Google satellite shot of the Barrington Street ramp where it meets the Macdonald Bridge.

Last week I wrote about the new street network being proposed for the land currently occupied by the Cogswell interchange, and asked why the city was proposing not to include a transit priority corridor along the full stretch of Barrington Street that’s being re-designed.

The current plan does include some transit priority lanes on Barrington on the downtown side of one of two proposed roundabouts. But this week I want to focus on one of the reasons why transit priority is not on the table from Barrington Street to the bridge: the Barrington Street access ramp for the Macdonald Bridge.

We know the ramp was built in 1999 by the Halifax-Dartmouth Bridge Commission, along with a third, centre reversible vehicle lane and walking and cycling lanes on the bridge. We also know that city buses have never used the Barrington ramp to get onto the Macdonald bridge, and that it was not specifically designed to accommodate them, because no-one at mid-90s Metro Transit thought it was necessary.

But what exactly is the problem with buses using this ramp, and is it fixable?

The short answer from the city has been that the geometry of the ramp lanes meeting the bridge make it so that buses turning right (from the right lane to the right lane) will poke their noses into the centre reversible lane as they make the turn.

The longer answer comes in 426 pages of email conversations and documents between city and bridge commission staff, from December 2016 to December 2017, the results of an access to information request submitted by a concerned citizen and forwarded to the Examiner.

The collection is a fascinating look behind the scenes at what happens as media and citizen enquiries filter through city staff, and also gives a picture of who’s working on this problem, and how hard.

Planners do listen, sometimes

Proving that all those damn consultations have actually meant something to someone, the first mention of the Barrington ramp in the past three years (the range of the access to information request) came from city planner Marcus Garnet, who had been facilitating a table at the Integrated Mobility Plan sessions in December 2016 when someone expressed concern over “making Gottingen an express bus corridor.”

Garnet emailed the rest of the IMP team, passing along the concern and wondering, “with all the engineering expertise on the IMP team, can we think of any way to [get buses using the Barrington ramp] without breaking the bank (or the bridge)?”

A short discussion ensues, wherein a few planners, including veteran HRM transportation guy David McCusker, agree that buses would probably be fine to make the turn onto the bridge in the afternoons, when the middle bridge lane flows towards Dartmouth. That’s because in the afternoons, buses wouldn’t be poking their noses into oncoming traffic, which means, as a Halifax Transit planner pointed out, afternoon “peak hour express buses traveling to Dartmouth could be routed via Barrington in both directions, as they really should be.”

Testing it out

There’s no more email communication on the issue for about five months, until a media enquiry (mine) arrives in May, and then in June Halifax Transit’s manager of planning and scheduling, Patricia Hughes, requests clearance from the bridge commission to do a live test run of buses on the ramp. (As much as I’d love to believe media requests matter, it’s not the media request that spurs on Hughes’s test plans, but rather the looming possibility that Halifax Transit will need to re-route buses during the inevitable and dreaded Cogswell construction phase, which Hughes mentions in several emails.)

As she starts arranging the test, Hughes learns from the bridge commission that the ramp turn has been tested with buses in the past (possibly in 2002 or 2003, according to Dave McCusker, who seems to be the only remaining HRM employee who was there), and while they could make the turn, they could not do so without encroaching the centre lane. Hughes still decides to conduct her own test, with a hunch that “if buses stayed to the left on the ramp instead, the turn would be possible.”

After a couple of false starts, and many emails regarding scheduling drivers, locating cameras, and coordinating among various city departments and the bridge commission, the actual test ends up happening on October 4, a Wednesday. The bridge ramp is closed down around noon, and four Halifax Transit driver trainers take buses up the ramp and make the turn on to the bridge four different ways: one from the right ramp lane, one from straddling both ramp lanes, one from the left ramp lane, and one from the right lane but using a ‘buttonhook’ turn.

Driver feedback on the safety of the manoeuvres is mixed. One feels the turn is no different than other right turns in the city in terms of lane encroachment, and others express concerns about vehicles trying to squeeze in beside them as they make the turn. Video stills show varying degrees of the buses encroaching the centre lane (which was closed for the test.) Unfortunately, the one turn with the most hope of not encroaching the centre lane — the one from the left ramp lane — is executed incorrectly. The driver makes a turn from left ramp to centre lane on the bridge, having misunderstood the point of the test.

“It’s possible we can repaint the lines”

After the test, transportation planning engineer Harrison McGrath, who works for HRM on other transit priority measures in the city, says he will compile options looking at getting buses on the ramp and other transit priority coming off the bridge. Staff meet to discuss those options on October 25, and then meet with the bridge commission on December 11, 2017.

Hughes sums up the state of affairs after that meeting succinctly in an email to Halifax Transit director Dave Reage on December 12:

At this point HHB [Halifax Harbour Bridges] aren’t on board with us making the turn, but we are working on a solution with them. It’s possible that we can repaint the lines immediately at the turn and resolve the concerns.

And that’s basically where we’re at. The problem of the Barrington bridge ramp, it seems, is very much fixable.

