Queensway shutdown to cost city's economy at least $2.5M
Effects of three-hour closing include lost wages, delayed deliveries, extra police costs, experts say
Chris Lackner and Shannon Proudfoot
The Ottawa Citizen

Tuesday, June 21, 2005
Normally filled with bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic, the Queensway was desolate yesterday morning after police closed it in both directions after a bomb threat. Above, a lone OPP cruiser sits in the westbound lanes between Woodroffe Avenue and Greenbank Road, while the bomb team examines a car in the eastbound lanes.

The city's economy lost at least $2.5 million yesterday after a bomb threat shut down the Queensway for more than three hours, a market researcher says.

Both the east and westbound lanes of Highway 417 were closed between Pinecrest Road and Woodroffe Avenue at about 9:15 a.m. and didn't reopen until shortly before 12:30 p.m., delaying thousands of commuters and delivery vehicles.

According to the Ministry of Transportation, approximately 8,000 vehicles travel the Queensway per hour, meaning the incident affected nearly 24,000 motorists. "We're talking about $2.5 million in damage to the economy -- and that's being conservative," said Barry Nabatian, general manager of Market Research Corporation.

During previous research on Queensway traffic congestion and off-ramp feasibility, Mr. Nabatian said his company determined that for every idle hour a car spends on the highway, $125 is lost in wages, gasoline consumption and car maintenance.

In yesterday's shutdown, many drivers were delayed between 30 minutes and an hour as they tried to get off the backed-up highway and find alternate routes through clogged side streets.

Mr. Nabatian's research was compiled for the city of Ottawa in 2002 and the former city of Cumberland in 2000 order to determine the economic benefit of building new off-ramps. Researchers weighed lost travel time against Ottawa-area salaries in order to come up with their figure. They took into account the fact that Queensway users are among the city's higher income earners.

But Mr. Nabatian's figures don't include several other factors which will likely push the economic costs of yesterday's shutdown even higher: Lost productivity, delays in product shipments and deliveries, and the extra police and emergency personnel needed to respond to the bomb threat.

Const. Eric Booth of the Ottawa detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police said eight OPP officers responded -- everyone who was available on the morning shift. But Ottawa police spokeswoman Sgt. Monique Ackland said she can't estimate how many officers were on scene. "This is an operation where you can't pinpoint a number until the operation is finished."

Barry Prentice, director of the Transport Institute at the University of Manitoba, points out that other, less tangible costs, may be felt by individual workers and the self-employed or by the city in general, in terms of overall lost output

There are also longer-term effects, including localized pollution from thousands of cars left idling and the price of any future changes implemented to deal with a similar event.

As well, Mr. Prentice said consideration should be paid to the possibility for human suffering if an ambulance were delayed.

For commuter Neal Ellenor, whose usual half-hour drive from Kinburn to his hospital signage business near Baseline Road and Clyde Avenue turned into a one-hour and forty-five minute ordeal yesterday, it meant he missed a morning meeting.

"I called some friends of mine and told them, 'Don't get on this highway!' and they beat me to work," he said.

Katherine Hollinsworth, the policy and communications coordinator for the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce, says the Queensway is essential to the way that Ottawa operates.

"A three-hour delay moving goods and people across the city would have had a great impact on local business," said Ms. Hollinsworth.

"How many salespeople were delayed on their way to clients or trucks were late in delivering their goods?" she asked. "How many retail customers may have turned around and just gone home?"

Because the delays began at the end of rush hour, commercial traffic, including major deliveries and shipments, was also affected. Bob Ballantyne, the president of the Canadian Industrial Transport Association, said the transport industry was hurt yesterday.

"The freight-transport industry uses the 400 highways as their backbone," he said. "People are often looking for morning deliveries, which means overnight transport. A delay like this means major problems for both the receivers and shippers of goods."

As for those drivers who managed to get off the Queensway, finding a clear alternate route wasn't easy. Traffic was re-routed at the Pinecrest and Woodroffe exits, causing significant congestion on surrounding roads, which caused further delays, particularly to public transit.

Two of OC Transpo's main bus routes, the 96 and 99, normally travel the Queensway and were forced to detour to nearby roads like Iris Street and Baseline Road.

The congestion that resulted when many other drivers diverted to the same roads meant many of the city's buses ran up to half an hour behind schedule, said Peter Zinck, program manager for conventional transit operations.

"We ended up with lengthy delays not only to the routes that were detoured, but most of the routes that operate in and around that section of the city," he said, but added that the backups were impossible to avoid.

"Given the scope of this one, it would be a little difficult I think to handle all the adjustments that needed to be done," he said.

Still, an Ottawa-based traffic expert says, it could have been a lot better than it was.

Traffic and urban planning expert Barry Wellar said the Queensway lacks sufficient electronic signs to alert motorists to major delays.

"I keep hearing Ottawa is a world-class city, but how many of those cities have a main thoroughfare in which people have no idea when an upcoming section is shut down?" asked Mr. Wellar, a geography professor at the University of Ottawa.

"Maybe this will serve as a wake-up call to one of our astute politicians or engineers."

Mr. Wellar said the 417 needs to be equipped with large overhead traffic information signs like those along Highway 401 in Toronto. Just such a measure was discussed yesterday at a public meeting about the future of the Queensway. The advance warning would allow motorists to exit the Queensway early or, in some cases, avoid it altogether.

"This is not rocket science," he said. "The 417 is treated like a two-lane highway in terms of signage."

Const. Eric Booth of the Ottawa detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police argues that temporary signs installed at various locations along Highways 417 and 416 did offer some advance warning to drivers. But he points out it was an unprecedented event.

"I've been here for 18 years and never seen it shut down in both directions," Const. Booth said.

In fact, the highway was closed in both directions just four years ago, but only for about 25 minutes. On Feb. 22, 2001, a 1.2-metre-long pipe bomb was found in a dumpster behind the Westgate Shopping Centre. The highway was closed as a precaution.

If there is a positive side to such an event, Mr. Prentice says it is the chance for emergency personnel to assess their ability to respond to such a situation, without warning.

"It is an opportunity for the forces to find out in a real way whether they have good plans in place," he said.

Morning Rush Hour - Monday, June 20

 The Ottawa Citizen 2005