Monday, June 16, 2014

Two new bridges? Bring them on

Crossing the South Saskatchewan River is, for many Saskatonians, a regular and unavoidable part of life. It has been thus since Chief Whitecap advised John Lake to settle in a spot where a ferry could easily carry him across.

That spot is approximately where the Victoria Street or Traffic Bridge, now defunct, sits as a monument to poor planning and bad infrastructure maintenance. Rather, that’s where it would sit if a portion of it had not been removed.

Saskatoon has been waiting for a decision on what to do with that river crossing for four years. Even more crucial to the safe and smooth traffic flow of this growing city is a north bridge, also considered for several years.

Finally, after what has been a protracted period of discussion with the federal and provincial governments, we are getting new bridges. It is hard to imagine better news.

Last week, the three levels of government announced that $252 million would be spent on the two new bridges, with $60.8 million coming from the feds and $50 million for the province. The projects will fit into a public-private partnership or P3 model, which involves a contractor who will design, build and maintain the structures for 30 years.

Some pundits and observers have raised concerns about the model, and perhaps rightly so. The most significant problem would be if the contractor went out of business in the future, and a new maintenance contract had to be signed. Saskatchewan residents are likely to be leery of P3s, since few projects have been developed under this relatively new model. We are accustomed to governments doing it all.

However, in a province where most folks still want to park either two feet away from their destinations or for free (both would be preferable), some of the other options would not be palatable. Consider toll roads: a political non-starter, I would think.

The massive benefits of building the new bridges outweigh concerns over the P3 model, which may even bring its own benefits. The Traffic Bridge is now near collapse because of a lack of maintenance. If a company is contractually obligated to maintain the bridges, perhaps we will not see this problem again. Successive city councils were not able to manage it, so arguing the entire project should remain public doesn’t hold much water.

The Traffic Bridge, despite the well-intentioned arguments of some that it should be a pedestrian bridge, must carry traffic – partly to improve movement out of downtown, but also as a buffer against maintenance downtime on nearby bridges. Will the city delay maintaining the Broadway or University bridges because high traffic does not allow for it?

The north bridge, meanwhile, is crucial to the prosperity, comfort and safety of Saskatoon. The amount of traffic congestion in the north end is spectacular and entirely unacceptable. From a prosperity standpoint, goods and services must flow in a timely fashion through – and around – the city. People must have at least a reasonable shot at getting to work on time. How often do we hear on CBC Radio in the mornings that College Drive is backed up on the commute? Give up? Every Monday through Friday.

Community services that keep us safe, such as ambulance, police and fire, need to be able to get through traffic to their destinations. I have often wondered how this is possible when Millar Avenue, Warman Road and Circle Drive are completely jammed, bumper to bumper. How would a fire truck get through there?

Saskatoon is a growing and increasingly cosmopolitan place. An insufficient and, frankly, embarrassing road system is not going to support population growth, economic growth or a pleasant, courteous driving community. Let’s face it; road rage, discourteous driving and general commuting misery is no way to grow.

On the long, long list of important infrastructure investments, these are at the very top. We are so fortunate to be located on this beautiful river that defines the shape and contributes to the culture of our community. It is our finest feature. Along with it comes the need for bridges. Bring them on.








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