The red line shows the approximate route of the original proposal for a Burnside Expressway. The yellow line shows the current alignment of the western end of the 107 corridor, referred to in the 2017 twinning/tolling study.

Just before the last provincial election, the Nova Scotia Liberals announced a seven-year, $390 million commitment to highway building and twinning. It was a distinct change from the stance they had taken the previous year during tolling consultations, when they made clear that Nova Scotia could not afford to twin highways without collecting tolls.

One of the projects on the $390 million list was a new four-lane expressway to connect Burnside industrial park with Duke Street in Bedford. The Burnside Expressway (also known as the 107 Extension Phase 1 or the Burnside-Sackville Connector) has been on the planning horizon since at least 1991, when the province performed the first of its three environmental assessments (EA) to date on the project.

The latest EA application was delivered to Nova Scotia’s Department of Environment in June, and the sent back in August with a request for more information. Nova Scotia Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal (NSTIR) has up to one year to further explain the impacts the project will have on fish and fish habitat, particularly the endangered Atlantic Whitefish, which may or may not be present in neighbouring Anderson Lake. (Stay tuned to the Halifax Examiner for a piece on the trials and tribulations of the Atlantic Whitefish later this week.)

So the project is on hold for now, at least until NSTIR can get its environmental ducks in a row. That’s good news for those of us that have questioned the wisdom of building an additional urban expressway during a time when our stated regional goal is to decrease the proportion of trips we all take by car. But even for project proponents, those that see the expressway as a necessary relief to traffic congestion on Magazine Hill, this delay is not necessarily a bad thing. Because if we’re going to end up building this thing, we should probably have a public chat about where we are building it.

And where we are building it has changed. From 1991 up until sometime in 2012, the plan for the Burnside expressway was a shorter, more direct route than is currently proposed. Since it was conceived, the plan had been to build the road north of Anderson Lake, a relatively straight shot from Burnside Drive to Duke Street in Bedford. Then in 2012, the routing was changed to curve south of Anderson Lake, almost adjacent to Magazine Hill, then come back north to meet Duke Street.

The proposed Burnside Expressway from a traffic study in 2011, back when the province was still negotiating with the Municipal Group for land.
The newly proposed alignment of the Burnside expressway, currently paused at the environmental assessment stage.

It turns out that sometime in the 90s, Municipal Enterprises Limited — MEL, aka Dexter Construction, aka the group of companies that dominates nearly every contracted service in HRM, and operates the Otter Lake dump — acquired the land surrounding most of Anderson Lake’s north side.

MEL’s estimation of its acquired property has grown over the years, though exact figures are redacted in provincial documents obtained by the Halifax Examiner in a freedom of information request. In 2010, the same year that the provincial government declared its intention to build a highway along the northern alignment and reserved the necessary land as per the Public Highways Act, MEL’s estimate of value increased. Then in 2012 or 2013 MEL “hired a reputable land appraisal company” and its estimation of the land’s value increased again. It’s at this point that NSTIR abandoned the shorter, northern route in favour of the longer southern option.

Minister’s briefing notes dated March 25, 2013 indicate that NSTIR’s estimate of the land’s value was considerably less than Municipal’s, but that “due to the drastic difference in value, it will likely be litigated before the UARB [Utilities and Review Board, a panel of appointed legal experts that have jurisdiction over these things]. MEL is not expected to be cooperative. It is anticipated that they would come in with a value over the initial [redacted amount].”

How “drastic” was the difference in the land values estimated by NSTIR and MEL? We don’t know exactly, but we can make a ballpark guess. The CBC reported in 2012 that the original northern alignment of the Burnside expressway was planned to cost $52 million and be built by 2014. Then in 2013, minister’s notes put the “potential cost” for the same alignment at $235 million. That’s a difference of around $183 million in a relatively short time, when not much changed about this project but for MEL’s growing estimations of their land’s value.

So rather than be at the mercy of the UARB and MEL’s lawyers, and despite the route being both shorter and with a good amount of planning and environmental work already complete, NSTIR decided to re-route the highway.

