Ontario Construction News staff writer
Will a private sector proposed $50 million initiative to refurbish Ottawa’s decrepit Prince of Wales bridge into the linchpin for a proposed interprovincial rail commuter rail transit system thwart the city’s $10 million plan to turn the Ottawa-river crossing into a pedestrian and cycling route?
Joseph Potvin, director general of Moose Consortium Ltd., suggests that his organization is laying low for the time being, but is ready to force the city to sell the bridge and its railroad right of way, which his business would bid on at “salvage value” if the city moves forward with its repurposing plans.
The complex story relating to the 140-year-old bridge and its future use took a tragic turn on July 3, when a 14-year old boy jumped off the structure, failed to resurface, and died.
Potvin says Moose has formally raised safety concerns about the bridge with Transport Canada and the city since 2015, when it started work on its vision to build a commuter rail network connecting Ottawa, eastern Ontario communities such as Smiths Falls, and West Quebec with a privately operated rail system. (Moose would fund its rail line through contracts based on a share of the property value increase on real estate near station sites along the proposed train route.)
Moose and the City of Ottawa have been at loggerheads from the outset, with Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson dismissing the project as a fringe scheme. But Potvin says the consortium has been defending the federal railway status of the bridge with its understanding of the Canada Transportation Act (CTA) and long-standing rules regarding discontinuing interprovincial rail service.
The city purchased the rail line from the Canadian Pacific Railway in 2005 as part of its O-Train system and planned to use it in a future stage of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) project linking Gatineau and Ottawa. However, in the past year, both Gatineau and Ottawa municipal leaders decided the bridge would not be the ideal place for the interprovincial connection – and instead are exploring options around the Portage Bridge downtown.
In 2016 Moose discovered the city had torn up some tracks as it worked on construction the Bayview LRT station – and notified the Canada Transportation Agency that the city had failed to follow the rules regarding discontinuing an interprovincial rail link. “Based on Moose’s prior successful determination in 2012 the CTA issued an enforcement order for the City to either replace the missing track, or to follow the normal 3-year discontinuance process,” Potvin said.
Therefore the city found itself liable for millions of dollars in costs to relocate or repair the tracks, Potvin said. But the federal cabinet intervened last year, throwing out the CTA enforcement order before the matter could be decided at the Federal Court of Appeal level.
(The federal cabinet ruled in an order-in-council that the CTA’s discontinuance provisions related to goods and shipping rather than commuter rail, and that the city could accommodate any outstanding issues by providing alternative transportation options.)
With the cabinet decision, Mayor Watson announced the plans to permanently decommission the bridge and turn it into a recreational pathway. At a news conference in announcing the plans, Watson was dismissive of Moose’s assertions that it could not take this measure under CTA rules.
However the city has not initiated the three-year discontinuance process. Legally, it still holds the bridge for continued railway operations, says Potvin as he points to the city’s current formal declaration to Transport Canada.
Potvin says Moose isn’t giving up on its vision to refurbish the bridge to accommodate its transit link, which includes providing safe bicycle and walking paths along each side of the structure. In earlier proposals, he indicated this project would cost about $50 million, which Moose would fund through investors.
“Moose Consortium’s plans have been laser-focused and consistent since we began,” Potvin said on Sunday. “We are patient. We are also each extremely busy with other work, but this project remains on our ‘front burner’, primed for when the timing is right. We have many allies within both city administrations who keep their heads down due to the political pressures . . . therefore, no, I cannot validate that statement.”
Potvin says Moose’s ammunition is the CTA’s specific rules regarding rail line discontinuance.
“The only way the PoWB and its approach track can be discontinued as a federally-regulated railway within the law is via the three-year discontinuance process described in the Canada Transportation Act,” he said.
“The process requires that the bridge first be offered for sale at ‘net salvage value’ to any company that would purchase it for continued railway operations. Certainly Moose Consortium would purchase it and finance the operational and safety upgrades as described. We maintain an updated plan for this.”
Potvin suggests that Watson’s opposition to Moose’s proposal relates to “Clientelism” — defined as “the client giving political or financial support to a patron (as in the form of votes) in exchange for some special privilege or benefit”.
“Politicos in the clientelist system must remain dismissive of all who are outside the value chain, otherwise Clientelism wouldn’t work,” he said. “The thing with clientelism though is that usually they take care to tippytoe within the letter of the law.”
He says: “Step on toes we will, as required, specifically toes-in-the-way that are dependent upon outright violations of the law. Which in this case there are.
“I know that may come across as unwarranted bravado, however in my view it’s no different than any other start-up business strategically pushing its way into any other competitive market that’s under the thumb of an entrenched set of oligopoly/oligopsony of incumbents. Patience and perseverance are required,” Potvin said.