There’s been a certain amount of jubilation surrounding the latest city staff report on fixing the access to the Macdonald Bridge Bikeway. A couple of councillors at last week’s Transportation Standing Committee (TSC) meeting joked that it must feel like Christmas for the handful of cycling advocates gathered in the gallery.
To be fair, they did look pretty happy. But at the risk of sounding like a Scrooge here, the reality is that the approval of this report only starts the beginning of a long process that is still years out from seeing the problems with the Macdonald Bridge Bikeway actually fixed. So yeah, if your idea of a great Christmas present is a note promising that grandma will have your new sweater finished by sometime in 2020, then yes, I suppose last week’s TSC meeting was a bit like Christmas.
With that slight reality-check out of the way, let’s have a look at the proposal, which seems to be the most comprehensive, network-focussed solution to come forward in the 17+ years the city has been working on this problem.
“It’s actually really encouraging,” says Eliza Jackson, Sustainable Transportation Coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre. “They’re not just building the ramp and that’s the end of it. Rather they are looking at how people are accessing the connections to the bridge through some of the bigger corridors.”
In addition to fixes for the direct accesses on both sides, the city’s proposed plan includes bike lanes on North Street, Wyse Road, Dickson Street, and Faulkner Street, and a local street bikeway along Lyle Street and Shore Road. The intersection at North and Gottingen Streets will see a makeover, removing an out-of-favour channelized right turn lane, and introducing transit priority for busses coming off the bridge and turning left on Gottingen Street (which will happen under route changes in the Moving Forward together plan.)
The pièce de résistance, of course, is the “flyover,” a sort of bike bridge that will take riders from the Macdonald bikeway up over vehicle traffic exiting the bridge and land them close to the former bridge shuttle stop on North Street. The flyover gives people on bikes a second way on and off the bridge from Halifax, and the option to bypass the much-despised and steeply graded path which currently winds down around the bridge before ending abruptly at busy Barrington St.
There is another, cheaper option for the flyover, which would land people at Lorne Terrace, near the CFB gates. City staff are recommending against this option as it would require a land purchase from the base and still leave people coming off the bridge with a 10 per cent slope up North Street to Gottingen, which is not exactly the “all ages and abilities” design the city now espouses.
Jackson agrees. “Anything over a six per cent grade is often considered not accessible by everyone,” she says. The current ramp going under the bridge to Barrington averages an 11 per cent slope, and the recommended design for the flyover (option 2 in the report) would mean a 5.5 per cent slope.
Relative to what Halifax has been spending on active transportation, the flyover fix is expensive, with options ranging from $5 million to $6.2 million just for the Halifax side. For perspective, that’s three to four per cent of what the federal and provincial government are putting toward their recently announced project to further twin the 103 highway. And, as I wrote back in 2015, the need for this project comes from the decision to leave vehicle traffic flow off the bridge undisturbed, since the cheapest fix would be to allow bikes to simply cross the right hand vehicle lane, as was pointed out by CBCL engineers back in 2001.
Be that as it may, this is easily the biggest “bike” project the city has ever taken on. It’s also the most important, says Halifax Cycling Coalition director Kelsey Lane. Given the city’s goal of doubling the share of trips that we take by bike, “it’s not really an option to leave it as is,” says Lane. “If it’s not complete, it’s going to be very difficult to see that ridership increase.”
Lane is also hoping that the city can make the bike bridge “more than just a piece of cycling infrastructure.” Citing the example of the Cycle Snake in Copenhagen, Lane says that if done right, this bridge can be “something exciting, something that people are going to want to ride over as a destination piece.”
It’s hard to imagine a 180-metre bike bridge being anything but a standout piece of infrastructure, but Lane is probably right to raise the issue of design early in the process.
And it is early in the process. The proposed plan has yet to be approved by council, which could happen this month if it makes it to council’s summer agenda. Then the various projects will need to go through detailed design, likely done by contracted engineers and designers. Once the detailed designs are approved there will be one more round of tendering for actual construction.
