After decades of planning and 13 years of construction, the ring roads in Alberta’s major cities are close to completion
It’s been a long haul, stretching back into the 1960s and 1970s, but the end is in sight. Work has begun on the last leg of Anthony Henday Drive, Edmonton’s ring road, with the northeast section scheduled to open in 2016. Calgary is a bit further behind, but now that the province has reached an agreement with Tsuu T’ina First Nation, planning for the final leg of Stoney Trail can shift into high gear.
It’s an exciting time for anyone who’s wished for a way to travel around the city, instead of through it. The completed projects will reduce congestion on other roadways and make it more efficient to transport goods.
“These projects are a cornerstone of our Building Alberta Plan. Investing in the provincial core highway network supports a lot of jobs for Albertans and, in the long term, lays the foundation for decades of economic growth,” says Wayne Drysdale, minister of transportation. “They contribute to making this province a good place to live and to do business.”
FIFTY YEARS IN THE MAKING
Albertans who remember ring-road discussions prior to 2000 can be excused for thinking the day might never come. Planning for the ring roads began with studies in the 1970s. Garry Lamb, urban construction manager for Calgary with Alberta Transportation, says that the idea for Calgary’s ring road goes back even further.
“The 1960s was really the beginning stages of the concepts that we are now ultimately developing. They were advanced in the 1970s and, at that point in time, a corridor around Calgary was identified for the future alignment of the ring road,” says Lamb, who has overseen the development of Stoney Trail since 2003.
The City of Calgary actually started the ring road in the 1990s, beginning with a portion of the northwest section. The aim at the time was to foster the development of that quadrant. The city led the $42-million project, with the province covering 75 per cent of the costs, or $31.5 million.
In Edmonton, the southwest leg of Anthony Henday Drive was the first to get underway and ended up being the only section of Edmonton’s ring road built under a conventional delivery model. Construction of the roadway, from Whitemud Drive to Lessard Road, began in 2002.
“Between 2002 and 2006, when the southwest leg opened, there were about 30 contracts for all the various pieces—grading, paving, bridge construction, landscaping and so on,” says Bill van der Meer, urban construction manager for Edmonton with Alberta Transportation.
In Calgary, designs for extending the northwest section of Stoney Trail—the part the city had built—began in late 2003, with construction starting in 2005.
Initially, funding amounted to $150 million, allowing for the extension of the four-lane road to the north to intersect with Deerfoot Trail and the construction of an interchange there, as well as an interchange where Stoney Trail meets the TransCanada Highway.
“Any intersections with local roads as part of this first phase would have been signalized interactions. It wouldn’t have been a freeway. It would have been the backbone of a freeway,” says Lamb.
A year and a half into the project, an additional $100 million of federal government funding was secured and the province later supplied more funding, allowing for the construction of more interchanges. By the time the road opened in 2009, there was just one set of signal lights, which has now been removed.
The northwest leg of Stoney Trail was the last section built under a design-build project delivery model. While it remains to be seen which model the southwest section will use, the success of the public-private partnership, or P3, model for these projects is well-known.
“P3s aren’t the answer for everything, but for these large projects they are a good deal for Alberta taxpayers,” explains Drysdale. “Using the P3 model for the ring roads in Edmonton and Calgary has saved Alberta taxpayers almost $2 billion to date. That’s money that can be reinvested in other infrastructure, like schools and hospitals, and other human services.”
Over time, getting the sections built has gotten easier. Between the two of them, van der Meer and Lamb have now overseen the planning, design and construction of five sections delivered under the P3 model, and they’ve learned from and fine-tuned each one. In addition, the industry has developed a stronger understanding of the procurement process and the risks involved, leading to more competition and lower costs.
At the same time, every leg has unique challenges. For example, work had to be done to minimize and mitigate the impacts on wetlands when planning and constructing the southeast portion of Stoney Trail, which opened in 2013. A significant amount of the construction also had to be done in areas adjacent to residential neighbourhoods with high volumes of traffic on two major highways.
The northeast portion of Anthony Henday Drive was a particularly complicated project because 18 of the 27 kilometres involved reconstructing existing road, necessitating a lot of traffic accommodation and detours. Twin bridges crossing the North Saskatchewan River meant more effort minimizing environmental impacts and, because the road is in the refinery area of the city, there are over 500 utility crossings.
“Moving utilities out of the way, getting agreements, that’s very time-consuming and a big challenge for that project,” says van der Meer. “Building roads and bridges is relatively straightforward. Just getting everything out of the way, getting all the necessary permits and agreements and everything in place, that’s the big challenge.”
Lamb and van der Meer are both looking forward to seeing the massive projects they’ve been shepherding for more than a decade completed, but when Lamb will be able to drive the full circle of his city’s ring road remains unknown. Drysdale expects it will take about two years to get the land transferred from the federal government to the province, and construction won’t begin until that’s done. During that time, design and planning will take place, as will the acquisition and moving of houses.
There’s also no guess as to what the cost of the final leg will be, but anyone putting money on it should probably aim high.
“That will be a pretty expensive piece of the build. To date we’ve spent $1.9 billion on the Calgary ring road and committed $400-and-some million on the acquisition of this land so far with Tsuu T’ina. To put it into perspective, Anthony Henday cost pretty close to $4 billion, so there is some money to be invested in Calgary yet,” says Drysdale.