How Calgary plans to retrofit its 1960s-era Crowchild bridge to meet 21st century demands

The Crowchild Trail bridge was built when about 300,000 people lived in Calgary. Today, the population is pushing 1.3 million. Here's how the city plans to widen and upgrade the busy span.

Nearly a million fewer people lived in the city when the bridge over the Bow River was built

Crowchild Trail bridge upgrade 0:44

The Crowchild Trail bridge was built in the mid-1960s, when about 300,000 people lived in Calgary.

Today, the city's population is pushing 1.3 million citizens — not to mention visitors and commuters from burgeoning bedroom communities on all sides — most of whom rely on their cars for getting around.

It doesn't take a traffic engineer to realize the situation isn't sustainable. Any rush-hour traveller would tell you as much, in between cursing the notoriously short and confusing merge lanes.

And so, the city has undertaken a multi-year $87-million project to retrofit this half-century-old piece of infrastructure to meet the needs of Calgarians for the next 50 years, and likely beyond.

The list of planned upgrades for the bridge (and sections of Crowchild Trail just to the north and south) is as long and complicated as its on and off ramps.

But one key component is widening the bridge deck.

The plan is to add an average of four metres on each side, and as much as 6.5 metres at some points, in order to accommodate an additional northbound lane and southbound lane.

But how do you go about expanding a 50-year-old structure — without disturbing the environmentally sensitive riverbed below or closing any lanes during Calgarians' regular work hours?

With a lot of careful planning, and evening and weekend work.

"It's unique in that sense," said Jeff Baird, the project's senior transportation engineer.

"Nothing to this scale, anyway, has been done in the city."

Bridge beneath a bridge

As much work as you'll see on the bridge deck itself, there's even more going on below.

Temporary platforms are being built so that workers can access the underbelly of Crowchild Trail and eventually construct the supports that will hold up the new lanes.

These platforms will be no small structures, themselves.

Baird describes it as building "a bridge underneath the existing bridge"

Once in place, workers will go about building the actual supports, which Baird said will involve a combination of cantilevers, concrete upgrades and reinforcing steel.

"Essentially it's beefing up and widening the existing columns that support the bridge over the river," he said.

While all the expansion work is going on, crews will also be doing regular life-cycle maintenance not only to the bridge over the Bow River but also those that pass above Memorial Drive and Bow Trail.

Scaffolding around a section of Crowchild Trail enables workers to access an undersection of one of the many bridges and overpasses in the area. (Mike Symington/CBC)

New on ramps and merge lanes are also part of the project, as well as related work like new sound walls and a connection to the planned Crosstown Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line farther to the north.

The final plan for the Crowchild project came after years — decades, actually — of proposals to redesign the busy route just west of downtown that had become a growing bottleneck for traffic.

Calling it too costly and disruptive, city council rejected a 2012 plan that would have seen homes demolished in order to reroute a section of Crowchild.

As far back as 1978, the city was drawing up complex plans to fix the traffic problems that were becoming evident with the busy north-south thoroughfare.

A proposal from that era called for the first phase of a major redesign to be completed by 1983, but it never happened, apparently for a lack of money.

Today, the current project is only considered a "short-term" upgrade for Crowchild Trail.

The city also has medium- and long-term plans for the route, which will likely include acquiring private property for future construction work.

There is no funding, as of yet, for these plans — which together are estimated to cost around $1.55 billion — and they're not realistically on the horizon until 2027.

The section of Crowchild Trail that runs over top of Bow Trail (seen at right on this map), the Bow River and Memorial Drive (at left) will be under construction for the next two years. (Google Maps)

Retrofitting old infrastructure is an issue Calgary will continue to grapple with as it grows.

And while the growing pains on the Crowchild bridge will come as a frustration for the next couple of years — as drivers contend with temporarily narrower lanes and reduced speed limits — Baird believes the work will be well worth it, in the end.

"It's an impressive feat and a very impressive design and a project that's full of challenges," he said.

"But it's definitely a good one and something that we're looking forward to get complete."

Crews work on the underside of Crowchild Trail as part of a multi-year project to upgrade the span and ease the traffic bottleneck it has become (Mike Symington/CBC)

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca

About the Author

Robson Fletcher

Reporter / Editor

Robson Fletcher joined the CBC Calgary digital team in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.