One of the things people appreciate about living in Lethbridge is that we can usually commute from one part of the city to another in less than 15 minutes.
Getting around our city hasn't been as easy this summer due to maintenance projects on our major arterial roadways. The most disruptive project is the major bridge maintenance happening on Whoop-Up Drive. Delays and traffic snarls have been a source of frustration, particularly for those in our city (including me) who live in West Lethbridge and must commute back and forth across the Oldman River every day.
Whoop-Up Drive is the busiest arterial road in Lethbridge with approximately 50,000 vehicles per day, and there was no affordable way to do this essential maintenance work without causing inconvenience for commuters. In an effort to mitigate the impact on traffic, the bridge maintenance was deliberately timed to start after the school year ended in June and be close to completion when school and university classes resume in September.
Even though the Whoop-Up Drive work is necessary, I don't blame people for getting frustrated. I get frustrated, too, when it takes as much as 10 minutes just to cross the river valley in the morning. Please rest assured that City Council is mindful of the inconvenience being caused, and we are as anxious as you are to see this project completed.
At our July 6 City Council meeting, several Council members asked administration about the project. We were informed that the project is ahead of schedule, that the contractor is working as quickly and safely as possible and that additional resources will be deployed to see that the work is done by Labour Day.
One of the core policies of the City of Lethbridge is to take care of what we have. Citizens can be assured and take pride that our city maintains and preserves our infrastructure. Proactive, planned maintenance helps prevent the need for costly, unplanned emergency repairs.
The situation this summer has prompted some citizens to ask again why we don't have a third river crossing in Lethbridge yet. In reality, cost is a major obstacle.
In 2008-2009, the City of Lethbridge conducted a major transportation study to review the preferred location of a future third river crossing and to consider at what city population threshold a third bridge within the city should be considered. The Circulation Road Study compared the projected cost of a third crossing along the Chinook Trail alignment – connecting Scenic Drive South, just north of Tudor Estates, to the south end of University Drive – to the projected cost of a more southerly route outside city limits, nearer to the Lethbridge County Airport. You can find the full report at: www.lethbridge.ca/circulationroadstudy
At an estimated cost, in 2010 dollars, of $142 million, the Chinook Trail alignment was the less expensive and more direct option which would also attract twice as much traffic volume as the more southerly route. In today's dollars, that capital cost for a third bridge would be $160-$200 million. The impact of the City taking on debt of this magnitude to pay for a third bridge would be a 15-per-cent property tax increase for the roughly 15 years it would take to pay it off.
An alternative to borrowing would be to put all other planned transportation projects in the city on hold for several years in order to fund a single bridge project. Neither of these funding options seems realistic or palatable.
City Council of the day ultimately reaffirmed in 2009 that the Chinook Trail alignment would remain the preferred option for a third river crossing. As for any hope of provincial funding to help pay for a third bridge, after the Circulation Road Study was conducted, the provincial government adopted the position that a third bridge within city limits would be what is referred to as a Local Improvement and would have to be funded entirely by the municipality. Unless the Province's position changes, city taxpayers will have to bear the full cost of a third crossing within the city. The Province's long-term plan for Highway 3 relocation includes a provincially-funded river crossing about 1.5 km north of the northern city limit.
The study also determined that the Chinook Trail crossing would provide greater overall benefit when our city population reaches 110,000 (around the year 2030) and beyond. Our current city population is nearly 95,000. At the time of the study, traffic volume on Whoop-Up Drive was estimated at more than 46,000 vehicle crossings per 24-hour day. At the 110,000 population level, daily 24-hour traffic volumes were projected to be about 56,500 on Whoop-Up Drive and about 16,600 on a Chinook Trail crossing, if it was built. Without a third crossing, the traffic volume on Whoop-Up drive would increase to approximately 62,000 per day.
Although all of this information may be interesting, it likely provides little consolation for those who are already impatient for a third river crossing. I'm sharing it with you to demonstrate that a great deal of effort and long-term planning has been devoted to this issue and that a major financial hurdle remains to be overcome before a third crossing can become a reality.
Still on the topic of transportation, I am occasionally asked why some of our arterial roadways are built initially as two-lane roads and remain that way for several years before being expanded to four lanes. In keeping with the City's philosophy that growth pays for growth, new arterial roads are funded by private developers via what we call Offsite Levies they must pay to the City when building new neighbourhoods. These Offsite Levies pay for major infrastructure such as arterial roads, main sewer lines, storm sewers and water facilities.
When they start out as two-lane roads, arterial roadways are built with the capacity to accommodate a certain amount of growth in traffic volume over a number of years. In most cases, all the design and underground work for future four-laning is completed up front to make it as cost-effective as possible to expand to four lanes in the future when volumes warrant it.
For example, the Scenic Drive North extension decreases to two lanes north of 9 Avenue North, and the west end of Whoop-Up Drive, which decreases to two lanes west of McMaster Boulevard West/Jerry Potts Boulevard West. Both are designed to expand to four lanes in the future. Another example is the recent Mayor Magrath Drive South upgrade which was expanded to four lanes from 40 Avenue South to the south city limit.
As a result, through comprehensive long-term planning and astute resource allocation, what we don't see in Lethbridge are four-lane thoroughfares in sparsely populated areas carrying only light traffic. What we see instead are arterial roads that expand in capacity over time to accommodate the community growth going on around them.