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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Bridge Bollocks

Sean Shaw
Published Tuesday August 19, 11:40 pm
A new vehicle bridge won’t help congestion, but it will hurt River Landing

Photo Credit: Andrea Paperplane

Cities with good rapid-transit systems, cities with great freeway networks, cities with neither — regardless of their situation and how they’ve tried to deal with the problem, almost none have been able to rid themselves of traffic congestion.

Just take a look around our own country: Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Halifax, on and on — all suffer from traffic congestion far worse than anything Saskatoon has yet to experience, even though collectively they’ve spent billions of dollars over decades attempting to alleviate it.

So why have they failed?

Well, even when the public purse is opened and a new bypass, roadway or freeway is built, the benefits are shortlived — because more people will choose to drive due to the time incentive that’s been created. And after a few months or years, that new road becomes jammed with vehicles just like the older, smaller road, and congestion returns.

Ultimately, cities will never be able to meet the demand for fast personal vehicle commutes, free of traffic congestion: it’s just basic math. The private sector produces an unlimited number of vehicles that require an increasing amount of road if congestion is to be avoided, but there are limited public resources to pay for new roads, and an even smaller amount of public space on which to build them. Study after study from North American cities have proven one indelible truth: building ever more infrastructure capacity for cars to travel on has had virtually no impact on congestion.

Despite these cold, hard facts, there are still countless politicians who preach that they have the magic solution to solving traffic congestion — and unfortunately, a majority of voters eagerly lap up their rhetoric.

Saskatoon certainly hasn’t been immune. Last November, Mayor Don Atchison had the audacity to suggest that we should build more capacity on our roads so everyone in Saskatoon could have a 15-minute commute. Good luck with that. The mayor — and a majority of city councillors — sold the public on a super-sized north commuter bridge (ignoring engineering reports recommending four lanes, council decided to build six lanes), to the tune of nearly $300 million, by promising to improve the flow of traffic between the sprawling northeast suburbs and the northwest industrial area.

Add in the expansion of Circle Drive North Bridge, the new South Circle Drive Bridge, and several new overpasses, and the bill over the past decade to the public purse has approached a billion dollars.

Before you dismiss all of this as just the ranting of some crazy anti-car zealot, let’s be clear: even if Saskatoon became a world leader in densification and infill development (we aren’t even close right now), Saskatoon will still need to grow outwards. For the foreseeable future, the personal vehicle will be at the centre of our transportation system, and there will always be the need to build new roadways, bridges and other infrastructure to move from place to place.

But there’s measured and reasonable roadway network growth, and then there are projects like the super-size North Commuter Bridge — or the replacement Traffic Bridge.

Four years after we were told its collapse was “imminent,” merely from the stress of its own weight, the Traffic Bridge (or part of it, anyway) still stands watch over the South Saskatchewan River. Decades of neglect by successive City councils more intent on saving a few measly dollars instead of ensuring its proper upkeep condemned this historical structure to its current, sad, state.

The “imminent” collapse and construction on the Idylwyld Bridge was used as the pretext by City council to jerry-rig a robust public consultation process that was underway in the summer of 2010, tasked with determining the future of the Traffic Bridge.

Why?

Because that public consultation process was clearly headed towards a recommendation that the bridge be repurposed as pedestrian-only. A majority of councillors, spooked by angry motorists experiencing small (and temporary) increases in their commute times, decided that their definition of “public consultation” also included the caveat of “when politically convenient.”

Insisting that removing vehicle traffic from the Traffic Bridge would create congestion chaos on not only downtown roads but on the three other bridges a stone’s throw away, a majority of council unilaterally removed all pedestrian options from consideration. That “consultation process” (insert ironic air quotes here) eventually recommended that a super-sized replica replacement bridge be built.

Four years later, and the predicted traffic armageddon has yet to materialize. Instead, just as concluded by the engineering report that was in the hands of council during their very public traffic freak-out, removing traffic from the Traffic Bridge would have no significant impact on traffic flow to and from downtown.

Recently commenting after the Meewasin Valley Authorities rubber-stamped approval of the bridge, the mayor trotted out this gem: “We need to have more bridges in this city if we wish to not have congestion.”

Sigh.

Atchison keeps telling us that Saskatoon is a world-class city. But world-class cities go out of their way to create places for people to congregate and interact. World-class cities do everything in their power to ensure that these people-places succeed.

Over the past decade, nearly $100 million has been spent from the public purse attempting to turn River Landing into a destination place for Saskatoon. A heavy focus has been taken on creating an area for people to gather, walk and cycle along the river. Building a bridge designed to allow vehicles to travel through the heart of this growing area, at speeds much higher than the original Victoria Bridge, directly sabotages the vision for River Landing. Ultimately, it will make River Landing less attractive to pedestrians and cyclists.

Here in Saskatoon, even when served up a no-brainer of a decision to help make our fledgling people-place better, our civic leadership is missing in action. Worse yet, it actively campaigns against a project it has spent so much money and political capital bringing to life.

Much like the rusting, half-demolished Traffic Bridge represents the irresponsible neglect of councils past, the new bridge will stand as a testament to a current council too myopic to move beyond hollow rhetoric and start actually making decisions like a world-class city.

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