The current staff report includes a “before 2020” timeline for completion of the Dartmouth side projects, but is silent on the completion goals for the Halifax side, which is worrisome, especially considering that we will soon be looking at an Integrated Mobility Plan (IMP) that at last look recommended Halifax build a minimum protected bikeway grid by 2020. (Rumour has it the latest iteration will say 2021, but we’ll find out for sure once we actually see the IMP document, hopefully in September.)
The funding scheme in the report shows the bulk of the funds for the project appearing in 2019/20, though there’s no breakdown of what will be happening from year to year.
“We are interested in implementing things as soon as possible,” write Active Transportation supervisor David MacIsaac by email. “After we have direction from Regional Council, the first steps will be more focussed project implementation planning and setting up the agreement with [Halifax Harbour Bridges].”
Both Lane and Jackson are hoping to see action on the bridge project as soon as possible, so as to avoid overlapping with the expected major projects to come out of the Integrated Mobility Plan.
“To have those two projects overlap has the potential to put both projects behind,” says Jackson, because of the workload involved for Halifax’s AT staff. “The sooner they can move forward on this the better.”
Of course, some delays will be out of the hands of Halifax’s AT staff, and even our city council. The projects include new types of infrastructure for Nova Scotia: cross-rides (think a crosswalk for bikes) and bike traffic signals, neither of which is described in our current Motor Vehicle Act. There is a “process underway” to request these changes, though it’s fair to say they may be a low priority for the provincial government. Personally, I would think the “build now, answer questions later” strategy would be called for here, but Halifax council and city staff have shown no propensity to push the limits of what they are explicitly allowed to do under provincial legislation.
“Imagine if this whole project or part of this project was held up because they aren’t legally allowed to put in a cross ride,” says Lane.
Another possible delay for the project could come from Halifax Harbour Bridges, for obvious reasons a major partner in the project. Of course, the HHB has nothing but incentive to cooperate and speed along the project, since their raison d’être is indeed getting people across the harbour, but dealing with another agency inevitably causes delays. A transit-only toll lane on the Macdonald Bridge that was first approved by the city in the spring of 2016 has yet to be implemented due to planning back and forth between city planners and the Bridge Commission.
One thing distinctly missing from this otherwise comprehensive plan are some improved bike and pedestrian facilities for the huge, busy intersection at Wyse Road and Nantucket Avenue. The current plan sees those approaching from the Sportsplex side of the intersection cross and use the Faulkner/Dixon access to the bridge, instead of turning left from Wyse on to the bridge. Because the HHB is toying with the idea of getting rid of their toll booths and introducing automatic cashless tolling, the city is opting to wait before making adjustments to the intersection. Unfortunately the tolling changes are an estimated “three to five years” away, with even the HHB’s decision on the project “likely a year away” as reported by Zane Woodford in Metro.
Kelsey Lane is hoping the city will at least put in some temporary measures to make the intersection at Wyse and Nantucket more AT-friendly. “This is one of the biggest connections and waiting for the toll upgrade to put anything down, like not even temporary measures, is concerning,” says Lane.
Of course, first steps are first, and Lane’s biggest concern right now is getting the plan approved by council in one piece. “I know there’s an opportunity to pick it apart and say we’re going to do this piece and that piece,” says Lane, “but what I really hope is that it goes to council and is approved all at once. We’re not just talking about one piece of infrastructure anymore. We’re talking about how we can build it out and connect it to the rest of the network. So I think that’s going to be really important, approving and implementing as intended.”
After not having the bike and pedestrian lanes available for the past 2 years it is good to be reminded what an awesome ride/walk it is over the bridge. This will only make it better and more accessible to all.
We Haligonins now have access to the wonders of Dartmouth – the amazing waterfront trail, Sullivans Pond and to top it off, what now appears to be AUTHENTIC Montreal, wood fired bagels at the foot of the bridge.