Calgary

What new neighbours of Calgary's ring road think as they watch its construction

Construction on the last portion of the ring road — the west leg — begins next year, but some neighbours are already echoing concerns of their southwest counterparts.

While many are not opposed to the road itself, the devil's in the details

This beautiful view from Leon Nellissen's deck will one day include a six-lane highway. The new portions of the ring road — both the southwest and west legs — will include areas that are up to eight lanes, with a road allowance that could allow for expansion into 16 lanes if needed. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

The view from the top of The Slopes is spectacular. 

Rolling grasslands stretch as far as the eye can see west toward Bragg Creek from the private community of hilltop mansions on the southwest edge of Calgary.

But as you look out today — and pretty much every day since construction began on the southwest ring road — massive hauling trucks jet back and forth from construction sites to nearby gravel-crushing operations, kicking up dust into the often eastbound wind.

Just over a kilometre away, some of that dust settles on Leon Nellissen's patio table — and the decks of his surrounding neighbours. And his house is three storeys up, on a hill.

"We've had so much dust from the hauling road, which carries about 340 truckloads a day, when no water was sprayed on the road that our deck was brown — it wasn't dusty, it was brown," said Nellissen, the president of The Slopes Community Association, adding he's concerned about the health effects.

One of the many hauling trucks for the southwest ring road rolls by The Slopes. The road it's driving on will one day be part of the west ring road. (Mark Matulis/CBC)

The province says it's working on the problem.

"We have upwards of 10 watering trucks going a day on the project right now, using more than 150,000 gallons of water with pretty much hourly treatment," said Adam Johnson, Alberta Transportation's spokesperson for the ring road. 

"Obviously when we have dry conditions there's going to be more dust, and we have construction conditions there's going to be some dust, but we are doing everything in our power to keep on top of that."

West leg coming

But the construction on the ring road hasn't moved north of Highway 8, so the dust Nellissen is experiencing is only from hauling materials for the southwest leg. He wonders what will happen when construction on the west portion starts next year.

Renee MacKenzie says she is living on the "front lines" of the construction in Cedarbrae.

"By the time the road actually opens the noise of more traffic all day will seem quiet for us after listening to equipment for four years. It's difficult to describe the impact on our lives down here," she wrote in an email. 

"I've changed my daily routine because of construction. I shop at different stores because of construction. I drive my dogs to what's left of the Oakridge dog park now because of construction. I plan my trips differently so I don't have to sit in traffic for an hour to get home from the local stores." 

The southwest ring road is being built right behind the Oakridge off-leash dog park. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

Nellissen's community association has banded together with neighbourhood groups across the southwest raising concerns about ring road construction when it comes to dust, noise, wetlands and light pollution.

They also want to see the north and south lanes built closer together, as Nellissen says it causes unnecessary environmental destruction. Both the southwest and west portions will start with six lanes, expanding to eight in some areas for merging and exiting, but could be much bigger one day.

"There are parts that are 150 metres apart for a possible expansion to 16 lanes," he said. "Sixteen lanes are only going to be needed in approximately 100 years, but in 100 years, transportation will be completely different."

While the road is not a shock to most Calgarians, except for the fact it is actually getting built after being on the books for decades, there are some details that have surprised some. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

The province agrees it is overbuilt. Transportation Minister Brian Mason told the Calgary Herald in January they had "no choice but to honour the plan crafted by the previous PC government" — adding a 16-lane roadway is not the future of transportation.

Wetlands appeal

But an even a bigger concerns is wetlands. Nellissen says The Slopes was an independent community with no storm sewer that was later annexed by the city — so they need the wetlands below.

A group of concerned citizens launched an environmental appeal last year, which temporarily halted construction, and won when it came to wetlands. The province had recently changed the way it assessed wetlands, so said the ring road plan needed to be updated.

Alberta Environment asked KGL Contractors, the three companies behind the project,​ to change how they were handling more than 20 wetlands. There were four of particular concern, including the beaver pond — known as Wetland 6 — used by the Weaselhead Preservation Society.

About 50 or so protesters turned out for a walk last year for a popular beaver pond in the Weaselhead area. The group says construction of the southwest ring road will cause irreparable harm. (Julien Lecacheur/CBC)

In the end, it was decided that any wetland filled in from construction would need to be created somewhere else and the beaver pond would not be disturbed — with monitoring in place until 2025 for contaminants such as salt or dirt. That information is now posted on KGL's website.

But some say there's not enough wetland conservation happening. They also have major concerns about the bridge design over the Elbow River and what would happen to the Weaselhead — a source of Calgary's drinking water that is incredibly biodiverse — if there was a major flood.

