, is the primary argument. It would be possible, I think, to separate them from other vehicles completely, but I don’t think it would be easy—chances are you’d lose 1.5 to 2 lanes of the street (including the current bus lane).

  4. 7 Ken D
    November 3, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Although if you made Albert 2 way and Slater dedicated the only mix would be at cross streets. It seems to work in Calgary, Toronto, Denver… and significantly less expensive and disruptive than a tunnel. One can only hope.

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