Saturday, December 9, 2017

Highway 3 twinning project update

Highway 3 Twinning Functional Planning Study – Sentinel to Pincher Creek study area (AB Transportation)

Chris Davis - The Highway 3 proposed twinning project has been the subject of recent open houses in June and November of this year. It has also been the subject of discussion in the Alberta Legislature, primarily during Question Period remarks by Livingstone-Macleod MLA Pat Stier, most recently on December 6. Stier's electoral division includes a significant portion of the highway. Stier is a regular guest at monthly meetings of the Highway 3 Twinning Development Association, which includes representatives of the municipalities along the highway.  He pressed for a more definite timeline.

Alberta Transportation has released a preliminary "Highway 3 Twinning Functional Planning Study - Sentinel to Pincher Creek". ISL Engineering and Land Services was contracted by Alberta Transportation to conduct the study. It "will define the design standards, access locations and identify the staging needed to upgrade the existing two-lane, undivided section to its ultimate four-lane classification and configuration." The twinning project is being built in stages. It includes a proposed Highway 3X alternate high speed route south of Coleman designed for heavy vehicles and trucks. A "Final Functional Plan" is anticipated from ISL and Alberta Transportation in the spring or fall of 2019, depending on which document one reads.

Hwy 3 twinning project concept map (AB Transportation)
As reported here previously, a report was prepared for the Highway 3 Twinning Development Association by University of Lethbridge Department of Economics Professor Kien C. Tran, Ph.D. was completed on April 22 2017 and unveiled to the public on May 5, 2017."  The report states "Over a 20 year period the economic benefits exceed construction costs by over 2 billion dollars...based on existing data."  According to the report, "The main benefits that accrue from twinning Highway 3 include not only for safety improvement/time saving but also for increase in social/economic activities, tourism and agricultural needs."

Twinning Highway 3 was deemed a priority in the Alberta government’s 2008 20-year capital plan. Highway 3 is also designated a National Highway System core route and as a Long Combination Vehicle corridor. Twinning from Fort Macleod to Taber has been completed. Functional Planning studies have been conducted for a realignment/bypass at Lethbridge, for a bypass at Fort Macleod, for Taber to west of Burdett, for from the BC border to Highway 507, for a Highway 3X bypass from Sentinel to Blairmore, for a Highway 3/Highway 6 interchange at Pincher Creek/Pincher Station, and for various parts of the proposed project west of Burdett.

Alberta Transportation graphic
"Highway 3X will be an alternate high speed route south of Coleman focused on moving heavy vehicles and trucks."  According to the study, "this allows the existing Highway 3 to become a business route that will serve local community and tourist traffic."  It is projected that Highway 3X traffic usage would be approximately  50% internal (community to community) and 50% external (through trips).  Several options for the placement of and connections to Highway 3X are being considered.

Alberta Transportation graphic
July and November 2017 open houses at the MD McEachern Community Centre in Bellevue focused on Stage 1A of the planning process, which covers east of Sentinel to Blairmore. According to current Alberta Transportation documents presented at that open house, the goal is to develop a functional plan that will establish interim and ultimate layouts for a twinned highway, that will address new environmental policies effected since the previous planning studies were completed, that will complete plans for approximately seven interchanges and two flyovers, that will confirm a final truck route south of Coleman. and that will address environmental, geotechnical and historical considerations. "Some ultimate interchange or flyover locations will remain at-grade intersections (i.e.: stop controlled, roundabouts or traffic signals) or may be built with a reduced footprint until traffic volumes reach a level that warrants upgrading to a full interchange or flyover. The truck route could be constructed in stages, which means that not all of the ultimate lanes will be built all at once. The truck route could initially be constructed with one lane in each direction."

Also according to the Alberta Transportation presentation, "Numerous safety and capacity issues have been identified along Highway 3. While previous planning work identified highway and local access options to address safety and capacity along the corridor, a new plan for the expansion of Highway 3 is required that addresses conservation of environmental and historical resources as well as access to existing communities and future development opportunities."  The plan is also expected to include "an adjacent trail system to accommodate people who walk, bike and use other active transportation modes."  Crossing structures to allow safe passage for wildlife while reducing wildlife collisions is also being considered.

Capacity and safety on Highway 3 is considered to be a concern that is growing with population and recreational traffic increases, particularly west of Highway 22, but also throughout its length. According to a Highway 3 study it "provides primary connections between southern Alberta to are anticipated to continue to increase with population provinces east and west and is one of only 3 continuous east-west routes through Alberta."

Alberta Transportation has also identified a need "to review the existing passing opportunities along Highway 22 corridor from Hwy 3 to Hwy 543, a length of 118 kms. Strategic locations for climbing and passing lanes, and safety pullouts have been reviewed. Construction is not on the three-year program."

