Airport underpass must get approved and built soon

Post Date: Saturday, January 08, 2011
Mayor Nenshi-7154 I write a monthly column for the Calgary Herald. Here is the full January article:

Happy New Year! I had a pretty exciting 2010 myself, and I hope that the momentum continues through 2011 and beyond.

City council and I have a lot on our plate for the next year. We will find a way to keep the extraordinary public engagement that we have seen since the election going, and we will begin the long process of transformation, ensuring that the services we provide are the ones that citizens need. We'll reform our governance procedures to make it easier for people to contribute, and we'll get answers to the questions many Calgarians have been asking about the burning issues of previous councils.

One of the most immediate issues in front of us is to render a final decision on the Airport Trail Underpass. In reality, it's a bit strange that we're still talking about this, or that this particular piece of infrastructure has gained near-mythical status. It is, in fact, just a piece of infrastructure like so many we build every year. It will cost, for example, a fraction of what was spent on the Pine Creek water treatment plant. It will cost about what the Glenmore and Elbow interchange would cost if we were to build it today.

Yet, for many reasons, this underpass has been consuming enormous amounts of time and there has been a lot of misinformation about it. Here are some key facts:

We need it. This tunnel has been in Calgary's transportation plan since 1995 or before. It's not just about access to the airport -- it's about creating an East-West link in a city that is severely short of them.

Barlow Trail North will close in just over three months for the construction of a new runway.

Without the underpass, there will be no access to east Calgary for a distance roughly the same as the distance between City Hall and Heritage Drive. While we are replacing Barlow with a new road, Metis Trail, this latter road is significantly impaired if there's no way off of it.

The other road that is impaired is our brand-new ring road, Stoney Trail. Stoney Trail East already has an exit and interchange for Airport Trail, but it is closed, since it leads nowhere. That means that it is not as useful as it could be for commuters from the deep south, who would otherwise have a real alternative to the congested Deerfoot once Stoney is completed.

Furthermore, the far northeast is one of Calgary's few remaining identified growth corridors. Thousands of new residents and businesses are slated to be added to this part of the city in the upcoming years, and they will need road and transit infrastructure. Far from enabling unsustainable sprawl, getting the right road infrastructure in place before we build communities helps us serve them more effectively by transit, and helps us build more complete communities, where people can live, work, play, shop and go to school in closer proximity. This is one of our few chances to get it right in the first place, instead of forever playing catch-up.

We have to do it now. The real tragedy of this discussion is that we have to move so quickly. Barlow Trail is slated to close in three short months, and if we don't build the underpass before the runway is built, costs explode. We're waiting on final estimates for the underpass, but $150 million is a reasonable guess. If we have to build the tunnel later, by boring under a live runway, this cost could be as much as $1.5 billion, if it would be even technically possible.

It's about transit as much as about cars. The easiest way to serve the airport by transit is from the east. We will have a new express bus from McKnight-Westwinds station this year, but if we ever want LRT to the airport, we need the underpass. There is a plan on the books to serve the airport from a new North-Central LRT, but this would not go directly to the terminal, would require some sort of people-mover over Deerfoot Trail that no one has budgeted for, and I can't see it being built anytime soon. On the other hand, the underpass would serve express buses from the outset, and would be designed to accommodate an LRT link when we are ready for one.

This city council has taken decisive action already. We heard Calgarians -- 99 per cent of whom voted for a mayoral candidate who favoured the tunnel. We've asked for a true costing of the project so that we can make the best decision based on the best facts. I will be urging my council members to support this investment. It's the right decision for the 20 million travellers who will use the airport every year, for the 15,000 people who work there, but more important, it's the right decision for all Calgarians.

- Mayor Nenshi