There’s little doubt among elected officials, city administration and St. Albert’s business groups that twinning Ray Gibbon Drive is a high priority.
To that end, advocacy efforts are ongoing at several levels: from the local MLA, the Capital Region Board (CRB) and the city itself.
“If we twin Ray Gibbon Drive it opens up a lot of opportunities on the west side of the city, including more transportation options for residents, especially as we see development of communities like Riverside,” said Spruce Grove-St. Albert MLA Trevor Horne.
St. Albert Chamber president Jennifer McCurdy has argued much the same point, saying with the impending development of lands to the west like the Employment Lands and to the northwest like the Badger Lands and Jensen Lakes area, businesses are going to need the right infrastructure to promote that development.
“There’s going to be a huge impact with employees going into that area, and with goods and services coming and going, it’s just vital that developers and people who are going to invest in that area have the confidence that they’re going to be able to get in and out without too much grief,” she said.
McCurdy said the need is an urgent one, which needs to be up front and centre. Once the money and planning is in place, the construction won’t happen overnight. Now is the time to embark on this kind of a project with the economy slow and prices presumably lower, she said.
Mayor Nolan Crouse said twinning that road is significant to both the city and the region. Crouse said much of the work rests on the province acknowledging that, funding the work to twin the road and taking over the title. Right now it’s a city-owned road and as such the city is responsible for it.
“We can advocate for that to be twinned, but the province has to accept responsibility – take the title of that land and the title of that road, and they haven’t done that yet,” he said.
And it’s been a long-time coming. The long-term plan for the road is that it would become a provincial highway, ultimately connecting Anthony Henday Drive in the south all the way up to Highway 37 and Highway 2 in the north. That need has been recognized for more than a decade.
Stages 1 and 2, linking 137 Avenue to Giroux Road, opened in 2007 with support from provincial grant money. Stage 3, which brought the road further north to Villeneuve Road, opened in 2013.
But the amount of traffic on Ray Gibbon Drive has residents complaining of congestion. Council heard in late 2015 that traffic on the road at the time was at 14,000 cars per day, well above the 10,000 to 12,000 car-per-day threshold required for twinning.
Twinning Ray Gibbon Drive is now recognized as a provincial priority, having been included in the 2017 provincial budget’s unfunded projects list.
“It’s a big recognition of the importance of the project to the city and to the region, and it’s good to see the province acknowledging that,” Horne said.
But the process to make this all happen is a relatively complicated and lengthy one, and while there have been some success, as Horne said, “We’re not at the finish line yet.”
The CRB also identifies the project as a priority, although not the most pressing priority in the region.
Of the projects identified in the board’s 2016 Transportation Priorities Report as being ready for design, this project ranks eighth. Ahead of it on the board’s advocacy document include interchange and widening projects at the south end of the region, and upgrading Yellowhead Trail to be free flowing.
Criteria for weighting projects’ importance include supporting the region’s economy, maximizing existing infrastructure, providing alternative to private vehicles, supporting growth in priority areas, and supporting multi-modal transportation facilities.
Neal Sarnecki, the CRB’s manager of regional projects, said he’s working on the 2017 document at the moment. While it has not yet been approved by the board it’s not likely the Ray Gibbon Drive project will advance on the list, he said.
“I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen; it’s unlikely,” he said. “During the last couple of meetings we haven’t talked about it, so I don’t think its ranking has changed from last year.”
Lynette Tremblay, St. Albert’s inter-governmental and external affairs manager, said the advocacy for twinning the road is a multi-pronged approach, with elected officials from all levels and administration playing roles. She said the fact the project has made it onto the provincial list is definitely a win – and no small feat.
“We’ve got this acknowledgement from the province, that this is an important project and that they’re willing to chip in and make it a priority,” she said. “Now we need to take it into the next stage and make it part of the planning process.”
Until then, Crouse said the city must continue to advocate to the province to take over the title to the land and the road, thereby taking full responsibility for it.
And as for specific work on the project, he said the cost of twinning the entire road could be cost prohibitive. The cost of twinning the entire 8-km stretch from Villeneuve Road to Anthony Henday Drive is pegged at roughly $330 million, as the road would have to be built to highway standards including an underpass or overpass at the train tracks.
The highest-congestion area is at the intersection of Ray Gibbon Drive and LeClair Way, something Crouse said was sure to get worse as Edmonton’s Starling subdivision continues to develop. While Crouse said he did not know the specific cost estimate of upgrading just this portion, from Anthony Henday Drive to LeClair Way, the distance is roughly a quarter of the entire length of Ray Gibbon Drive and does not include passing over the river or crossing tracks.
“Advocating for an entire twinning is likely going to mean nothing gets done,” he said. “If we advocate for all, we may do it at our peril of not getting started.”
McCurdy said from a business and development perspective the northern portion of the road can’t be neglected. While the problem is now at the southern end, development already happening in the city’s north end will continue to put more pressures on the northern portion of the road.