Ottawa

Documents reveal 'haste' to tear down Alexandra Bridge, coalition says

Internal documents obtained by a coalition calling for the preservation of the Alexandra Bridge show some federal government officials expressed reservations about the plan to demolish and replace the historic crossing between Ottawa and Gatineau, Que.

Federal department asserts historic bridge would be 'impossible' to maintain

A steel bridge over a city river in winter.
The Alexandra Bridge connecting Ottawa and Gatineau is currently slated to be demolished by the federal government, which cites its deteriorating condition. The bridge opened in 1901. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Internal documents obtained by a coalition calling for the preservation of the Alexandra Bridge show some federal officials expressed reservations about the plan to demolish and replace the historic Ottawa River crossing.

The Alexandra Bridge Coalition said the findings have bolstered its hopes that the 123-year-old bridge between Ottawa and Gatineau, Que., will remain standing, while the federal department in charge of operating the bridge maintains the aging structure needs to come down.  

"One of the reasons why we're disclosing this content is just to show the public that alternatives are viable and that there was too much haste taken into trying to have a solution for the bridge's future," said coalition spokesperson Claude Royer on Sunday. 

The Alexandra Bridge was designed by Canadian engineers and built by the Dominion Bridge Company of Lachine, Que. It opened in 1901. 

The bridge links Kìwekì Point (formerly Nepean Point) just west of Ottawa's ByWard Market to the Canadian Museum of History in the Hull district of Gatineau. 

The coalition filed an access-to-information request a year and a half ago and received more than 1,000 pages in documents. It recently shared its findings with Radio-Canada and other media. 

'Lack of structural engineering studies'

The federal government announced its plan to tear down the bridge in 2019. Once the project begins, it's expected to take 10 years to complete

In May 2020, a senior conservation engineer adviser for Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) emailed colleagues about an Alexandra Bridge position paper she said highlighted "the lack of structural engineering studies/investigations" done to that point.

The email — one of the documents unearthed by the coalition — also noted "valuable comparables that confirm the possibility to fully rehabilitate the bridge for many decades."

The position paper stated that a full rehabilitation of the bridge had "never" been considered and a thorough structural assessment not performed.

It highly recommended a comprehensive structural assessment of the bridge, plus "a more thorough analysis" of whether it could be rehabilitated.

A black-and-white archival photo of a steel bridge over a river. There are horse-drawn carriages crossing it.
An undated archival photo from no later than 1930 of the Alexandra Bridge's train and carriage lanes from the Ottawa side. (William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada | PA-009430)

The paper also stressed the bridge's heritage value. 

"Alexandra Bridge … stands today as evidence of the outstanding ingenuity and foresight of Canadian engineers that used the most advanced technology available at the time," according to the paper.

In another email — sent to that same adviser earlier in 2020 — a senior conservation engineer cited "a possibly understudied need for bridge replacement."

He added that "our heritage-based desire to implement conservation efforts" may be difficult to achieve "given the clear direction" to replace the bridge.

People cross a steel bridge. It's for pedestrians only because of construction.
Joggers cross the bridge on Dec. 5, 2023. It's been closed to vehicles since October of last year. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

'We will keep questioning'

Royer is more optimistic. 

He said the findings have encouraged the group to pursue an independent assessment of whether the bridge can be restored. 

"We will keep questioning [PSPC]," he added. 

A man poses for a photo in a room with several historic artifacts.
Alexandra Bridge Coalition spokesperson Claude Royer says the documents give his group hope the bridge could be saved. (Radio-Canada)

Hull-Wright Coun. Steve Moran agreed that it was worth "digging in more deeply" into whether the bridge can be saved — and if so, how that could be accomplished.

In a statement to Radio-Canada, PSPC said the bridge continues to deteriorate despite past and current rehabilitation efforts. 

"Some of the work required to bring the structure up to industry standards would be extremely difficult, impractical and some may even prove impossible," according to the PSPC. 

While the coalition would like to see the bridge devoted to public transportation and active users, it's "impossible to maintain the Alexandra Bridge in its current state for the next 75 years regardless of its future use," PSPC said.

PSPC will ensure the heritage of the bridge is preserved or reflected in the new design, the department added. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Ottawa

Guy Quenneville is a reporter at CBC Ottawa born and raised in Cornwall, Ont. He can be reached at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca

With files from Radio-Canada's Laurie Trudel and Félix Pilon

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