In the Alberta Legislature

On December 6 Livingstone-Macleod MLA Pat Stier spoke during question period in the legislature, asking for more information about the timing of the process. "In southern Alberta the most important key transportation project that is now in the advanced planning stage is the twinning of highway 3, which stretches from Medicine Hat to the B.C. border. For several years now an association of key municipalities known as the Highway 3 Twinning Association has been working with community stakeholders and Alberta Transportation officials, who just recently held several open houses on project refinements. However, what is not known now is the timing for the next steps to this process. To the Minister of Transportation: what is the next project phase, and how soon will it begin?"

Minister of Transportation Brian Mason responded "Well, we recognize very much the importance of highway 3 to the economy of southern Alberta. The hon. member knows that some time ago I met with almost every mayor from every rural and urban municipality, and we did provide funding for them in order to do some studies with respect to that. We are fixing crumbling and inadequate infrastructure. We're investing over $3 billion overall, and we're going to continue to make sure that highway 3 is as safe as possible and does its job of supporting the economy."

To that MLA Stier responded "That's all well and fine, but the Highway 3 transportation corridor project is an extremely important project that must continue moving forward as soon as possible. Given that last May the report conducted by an economics professor from the University of Lethbridge and partially funded by the province showed very positive economic returns for this project and given that these recent open houses are now completed, to the minister: when will the next expected phase, known as the functional planning studies, be completed?"

Minister Mason responded "I want to assure the hon. member that our department is working on planning forward for that particular road, and he's quite correct that that would be the next stage. I can just tell the hon. member that in due course we will be moving ahead with those studies because we recognize the importance of Highway 3 to southern Alberta.

"The sooner the highway 3 project moves forward, the sooner Albertans will reap the economic benefits," said Stier. "Given that several landowners and developers have contacted my office regarding land acquisition issues and early negotiation difficulties with the department and given that no clear public information has been released regarding this aspect of the project, to the minister: has the land acquisition phase actually begun? If not, when will negotiations with affected landowners, including the Piikani Nation, begin?"

"I want to assure the hon. member and all members of the House that as we progress with the planning for this road, we will also be seeking to acquire land in a timely fashion in order to accomplish the construction schedule that we have set out," replied Mason.

