Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On the Trail to a Ring Road

Published in CCA Magazine 2008:
A ring road for burgeoning Calgary was declared a top priority in 2003, when Alberta and Ottawa announced major funding for the project.

"The governments of Canada and Alberta agree that the Calgary and Edmonton ring roads are top infrastructure priorities," then prime minister Jean Chr├ętien stated in a news release. "With this investment, we will keep people and goods moving quickly and efficiently to, and through, these cities. We will also help clear the air by reducing traffic congestion in the city centres."

A ring road “will reduce congestion, make the movement of goods more efficient” and make travel safer, then premier Ralph Klein added as the two levels of government announced hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for ring roads in Alberta’s two biggest cities.

But just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, the Calgary Ring Road is taking years to become a reality. The northwest segment is set for completion next year while the northeast portion is scheduled for completion by 2009 – six years after the big federal-provincial funding announcement.

The Calgary Ring Road made a big step forward this year with the announcement of a public-private partnership for the northeast portion. The Stoney Trail Group, a consortium of private-sector companies, signed a 30-year contract with Alberta Infrastructure and Transportation to design, build and operate the road from its junction with Deerfoot Trail to 17 Avenue SE. Construction got underway in the summer.

The proposed southwest portion remains problematic. Still in planning and consultation stages, the southwest segment would run partly through Tsuu T’ina First Nation territory. As of early September, the First Nation and the province were still working on a final price for that land. And even if negotiators reach a deal this year, it would still need approval from Ottawa and the people of Tsuu T’ina. That could take another year or so. After that, actual road construction would take another two or three years.

Craig Cheffins, who replaced Klein as MLA for Calgary-Elbow in a byelection this spring, launched a petition in August urging the province to resolve the impasse as quickly as possible.

What a long, strange trip it’s been so far.

What Calgary needs

The Calgary ring road concept dates back at least 40 years. Construction of a transportation utility corridor (TUC) – a route around the city for motor vehicles, pipelines, power lines and municipal utilities – was recommended in a 1967 report to the provincial government.

A potential route for that TUC was identified in 1974; a couple of years later, the province enacted legislation freezing development along the TUC route. The route was modified in subsequent years though much of the east and south portion of ring road remains essentially unchanged, says Garry Lamb of Alberta Infrastructure and Transportation.

Most of the land for Calgary’s ring road had been acquired by 1985 and the first section of the northwest portion was built more than 10 years ago, he added.

Why has the process taken so long?

“I think part of it was that by the mid to late ’70s things had progressed so that there was a good concept in place, but then there was quite a major (economic) downturn in Alberta in the early 1980s,” says Lamb.

“When things recovered in the late ’80s, transportation wasn’t the first priority in everybody’s mind. So allocation of resources to implement the ring road … wasn’t a political priority in the late ’80s and early ’90s. And at that time, Calgary still had a good transportation infrastructure for its needs.

“What happened in the ’90s, though, was that Calgary continued to grow pretty rapidly and the transportation network didn’t. So pressures started to build to start implementing the ring road.

“But then the provincial deficit issue was a political priority, so the government was reducing funding across the board on all programs, and transportation was certainly one of them. So we ended up not spending money on (new roads and some other infrastructure projects).

“Then, come the late 1990s and the turn of the millennium, finances are good in Alberta and there’s a fresh push on to deal with some of the infrastructure deficit. And certainly the ring roads in Calgary and Edmonton are big pieces of that.”

While the northern portions of Calgary’s ring road head toward completion, there’s no work on the southern segments. Lamb seems unworried by that.

The province is “cautiously optimistic” that negotiations with Tsuu T’ina for the southwest land will conclude with a deal this year, he said.

And the southeast portion is a “very straightforward” project on land that the province already owns, he added, so construction there could start “when we have resources and if the southwest leg gets (sidetracked by negotiations) we’ll probably continue on and build the southeast leg of the ring road as soon as we’re wrapping up the northeast leg.”

Northeast partnership

Bilfinger Berger BOT, Flatiron Constructors, Graham Construction, Carmacks Enterprises and EarthTech  - collectively the Stoney Trail Group – signed a 30-year contract with the province in February to design, build, operate and partially finance 21 kilometres of four- and six-lane roadway and nearly two dozen bridge structures in northeast Calgary from Deerfoot Trail to 17 Avenue SE.

The project also includes six interchanges – at Deerfoot Trail, Metis Trail, Country Hills Boulevard, Airport Trail, McKnight Boulevard and 16 Avenue NE.

The government will pay the Stoney Trail Group $300 million toward construction of the northeast section and $21 million per year once the road is open to traffic. Premier Ed Stelmach has said the arrangement, worth some $650 million to the Stoney Trail Group, “represents excellent value for taxpayers.”

The contract also includes maintenance of the roadway from Deerfoot Trail to 16 Avenue NW.

Bolfinger, headquartered in Wiesbaden, Germany, is at the centre of the project as developer. This is the company’s “first project in Alberta and represents a very important milestone for our group,” president John McArthur said when the P3 was announced. “We are looking forward to a long-term partnership with the province for the successful implementation of the project.”

Other Bolfinger transportation infrastructure projects include the Herrentunnel under the Trave River at Lubeck, Germany, completed in 2005 after less than four years of construction, and a P3 for development and maintenance of a 26-kilometre stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway that crosses Kicking Horse Pass.

Earth Tech, a unit of giant Tyco International headquartered in California, is the project’s lead designer. Graham, Carmacks and Flatiron comprise Stoney Trail Constructors, the builders in this project.

Calgary-based Graham “brings a local presence, knowledge of the local (construction) industry and its standards and the workforce – all that kind of good stuff,” Graham Infrastructure Ltd. president John Connolly says. “And it brings in particular an expertise in interchange and bridge building, which is a large component of the project.”

Graham is a force behind many Calgary-area interchange and bridge projects of recent years, including the current Glenmore Trail/Elbow Drive/5 Street SW interchange project which has a contract value of about $70 million.

The Stoney Trail Group is endeavouring to keep a lid on the dust and noise problems that are an inevitable part of road construction. Full-time water trucks travel up and down the construction site to reduce dust; all municipal and provincial noise guidelines are followed.