Like more than 16,000 Ottawans, Aileen Duncan lives on one side of the Ottawa River and works on the other. She’s been in the capital’s limelight in recent weeks – not as a government worker, but as the unofficial spokesperson for the Prince of Wales Bridge.
The abandoned rail bridge cuts across Lemieux Island, linking Ottawa and Gatineau just west of LeBreton Flats.
“Walk across it, watch the fireworks, have a picnic, just be there. It’s a great space to just reflect or hang out,” Duncan says.
But just being there is illegal. Last month, after a decade of picnickers cutting down fences, the city announced it would seal the bridge off for good. Transport Canada had deemed it structurally unsound. Giant steel gates would block the bridge’s four entrances, at a projected cost of $250,000.
Duncan was outraged. She started a petition demanding the money be spent on guardrails, not gates. She held an awareness-raising picnic at the bridge’s southern entrance (it was curtailed by police) and founded an advocacy group called the Ottawa Rail Bridge Project.
“The city is funded by taxpayers,” she says, “so everyone should be able to access this bridge.”
The group launched a crowdfunding campaign. The funds are intended towards work on the bridge, but Duncan calls the campaign “largely symbolic.” By the end of September, it reached $380 of a $100,000 goal. The cycling bridge that Duncan’s advocating for would cost $10.5 million.
No “Silver Bullet”
Coun. Jeff Leiper did not join the picnic. The Prince of Wales Bridge marks the eastern edge of the Kitchissippi ward he represents. While he appreciates people “being aspirational around the bridge,” he says there’s no political will to move it forward. Barring the prospect of corporate sponsorship, there’s just no money.
“Right now that doesn’t seem like a particularly mainstream view to which people are willing to actually pony up money,” he says of Duncan’s campaign. The structural improvements required by Transport Canada would cost $5.5 million alone – without them, the prospect of allowing people on the bridge is “next to nil.”
City Hall is slowly moving towards laying light rail across the bridge, as laid out in its Transportation Master Plan. But there’s little momentum behind the idea, and no shovel-ready plans. Laying new rail would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Nothing’s likely to happen until 2031.
“We’re in the realm of government,” says Leiper, “This isn’t the private sector. This isn’t community grassroots stuff.”
A Piece of Capital History
Work on the Prince of Wales began the spring of 1880. It was funded by the Quebec government. Despite perilous working conditions (one worker was reportedly bitten by an 8-foot fish; another drowned), and several strikes (wages were only 85 cents a day), the project was finished before winter.
With a new rail link in place between Ontario and Quebec, interprovincial passenger travel became much easier, eliminating the need for river ferries and horse-drawn cabs. The bridge also helped Ottawa’s booming sawed-lumber industry. Millions of feet of lumber would cross the Prince of Wales Bridge by the turn of the century. It was shipped north from the Chaudière sawmills to the ports of the St. Lawrence River, and south to the United States.
The bridge continued to play a vital role for industry and transportation in the first half of the 20th century, as part of the Canadian Pacific Intercontinental Railway. It was rebuilt in 1926 to accommodate heavier locomotives, but gradually fell into disuse. The last passenger train crossed in 1981. The last freight crossed in 2001.
An abandoned investment
The City of Ottawa bought the bridge in 2006 for $400,000, intending to use it as a light rail extension. Nothing came of it – planners favoured the east-west line now under construction.
In 2013, the city earmarked $2.7 million to convert the bridge into a cycling and pedestrian connection, dependent on co-financing from the City of Gatineau and the National Capital Commission. Neither committed, so the money was diverted in the city’s 2016 budget.
(Mario Tremblay, who handles interprovincial crossings at the NCC, says the bridge is not his department’s responsibility. The City of Gatineau didn’t respond to comment requests.)
In lieu of steel gates, chain link fences were installed across the bridge on Sep. 20, meeting the city’s “bare minimum legal requirements” at the cost of $46,000. Within hours, though, trespassers had breached the Ottawa side and climbed onto the bridge. The fence was fixed by Thursday evening, and several security vehicles were deployed to the site.
Asked if guards will keep monitoring the bridge, Lieper says, “I won’t get into that. The city will do as the city does.”
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