South West Ring Road Dead

In a surprise to apparently everyone, the members of the Tsuu Tina Nation voted 60% against the proposed deal with the Alberta government to transfer the necessary land to construct the SW ring road. After 8 years of negotiation and having put around $500 million in land and cash on the table, the province and city have said publicly that this process is dead, and there will be no further negotiations with the band. Under the circumstances this makes sense; while I believe that the province and band leaders did negotiate in good faith and got the best deal possible, one could argue that there are not a lot of positive feelings and trust generally between First Nations and governments at any level these days, and this was one small manifestation of that. One could argue further why the band should agree to give up a large portion of their treaty lands for the construction of a vast freeway that really serves little purpose to them. I’m being devil’s advocate here, but it’s safe to say at this point what is done is done, and it is time to move on from where we are now.

So where is that exactly? Well, half the ring road (Stoney Trail) is essentially built; a good chunk in the North West is open and the North East section will open this fall, all the way to 17th Ave SE. The province has begun the procurement process for the South East section, and has prequalified 3 potential bidders for the Request for Proposals stage, which will close in the fall, I believe. If all goes well this section could be under construction by next summer. Calgary will then have 3/4th of a ring road with little ability to complete the final section – what are the options? Here’s how I see them:

1. Finished the approved portions and then do nothing. This is the preferred solution of Ald. Pincott who says the city should instead focus on transit. I am all for transit but believe that the traffic need that the ring road is to serve is fundamentally different from that which transit could mitigate. The ring road will serve suburb to suburb flows and goods movement both around the city and regionally. People in SW neighbourhoods commuting downtown would not use the ring road; they would however for weekend trips for shopping, recreation and getting out of town. This is a need that transit could not realistically serve given the overall low density, diffuse traffic patterns and generally car oriented development in the area. Moreover, doing nothing would leave the existing road network to try to serve the traffic that the built portions would generate – this would further overburden roads like 16th Ave N, Sarcee Trail, Crowchild Trail and Glenmore Trail. It is worth noting that much of these roads are not built to a freeway standard (in fact 16th Ave/Hwy 1 reverts to a 4 lane undivided road east of Sarcee with frequent lights). These roads could be upgraded, but this would be expensive and controversial, and it is unclear whether the province would agree to help fund them.

2. Extend Stoney Trail south to the Glenmore and improve connections at 14th St SW, Macleod Tr. and Deerfoot Tr.; I think the province would be more willing to help with these projects as an interim solution as they would be less controversial (existing rights of way, little expropriation required, and the city has already done some of the planning and design work), and give breathing time to decide on whether / when a new road through the Weaselhead/Glenmore Res. will be built.

3. “The Big Bridge”. This would involve building out the 37th St SW corridor (where there are still signs that say “future Sarcee Trail”) and a mondo bridge over the Weaselhead Flats to connect into a giant interchange at Glenmore, Sarcee and Stoney Trails. this would require an immense amount of design work, environmental planning and expropriation (I think we can safely say that the P3 model for this project is dead, as I don’t think any private consortium would touch it with a ten foot pole), in additional to complex and expensive construction. Some have talked about a tunnel but the cost of this option would be astronomical, probably in the billions as the tunnel would probably need to carry at least 8 lanes, so I think this can be ruled out. This may be the 20 – 25 year solution but it is hard to see how it could be implemented anytime soon as not a lot of work has been done on it, and getting the provincial and federal environmental approvals alone could take 5 years or more.

Not a happy situation for a city that continues to grow even in a recession and could add another 500,000 people to the metro area in the next ten years. Maybe a casino is an appropriate metaphor, since I question why everyone involved seemed to bet the farm on a solution that involved First Nations land. Now the process is so far advanced, the rest of the ring road near completion or final tender that ad hoc solutions are all that’s possible. I haven’t lived here long enough to lay out blame, and in fact most cities seem to have these “cursed” projects, destined to never see the light of day. Unlike many of the cancelled inner city expressway projects in many cities of the 1970s, however, this project was not about bringing more highways into the downtown; in contrast the concept was to take through traffic off city arterial roads, and together with the proposed ongoing expansion of the C-Train system, could have helped facilitate many of the planned directions in the Plan It document, to reconfigure urban roads more to a pedestrian scale. I can’t say how it will all turn out, but fascinating for this semi-outsider to watch!

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