"Given the current state of construction, I do not believe it would be prudent to consider a redesign of the project," wrote Environment Minister Shannon Phillips in her wetland appeal finding. "If we were to attempt to redesign and rebuild the project now, it would result in significant costs increases, and in the process, I am concerned we would cause more environmental impacts, cause more disturbance to the people living in the area, and potentially delay a significant provincial infrastructure project."

But Alberta Environment says road design, and its potential impact, does not fall under its jurisdiction — that's Alberta Transportation.

Johnson says the southwest ring road design is a done deal, and both the province and city are satisfied with the road and bridge design after conducting studies.

And it's not like the ring road is a surprise to most people, since it has been on the books for decades. It may have shocked a few when it was announced it was finally moving forward.

But Nellissen feels the province is rushing the project. He is patiently waiting for upcoming open houses to voice concerns about the west ring road before a contractor is selected for the project early next year.

Ring road on schedule

Alberta Transportation says those open houses will happen in September, and the project's timelines have not changed: 

  • October 2021: Opening of the $1.4-billion southwest ring road. The 21-kilometre stretch runs from Macleod Trail to Highway 8.
  • 2022: Opening of the west ring road (expected to cost more than $1 billion, but will depend on the final contract once a company bids on the project). The last nine kilometres of the ring road will connect Highway 8 into Stoney Trail near the Trans-Canada Highway heading west out of the city.

"We are working really hard to make sure we hear the concerns of the neighbours to the new ring road, and all the things they have to say," said Johnson.

"Over the course of the summer, we've had issues pop up with regards to dust, with regards to light pollution, and we've done what we can to get on top of that."

One reason a road redesign is not on the table may have something to do with the land swap deal with Tsuut'ina Nation that allowed the southwest ring road to go ahead. The agreement said construction must wrap by 2022 or the land reverts to the First Nation.

Building a different bridge

The road will transform Calgary transportation — especially in the southwest, where there traditionally have been access problems.

One of those problem spots is the intersection of 37th Street S.W. and Glenmore Trail, and the fact it's the only access point right now to the Grey Eagle Casino. The ring road will change that, bringing a new access on the west side of the casino that can go south of the Weaselhead. The city is also planning more exits from Tsuut'ina into Lakeview.

It's something that Lakeview resident Jesse Salus is watching closely. He's written extensively about the ring road and done some work with the Tsuut'ina.

"I think I'm fairly positive about the change," he said. "We'll have some new access options for our community ... and hopefully some of the congestion that we may have seen in the past we'll have some options to get around those."

Salus is also pretty excited about the new development on Tsuut'ina — which claims to be one of the largest First Nations developments in North America — and the restaurants and shops the expected $4.5-billion investment could bring. It's called Taza, which means roughly "in amazement" to the Tsuut'ina.

"It's the sort of thing Lakeview doesn't have much of," he said.

Salus thinks it could enhance the relationship between Calgarians and members of Tsuut'ina Nation while bringing in new job opportunities. 

Construction near the Grey Eagle Casino in southwest Calgary should bring improved parking to its event centre, and better access out of the area. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

Kevin Littlelight with Tsuut'ina agrees. He says while the ring road construction is a "real inconvenience for the people on both sides," it's for the greater good. He says the goal of economic development is so important to the nation that it was a vision shared by the last three chiefs. 

The nation expects to break ground on the proposal to build three villages — one for entertainment, one for health and innovation, and one for retail and tourism — in November, with construction starting no later than spring. 

Littlelight says they have some big tenants signing on, and it should also bring some relief to parking problems at the Grey Eagle event centre.

But can you turn off the lights?

Another group watching the construction of the southwest ring road closely is the Rothney Observatory just southwest of the city. They are concerned how it will affect their dark sky policy, and how light pollution from the road could affect stargazers and the nocturnal wildlife area at the Ann & Sandy Cross Conservation Area.

Suzanne Oel, with the M.D. of Foothills, is working with the Rothney Observatory to lobby the province. 

"We're asking them to relook at their design because there's a lot of lighting out there in different communities in the States and in Europe that they've actually done some really innovative things, and so we hope they can try and put that into our ring road," she said.

They have reached out to local MLAs, writing a letter with their dark sky members to outline their argument, and plan to reconnect with the province after summer.

Suzanne Oel, with the M.D. of Foothills, holds out a dark sky pin that is part of the Rothney Observatory's new initiative to keep the area free of light pollution. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

Alberta Transportation says it will continue to work with the group, but has a plan for lighting already, emphasizing that safety is the primary concern so drivers can see properly.

"We are going to be using very similar to the same lighting that we use across all our provincial highways," said Johnson.

He said the ring road will get upgraded lights that are being installed across provincial highways — LED lights that are low temperature and low blue (which emit less light pollution).

"We've set a 15-metre stamp as high as the lighting standards are going to go, so a lot of this will go towards reducing that light pollution," he added.

Johnson says anyone wanting more information, or the dates of the upcoming open houses, should watch for updates on the government's west ring road website

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