Saskatoon

Group calls for full environmental impact review of proposed Saskatoon freeway

The Saskatchewan chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society thinks the provincial government is getting ahead of itself in planning a new highway around the city.

Sask. Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society chapter says province getting ahead of itself in planning project

In this file photo, traffic on Circle Drive East is backed up following a seven-vehicle crash. Saskatoon's proposed freeway is intended to divert heavy truck traffic and relieve congestion in the city. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

A Saskatchewan environmental group thinks the provincial government is getting ahead of itself in planning a new freeway around Saskatoon.

The Saskatchewan chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) recently sent Saskatchewan's Ministry of Highways a letter that calls on the government to conduct a full environmental impact assessment of the proposed project. 

"With a lack of any detailed environmental assessment prior to determining the freeway's routing, CPAWS-SK is concerned decisions and endorsements are being made without the necessary information and without a complete and robust environmental assessment of the impact the Saskatoon Freeway could have," wrote Stewart Coles, a manager with the society.

While the general route of the four-lane, 55-kilometre divided highway has been mapped out — including its passing through the ecologically sensitive Northeast Swale — the ministry is currently conducting a "functional planning study" to more precisely iron out the path and interchanges of the highway, not to mention the project's price tag.

The highway is meant to divert heavy truck traffic and relieve congestion in the city. 

One outdated estimate pegged the cost of the freeway at $2 billion. 

Potential impact on timeline unclear

How an environment impact assessment would affect the construction timeline is unclear.

There is no clear construction timeline, for starters. According to the ministry, while the functional planning study is underway, "currently there is no timetable for a final decision regarding the freeway's construction." That decision would come after the planning study, the ministry added. 

Saskatoon city councillor Randy Donauer, who sits on a highway steering committee, recently said he'd been told by the ministry that "we're probably looking at 10 to 20 years before this gets built."

Steve Shaheen, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure, said the ministry doesn't know at this stage if an environmental impact assessment will be required.

"It will be determined at a later stage of planning," he said.

Generally speaking, environmental assessments occur three to five years before construction, he added. 

The proponent itself — in this case the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure — would conduct the assessment, which would then be reviewed by another arm of the Saskatchewan government, the Ministry of Environment. 

The freeway is being studied in three sections. (Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure)

Mitigating measures to be explored

Coles's concern is that the assessment would occur late in the planning process, after the government has gotten far along in its pre-construction development.

"Right now they're making decisions on where that line in the sand is, and I don't feel without the right data that they should be putting that line in the sand," the CPAWS spokesperson said. 

Coles said calling for an environmental impact study is not about stonewalling the project, just making sure it proceeds with a full understanding of its potential impacts.

The new north commuter parkway was built partly through the Northeast Swale. (Meewasin Valley Authority)

"We're not against development," he said. "[With] any kind of proposal, [we want to see] that due consideration is made for biodiversity, habitat species at risk and other facets around that. That's our role."

The native prairie grasslands of the Northeast Swale are home to several rare, endangered or culturally significant species of plants, birds and amphibians, according to the Meewasin Valley Authority. 

The website for the freeway project states that the functional planning study will already look at ways to eliminate or minimize potential impacts on ecologically sensitive areas. 

Wildlife collisions

Another group, Northeast Swale Watchers, has previously expressed concerns about the impact of the nearly one-year-old Chief Mistawasis Bridge, and the connecting section of McOrmond Drive, on wildlife in the swale.

According to the City of Saskatoon, cars have collided with and killed 17 animals on the bridge and McOrmond Drive since Sept. 1, 2018. 

That's compared to 139 wildlife collisions elsewhere in Saskatoon during the same period. 

Read the full letter from CPAWS below. On mobile? Click here.

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Guy Quenneville

Reporter and web writer for CBC Saskatoon

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