Waiting on staff reports

McGrath and another engineer are charged with writing a “technical spec” outlining the options. His attitude in emails has been positive that a solution can be found (“It’s going to work somehow,” he footnotes to Halifax Transit supervisor Erin Blay on December 6, 2017.) The most promising solution appears to be switching all traffic from the inside to the outside lane in the mornings, when there’s only one lane to Dartmouth. (Currently the outside lane gets closed off, leaving only the inside lane free.)  The possibility of including some sort of transit lane or priority for buses getting on the ramp is also mentioned.

The city now says the target for a staff report on this issue is fall of 2018, which seems like a long way off for a problem that sounds nearly solved and affects at least two other imminent transportation decisions: the transit corridor on Gottingen Street and the redesign of the Cogswell district. The decisions made in each of these projects could impact the level of effort thrown at correcting the bridge ramp bus access, especially if changes to Gottingen Street happen first, or if the new Cogswell district continues to ignore the proposed Barrington Street transit priority corridor.

Back in August 2017, in an email to update transit boss Reage on the situation, Hughes wrote, “We do not yet know if it is possible/cost associated with using the Barrington Street ramp. And, if we were to have a good TPM [transit priority measure] on Gottingen, it may be advantageous to leave all of the expresses on Gottingen for reliability.”

That, in a nutshell, is what worries folks like Patty Cuttell-Busby of the North End Business Improvement District. [Check out Is Gottingen the right street for a bus express lane? from February 22.] If Gottingen gets the TPM treatment before Barrington, will Halifax Transit decide to just leave it as an express bus corridor? Cuttell-Busby hopes no, but fears yes.

But this is how transportation planning works. It’s all a bit of a house of cards, with each piece of infrastructure highly dependant on the next. And this is why projects like the Cogswell redesign and the Gottingen bus lane simply must fit into a larger plan, and not just focus on the relatively small area that they seem to directly impact.

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  1. LOL the Metro Transit Driver INSTRUCTOR missed the point of the most obvious of the 4 tests. Why does that not surprise me.

    I wonder if they had the bike rack on the front of the bus deployed while they ran those tests?

    Also, I wonder what the results of the previous bus tests (the 2002/2003 tests) showed, and whether they were able to find a driver for those tests that executed the left-to-right maneuver correctly?

    Erica, please take my subscription money and file another FOIPOP for the videos that were taken of the tests so that we can be the judges!

    1. Also, what is the point of the Barrington ramp dividing itself into two lanes at the top anyways? Does it really have an appreciable effect on the wait times to get onto the bridge? I’ve NEVER used the left lane…

  2. A very good article. HRM Planning and engineering staff (Marcus Garnet and Harrison McGrath) seem to have this figured out, but Patricia Hughes just seems to want to put a square peg in a round hole so they can “get something done”. Gottingen Street is just coming back to life, with about $80 million of new construction either complete, or getting ready to start (yes, that number is not a typo). This new development will breathe life back into this great neighbourhood, which has been seeing a resurgence over the past 5 years. With such a narrow existing right of way, the only way to get a dedicated bus lane and two lanes for cars is to occupy all of Gottingen Street. This leaves no room for bicycles and makes it more dangerous for pedestrians, etc. Not to mention the noise and pollution for 90 buses an hour at rush hour, the inability forl businesses and residents to loan or un-load supplies, move into apartment buildings, etc. Much more work is needed before Metro Transit and HRM Council precede with this half baked plan. Priority for transit? Absolutely, but not if it sacrifices Gottingen Street as a complete street and the spine of a great neighborhood.

      1. That article was written in ignorance of the facts and details of land work on Gottingen. And it was “some residents”. A thrown together anti anything piece of wasteful urinalism.

        The fact remains that busses can use the ramp – Ive seen what I am pretty sure was the Mooseheads team bus use it – do we think that driver is better than metro transit’s? Paint a transit lane on the left side, and add a transit bus actuated signal. The kind where they get a head start over cars to their right.

        The devastation of Gottingen Street – it’s too narrow for the traffic it already endures, since it was turned into a bridge ramp years ago. These are busses that don’t even stop on Gottingen – they don’t serve that neighbourhood, they should be on Barrington.

        I already said as much in some comment section somewhere.

        And by the way, long ago and not so far away, a young traffic engineer and I worked out how to make that ramp work. And we used bus templates.

  3. Great work.
    But why should an Access To Information request be required to get this material? We have light years to go on reaching anything that resembles true transparency at all levels of government.

    1. The amount of effort we are collectively spending on trying to control messaging and basic information is depressing. Only about 15 years ago I would have gotten this story by speaking to various staff on the phone… 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there. Staff did not waste time formulating careful answers for me, they would have just been honest, as they are with each other, about what was up and what was happening. Now there is a department devoted to forwarding my emails along, and then compiling responses into boiled down lingo that often leaves me with many follow up questions. It takes me way more time, and I know it takes them way more time.

  4. So informative as always. Please continue to do the amazing work you do to keep people informed of transit and planning issues in Halifax.