It’s been on the books for over 25 years now, and according to Derek Brett of the Greater Burnside Business Association, a new expressway connecting Burnside to Bedford/Sackville was supposed to break ground in February. But Nova Scotia’s recent tolling feasibility study appears to have bumped the new four-lane road down the priority list.
The proposed expressway would run from the end of Burnside Drive, across to Duke Street in Bedford, where it would connect with the 102. In the current tolling study, the proposed Burnside-Sackville connector is part of a longer Highway 107 corridor, which would see a fully twinned highway 107 stretch from Bedford to Porter’s Lake.
The stretch was weighted number four on the list of eight highways being studied for financing feasibility via tolling.
“Obviously that sort of left us a little dazed,” says Brett, “because of the previous commitment that had been given.”
The government’s road construction website lists the new highway in the “Detailed design, Federal Environmental Assessment, Land purchase” phase. The site links to a provincial environmental assessment dating back to 1991, and a traffic study from 2011, both of which show the highway taking a direct route from Burnside to Bedford. The latest maps show the highway taking a less direct route, south of Anderson Lake, closer to the trunk 7 highway at Magazine Hill.
According to NSTIR spokesperson Brian Taylor, the results of the tolling feasibility study (with no expected due date) “will guide government’s next steps for this project. There has been planning work completed over the years, and some of it like the environmental assessment would need to be revisited.”
Since the early 90s, the motivation for building a new Burnside highway has been to move congestion off Highway 7 at Magazine Hill, which sees over 40,000 vehicles a day, with about 40-50 per cent of that traffic heading to and from Burnside in morning and evening rush hours.
Brett is concerned that current traffic levels are restricting flow of people and goods in and out of Burnside. “Trucks, whether they be construction vehicles, industrial vehicles, [or carrying] whatever goods are created here within Burnside, cannot readily flow out, at least not effectively as they should be able to,” says Brett. “We are seeing this problem be aggravated over time as everything continues to grow, except for of course our roadways.”
Whether or not a new Burnside highway will solve a problem or exacerbate one is up for debate, a debate which is currently happening around the table of the city’s Integrated Mobility Plan team.
The IMP — the new 15-year transportation plan for HRM — is aiming to shift the way some of us travel, from close to 80 per cent in cars daily down to 70 per cent. It’s arguable that a Burnside Expressway will not help with that goal.
Will the IMP recommend for or against a Burnside Expressway?
We won’t know until the plan (being written right now) is presented to council’s transportation committee this summer. I’m guessing there will be a strong contingent arguing something along the lines of this policy brief available on California’s Department of Transportation website: Increasing Highway Capacity Unlikely to Relieve Traffic Congestion.
The brief explains the concept “induced travel,” which basically means that more roads and/or wider roads increases the amount of driving people do. It’s a well-researched planning principle, but one that still doesn’t seem to be put into practice.
If you think Dartmouth Crossing and Burnside are pedestrian hell-zones today, just wait until the number of vehicles heading in and out goes up by 10 per cent. (Note: the brief actually refers to an increase in vehicle miles travelled, as opposed to number of vehicles, though an increase in either will negatively affect pedestrian and transit access.)
Another key finding in the brief addresses the idea that expanding road capacity increases employment or other economic activity, on a regional scale:
Economic development and job creation are often cited as compelling reasons for expanding the capacity of roadways. However, most studies of the impact of capacity expansion on development in a metropolitan region find no net increase in employment or other economic activity, though investments do influence where within a region development occurs.
So while a Burnside Expressway could help Burnside compete with Bayers Lake or other business areas, it won’t necessarily contribute to the economic growth of HRM as a whole.
Of course, we can’t really be sure that whatever the city’s IMP plan says will matter one iota. The IMP is a municipal plan, and both the current Magazine Hill Highway 7 and the future 107 corridor are owned and operated by the province.
What about transit?
Since the argument for a Burnside-Sackville connector is mainly the amount of traffic along Magazine Hill, it’s natural to ask, what are the transit options being considered?
Right now, there is half-hourly service along Magazine Hill, and presumably most people using that service are connecting on one end or the other. And since both Burnside and Dartmouth Crossing are extremely car-oriented, it’s tough to make those connections competitive with the private car.
But there is a way, and traffic congestion in this case is the opportunity, not the problem. If city engineers can get Halifax Transit buses through traffic on Magazine Hill, they could give transit a competitive advantage. It might take a bit longer to connect on either end of your trip, but if the bus can breeze past cars crawling along Magazine Hill, more people will choose it.
Unfortunately, neither Halifax Transit nor the Integrated Mobility team have identified Magazine Hill for transit priority measures, possibly because it is provincially owned. It’s worth noting that Highway 7 figured prominently as a corridor route in It’s More Than Buses’ High Frequency Transit Network suggested back in 2014.
The Moving Forward Together plan leaves Magazine Hill as a local route, with at most half-hourly service.
I can’t really not mention ferries here, since Burnside is located in such a way as to make a ferry connection possible. I get that ferries are not really the most practical for connecting to the larger transportation network, but they sure are cool, and people love them. And they tend to have clear rights-of-way without having to deal with road widening, or reclaiming lanes from private vehicles.
If you think cost is an issue when it comes to transit development along this corridor, please consider: The last price for the connector project that I could find “on record” was transportation minister Geoff MacLellan, quoted in a Metro News piece in February 2016, saying it was “well north of $100 million.”
The rough cost estimate for the entire 107 project in the tolling study was just shy of $343 million.
If we do build it, where will it go?
Issues over the routing of this new highway are likely the reason it has yet to get built. The obvious route, and the one that’s been on the books the longest, is a straight line from Burnside Drive across to Duke Street in Bedford. But much of the land required for this route is owned by the massive Municipal Group of Companies (commonly known as Dexter Construction) as you can see on the map from the 2011 traffic study above.
Sometime between 2012 and 2014, the province and the Municipal Group were unable to reach an agreement on the land needed for the road, and so the route changed to its current iteration, south of Andersen Lake, closer to Magazine Hill and running through federal department of defense lands, where unexploded ordnances are an issue.
It’s unclear why the province didn’t pursue expropriation of the Municipal Group lands necessary for the highway after negotiations broke down, but it is clear that the route currently on the table is not the province’s first choice.