Out(road)rageous: $5 billion could go a long way

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We seem destined to always talk about transportation. Public transit, including the long-sought southeast LRT line and the nuances of where to put the north-central line; the mess that is Calgary’s taxi system; bike lanes; pedestrian safety improvements; two-way roads through the Beltline; and now the revelation that the southwest portion of the ring road will cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of $5 billion.

It’s been about 50 years since the first studies were done on a ring road for Calgary, and the southwest portion has always been a contentious issue. There’s the Weaselhead natural area and the Elbow River as well as the Tsuu T’ina reserve to deal with. Negotiations with the Tsuu T’ina Nation stopped and started until a deal was finally inked last year as the rest of the ring road neared completion.

This is the kind of thing that makes all the other transportation debates seem kind of quaint.

First there is debate as to the efficacy of building ring roads. It’s been proven over and over again that building roads only invites more traffic rather than doing anything to effectively relieve congestion. It contributes to sprawl, pushing people ever further to the margins. Does Calgary need a better way for people to get from one end of the city to the other? Probably, but there’s no indication that this will serve that purpose in any meaningful way. It will benefit those trying to escape to the mountains from the south, and will provide a trucking route through the southwest, but aside from a bit of relief on some central roadways, this will just invite more traffic and more sprawl.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that we need the ring road and that it will speed up cars travelling across our sprawling city.

What we don’t need is another major thoroughfare crossing over our water supply and tainting the Weaselhead natural area. If you haven’t been lucky enough to ride your bike or walk through this natural park at the end of the reservoir, you’re missing out. Pathways and walking trails wind their way through trees and scrub along the Elbow River — it feels miles away from the city at its doorstep. What’s not missing from the idyllic scene is a highway bypass roaring over the river and the reservoir wetlands.

But it seems like it’s going to happen anyway. The debates about protecting the headwaters of our drinking supply are over, the land deals have been made, the plans largely put in place. So let’s talk about the price tag. You can get a lot for that kind of money.

The $5 billion is for the remaining 41 kilometres of the ring road, from Highway 22X near Spruce Meadows to Highway 1 near Canada Olympic Park. We’ve already built 63 kilometres for the relatively paltry sum of $1.9 billion.

As has been noted elsewhere, the $5-billion price tag just happens to be the same figure that’s tossed around for the entire north-central/southeast LRT line — from Panorama Hills all the way to the South Health Campus. Heck, you could cut the ring road cost in half and still be able to build the southeast portion of the LRT route.

The city’s Route Ahead plan calls for a $13-billion investment in transit over 30 years to keep up with Calgary’s growing population. Five billion gets us a long way there.

Of course there’s been another transportation option that has been whipping critics into a frenzy: the Centre City cycle track network, a plan calling for protected bike lanes through downtown and the Beltline. Hands have been wrung, tears have been shed and prophecies of doom have been prophesied by those how don’t even blink when major interchanges are built.

If we were to take the cost of the southwest portion of the ring road and apply it to protected bike lanes, we could build 1,786 lanes equivalent to the proposed First Street S.E. lane, or approximately 5,000 kilometres worth of cycle tracks based on the estimate of $1 million per kilometre. We’d basically blanket the entire city in protected bike lanes. Hell, we might even have enough left over to install in-pathway heating to keep the ice away.

In other words, there are far more effective ways to utilize $5 billion if what we’re really interested in is easing congestion and providing transportation options for the citizens of Calgary — improved pedestrian safety, separated and marked bike lanes, transition to two-way streets in the Beltline and investment in bus rapid transit and LRT lines, to name a few. But those options would be considered social engineering, right?

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