Feedback from the public

Some of the public feedback recorded by Alberta Transportation at the June 27 Open House includes:
  • Respondents felt that it is important to have safe areas for wildlife and pedestrians to cross the highway (culverts, wildlife over/under passes, etc.). In addition, respondents suggested adding pathways along the highway for pedestrians and cyclists and including fencing along the highway to reduce the potential for wildlife collisions along the corridor.
  • Respondents indicated concerns about vehicle safety during the winter along the bypass route due to the lack of sun exposure, increased winds across the road and the increased chances for wildlife collisions given that there will be more wildlife in the area as it is further away from the town centres.
  • Respondents felt that access to, from and between communities is necessary for residents and that changes to the highway need to ensure that accesses to the amenities in the area are maintained or enhanced.
  • Respondents were concerned that a bypass route without adequate access (easy to use interchanges or flyovers) will encourage travelers to pass the entire area without stopping and could have negative impacts to local businesses in the Crowsnest Pass area.
  • Respondents felt that salt and sand from the roadway run-off may negatively impact the wetlands. They also felt that the wetlands should be avoided to prevent fragmentation or other impacts by the potential roadway. (The wetland west of Blairmore is the largest permanent wetland in the study area.)
  • Respondents felt that that the potential alignment crossing several waterbodies/watersheds could negatively impact the environment, and that Rock Creek and Crowsnest River are important habitats for trout and other fish and should be protected.
  • Respondents expressed concerns that upgrading the highway could result in noise, visual, air, wildlife, environmental and economic impacts that could negatively affect the livelihood and quality of life for the area and of its residents. Concern was also raised about the importance of making efforts to minimize these potential impacts.
  • Respondents indicated that they would like to see fair compensation for the properties impacted by the upgrades to the highway and also felt that a long-term business strategy is necessary for the communities along the existing roadway.
  • Respondents expressed curiosity about how the upgrades to the highway could impact property values in the communities throughout the study area.
  • Respondents felt that emergency access to and from communities is important and that there is room for improvement in the area, particularly around Frank.
  • Respondents felt that fast and efficient emergency access in the area should be a priority given the potential for increases in collisions during the winter months. They also raised concern that the proposed route may create slower response times for first responders.
  • Respondents felt that tourism is an integral component to the economic health, identity and social well-being of the Crowsnest Pass region and suggested it is important to maintain or enhance access to existing recreational areas due to the expected increase in visitors with enhancements being made to surrounding recreational areas.
  • Respondents made specific mention that is important to protect and enhance access to the York Creek Trail Network, as it is popular in the community and draws a large number of visitors to the area.
  • Respondents indicated concern that twinning the highway and adding a bypass could discourage tourists from visiting restrict access to major staging areas and negatively impact existing bike trails in the area surrounding the bypass.
  • Respondents expressed concern about the potential for increased traffic noise if the speed limit of the roadway increases.
  • Some respondents suggested that noise barriers or soil berms should be implemented to help reduce noise impacts for residents.
  • Some respondents felt that air quality could worsen, in particular from dust during construction.
  • Respondents felt that it is important to maintain and enhance the existing trails and pathways that connect communities to improve recreation opportunities and safety. Some expressed concerns that the potential twinning of the highway would negatively impact connectivity between communities for people who walk and bike.
  • Respondents were mixed on whether reducing congestion on the highway is important or not because there are only a few times when congestion is bad (e.g. long weekends). Some respondents felt that congestion could be reduced by adding turning lanes or passing lanes.
  • Respondents shared that there are multiple archaeological, historic and cultural resources in the area that need to be protected. Some respondents felt that impacts to historic and cultural resources could have negative economic impacts and that tourism opportunities to enhance the economy are important.
  • Respondents indicated that the bypass south of Coleman will be on the north side of the mountain which will likely require more maintenance in the winter months for snow / ice removal and the road will be more treacherous to drive with the lack of sun in the winter months.
  • Respondents expressed that they would like to see the construction start sooner than later because costs to complete the upgrades will continue to grow over time.
  • Some respondents expressed concern about reducing the amount of developable land as there are currently environmental constraints on developable land in the area. Others shared that it is important to conserve developable land to be used for attracting new development to enhance the economy.
  • Respondents indicated that it is important for transport trucks to move through the area in a manner that increases safety for local residents, and the bypass is a good option for improving safety in the communities along the existing road. However, respondents raised concerns that BC has no plans to twin the highway west of the Alberta / BC border and that a bypass will provide little benefit if the highway goes back to an undivided two-lane road.
  • Respondents expressed concern about the economic impact on property values and local businesses. Respondents suggested that regulations be considered to prohibit services along the bypass route in order to encourage travellers to continue to stop in the communities for their needs (gas, food, etc.).
  • Respondents also indicated that preserving protected species, wildlife habitat, tourism and heritage conservation are all important to consider in the study.
  • Respondents felt that construction should begin sooner than later and that consultation should include design options and one-on-one conversations with landowners and businesses directly impacted by changes to happen along the highway and bypass routes.
  • Respondents would like to see designs that demonstrate benefits and opportunities of the upgrades for the local communities, encourage tourism in the Crowsnest Pass and attract visitors to the area.
  • Respondents expressed interest in whose responsibility the maintenance cost of the highway and the bypass will be (municipal or provincial?) and how winter road safety will be considered in the design of the new bypass route.
  • Respondents expressed concern about the construction impact and requested more information about the construction schedule and how it could affect current traffic patterns and congestion.
  • The economic impact to business owners and property values is also of significant importance to most respondents.
  • Respondents feel that the highway should also be upgraded beyond the Alberta/BC border in order for the benefits to outweigh the impacts that the Crownsnest Pass area could encounter with the changes to Highway 3.
  • Respondents expressed concern about increased noise in the area, visual and aesthetic impacts to the corridor, and have requested more information on fair property value assessment and land acquisition.
  • Respondents want to see designs that maintain or enhance connectivity between communities.
  • Some respondents felt that the upgrades to the highway are long overdue and are concerned that this project is still in a study phase. Several respondents would like to see upgrades to the highway to take place immediately.
  • Respondents felt that increasing passing lanes and turning lanes and lowing the speed limit to 50 and 90 km/hour (like in National Parks) throughout the study area will be sufficient to improve safety and traffic flow, maintain the `scenic route' throughout the area and provide better access to communities, recreational areas and cultural and historical resources.
A partial history (from Alberta Transportation documents):
  • The need for further expansion and a protected right-of-way for Highway 3 was recognized in the late 1960's. Since then a number of planning studies have been completed along the corridor.
  • The recommendation to further explore a south route, rather than north or through Coleman, was accepted in 2007.
  • In 2009, options south of Coleman were studied further and the proposed alignment at that time connected at the Crowsnest Pass Visitor Centre in the west and near 20 Ave (west) in Blairmore.
  • Options that connect west of Allison Creek are no longer being considered to avoid adverse impacts to fisheries resources and the Travel Alberta Crowsnest Pass Visitor Information Centre.
  • A 2003 - 07 study found it is not feasible to twin Highway 3 through the urban area of Coleman.

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