Sometimes government makes an announcement, and even though you know it’s ages from reality, and will probably be announced and re-announced many times hence, you simply can’t help but get excited at the possibilities.
Such is the case with the announcement by Transport Canada earlier this month that the federal department will help fund a two-part project involving Port of Halifax upgrades and a redesign of the Windsor Street Exchange.
With the help of the federal subsidy, the port will be purchasing four rail-mounted cranes to get containers on and off rail more easily, thereby increasing use of the existing rail cut, and reducing heavy truck traffic through the peninsula by as much as 75%, or roughly 375 out of 500 trucks on a busy day. (Port president Karen Oldfield explained to CBC Mainstreet that the other 125 or so trucks are carrying refrigerated containers which can’t handle the extra delay of the rail shuttle, and so the port is still looking for a solution for those.)
Fewer large trucks on busy, mixed mode streets is always good, but it’s the second project that has really caught my attention in terms of potential to change how people get around, and even improve access to important parts of the city.
That’s the upgrade of the Windsor Street exchange, what Transport Canada calls, “the main access road to the Port of Halifax,” but which most Haligonians know as the complex and congested convergence of the Bedford Highway, Lady Hammond Road, Robie/Massachusetts Avenue, Windsor Street, Africville Road/Bayne Street, and last but not least, the ramp to the MacKay Bridge.
Of course, the impetus behind the federal backing of the Windsor Exchange redesign is freight. All of those 375 or so trucks kept off the road in the south end and through downtown will still need to get on the road once they get to the north end, and that will happen at the newly designed Windsor Exchange.
Transport Canada’s press release makes no mention of transit or active transportation, but seems to keep the focus on moving vehicle traffic and freight: “This work includes realigning the Bedford Highway, upgrading Lady Hammond Road and installing new traffic signals to improve traffic flow. These upgrades will reduce traffic congestion, improve safety and increase the reliability and efficiency of freight movements.”
But since the city of Halifax will be heading up the design and construction of the project, it’s reasonable to expect that the principles of the unanimously approved Intergrated Mobility Plan will come to bear, and that this project will include improvements to both transit and active transportation infrastructure.
Shortly after the federal funding announcement, Halifax councillor Waye Mason released a video positing that “with the proposed changes and the smoother flow of traffic, there is a really good chance we will be able to fit bus lanes in the Windsor Street exchange… In addition there’s also opportunity to put active transportation links through there,” said Mason.
There are two planning projects underway now that may help ensure a place for transit and active transportation infrastructure in the Windsor Exchange redesign: the Bedford Highway Functional Plan and an Africville connectivity improvement project.
At an open house in March, consultants outlined two basic scenarios for the Bedford Highway, both featuring continuous pedestrian access from Windsor Street to Oakmount Road in Bedford. A “balanced modes” option also provides continuous cycling facilities and limited transit priority, while a “transit priority” option dedicates more space to transit lanes, at the cost of separated bike infrastructure. Sadly, there’s no option with both cycling and transit lanes, presumably because the cost to vehicle traffic was judged too steep by the planners involved.
One of the big drawbacks of any revamped Bedford Highway plan was that it was appeared to end at Windsor Street, smack dab in the middle of the exchange. That’s why this new federal money, and the involvement of the municipality in the project, is such good news. A redesign of the complex Windsor Street intersection will mean that the redesigned Bedford Highway could actually connect to the peninsula, and maybe even Dartmouth via the MacKay.
On the other side of the exchange, there’s another plan in the early stages which promises to open up active transportation and possibly even transit access to Africville Park and National Historic Site.
In December 2016, Halifax planning staff responded to a petition seeking sidewalks and transit access to Africville Park with a report that outlined some options and a plan to study the issue the following year.
When planners got around to starting that study last fall, they took a pause after initial background work. “We needed to rethink the process to adequately honor the significance of the site and how we wanted to involve the community,” says planner Eliza Jackson.
Since then, staff have engaged a consultant to help them get the public consultations around the plan right. This is a good thing. After all, public officials doing what they think is best for people without their consent is basically how Africville was destroyed in the first place.
But the reality of the Africville access problem, regardless of exactly what it ends up looking like, is that it could be very expensive, considering the steep landscape and controlled access highways it is surrounded by. That’s another reason having the Windsor Exchange redesign boosted by federal funding is so important. Pedestrian access through the exchange, if it can be established through this project, could help make connecting Africville easier.
So there’s reason to feel positive about the federal funding announcement, though with reservations.
Will we end up with suitably ambitious transit and active transportation elements in the new Windsor Exchange? It is distinctly possible, if city planners do their jobs well and live up to the vision of the IMP, then yes, this could be a plan reflective of how people will be getting around in 25 years, more so than a relic of how they got around 25 years ago. It’s hard to say more until the preliminary designs (slated to start later this year) get released. Construction could start in 2021 at the earliest, according to MP Andy Fillmore speaking with CBC.
The other (recurring) question is, does Halifax actually have the capacity to manage this in addition to its already full plate? Recall that CAO Jacques Dubé told council this winter it probably didn’t matter that they funded more in the city’s capital budget process, because the city didn’t have the capacity to complete any more work anyway.
One has to wonder where a project like the Windsor Exchange fits in to Jacques Dubé’s working plan for city staff, and whether or not it can actually happen as a complement to projects like the Bedford Highway and Africville access, or whether it will displace them in the priority queue.