According to the ministerial notes: “Although TIR reserved this corridor in 2010 to prevent any development, there remains a high risk of cost escalation if the land is expropriated, with damages being determined by the UARB and a decision potentially taking years to complete.”

A map from registration documents in 2009 showing the land being reserved by the NS government for the construction of the 107 extension/Burnside expressway. Most of the surrounding land is owned by Municipal, but the westernmost property is the one needed for purchase or expropriation.

So what of it? Does it make a difference if this highway runs north or south of Anderson Lake? There are some definite cons to the proposed southern alignment.

For one, it’s two kilometres longer. Besides the extra one-time construction costs of around $12 million (a rough estimate based on average highway building costs, and not including the two extra structures required), perhaps more worrisome are those ongoing costs associated with the additional driving that will be required on the longer expressway over the years.

The longer alignment means an extra 40,000 kilometres driven on average per day, according to NSTIR predictions of traffic on the new road. Those extra kilometres will in turn cost drivers an extra $913,000 every year in fuel, if every one of those trips is made in a highly efficient Toyota Prius (using six litres of fuel per 100 kms), at today’s gas prices ($1.04).

In carbon terms, the longer expressway means an extra 5,520 kgs of CO2 launched into the atmosphere every day, or about 2,000 tonnes of additional CO2 every year.

And as the road demand grows to fill the new supply, both those numbers will of course grow in tandem.

Timewise, the extra couple of kilometres is somewhat negligible for drivers, adding just under 2.5 minutes of daily driving for each round trip over the shorter alignment. For cyclists using the multi-use path that will accompany the expressway, it will mean an extra 16 minutes roundtrip, based on an average biking speed of 15 kilometres an hour.

Then there is the cost of the land. While the price tags are not as exorbitantly high as those placed by MEL on its land north of Andersen Lake, the real costs may come from losses in terms of the efficient, long term growth of the city.

As Metro Columnist Tristan Cleveland points out, the land south of Andersen Lake makes good sense as a place to accommodate new growth. “Anderson Lake Area Urban Reserve is Halifax’s most important place you’ve never heard of,” writes Cleveland in Metro.

It’s the size of the peninsula from South Street to Africville, and could house 50,000 people or more. It is connected to the harbour just 10 minutes from downtown, would fit snugly into our transit system, and is directly next to Burnside, one of the biggest employment hubs east of Montreal.

Where would you rather put 50,000 people? More towers? Distant sprawl? Or on empty land in the middle of the city?

Cutting a highway through the centre of Anderson would be like karate-chopping a wedding cake: no matter how much of it is untouched, 100 per cent will be ruined.

Of course, the problem is that not everyone sees Cleveland’s wedding cake. And, not everyone is counting all the costs. Municipal Group has taken stock of its own interests and placed its price high. The government of Nova Scotia, on the other hand, seems to have under-valued many of our collective interests, choosing to sacrifice them in favour of avoiding the potential risks of pursuing the best path for this highway, if indeed we are going to build it.

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  1. The Washington Post just reported that the leading car manufacturers have announced that the era of gas powered cars is ending and are focusing on electric cars. No wonder, given that a growing number of “developed” countries are planning to phase out all use of fossil fueled cars in the near future. So this begs the question of how many Nova Scotians can afford to buy new electric cars when they become the main option and how many will need the roads that will be built? It takes time and lots of money to build roads. If the roads are only finished at a time when fewer people own cars and Nova Scotia’s older population is larger (and many may not be driving because of fixed income considerations or health), then maybe the better option is to allocate resources to mass transit, regional transit and active transit networks. This really is a question of equity now and in the future as these networks are underdeveloped and terrible now in comparison to the car infrastructure. (Mass transit to Burnside is basically non-existent. This means that right now, those people who do not own a car cannot work or do business there.) Improving the non-car infrastructure also takes time and resources. Even if I am wrong about the trends and there are major technological breakthroughs that save our bacon, such as self driving cars, we still will not need new roadways designed for our cars as they exist now.