The Saskatoon freeway: 7 things you need to know

Despite not having a target date for construction, the Saskatchewan government has earmarked $4.4 million for SNC-Lavalin and Aecom to roll up their sleeves and start planning. Here's why, along with six other key takeaways from the province's latest update.

Provincial officials tackled questions on cost, construction timelines earlier this week

Saskatchewan's Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure is giving new details about its proposal to build a new freeway around Saskatoon. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)
  • Read the province's full October 8 briefing on the highway project here or scroll to the bottom of the story. Note: Project details are subject to change.

The Saskatchewan government has considered building a perimeter highway or freeway around Saskatoon since 1999. 

But the project has become a semi-regular topic of conversation at Saskatoon city hall more recently.

That's because Saskatchewan's Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure is developing a functional plan for the 110-kilometre-an-hour freeway. 

While one step short locking down nitty-gritty ground-level design aspects, the plan is narrowing down the freeway's right-of-way and expanse, as well as the location of its interchanges, bridges and other features. 

On Tuesday, the provincial government's senior lead on the project, Geoff Meinert, gave an update on the project. He was joined by phone by Fred Antunes, the province's deputy minister of highways and infrastructure. 

Here are seven key questions they addressed. 

How much will the freeway cost?

The province says it doesn't know yet. 

A previous estimate pegged the cost at approximately $2 billion, but Meinert says that estimate is now outdated and will be refined as the functional plan and more detailed design occur. 

How much has the province spent on planning so far?

Past studies on the freeway cost the government $656,000.

The province hired SNC-Lavalin and Aecom to carry out the current functional planning study. That three-year contract is valued at $4.4 million. 

When exactly is this freeway slated for construction?

It's not. Meinert and Antunes say there is no target date for getting shovels in the ground.

Steve Shaheen, a spokesperson for the ministry, says construction itself would only take three to four years to complete.

However, construction is not expected to begin for at least 10 to 15 years, and there is no specific construction timeline set out. Which raises the next question:

Why is so much planning being done now? 

Antunes says the province wants to go about this project in a different way.

"In the past, the ministry has typically done the general location study, which gets you that 500-metre corridor [expanse] and then waited eight to 10 years before they did the functional planning," Antunes said. 

"But the problem with that is you've got a wide tract of land that's really kind of sterilized for any kind of development. So people who are living around that land don't really know what their future holds, what the road's going to look like."

Pinning down the right-of-way as early as possible removes that uncertainty for landowners, Meinert added. 

"Everyone will know where it is," he said. 

The Saskatchewan government's lead person on the freeway project, Geoff Meinert, says the highway is being 'stress-tested' for an eventual Saskatoon population of 750,000. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

What's the business case for the project? 

It comes down to two things: expected population growth and projected highway traffic in Saskatoon and the bedroom communities of Warman and Martensville.

Meinert couldn't say when exactly, but the province expects the population of Saskatoon will eventually grow to 750,000. The freeway is being "stress-tested" to handle that capacity, he says. (The city's own Growth Plan to Half A Million projects the city's population to grow to 500,000 in the next 30 years or so.)

When you include Martensville and Warman, the population is expected to reach 850,000, Meinert says. 

The province predicts 4,000 vehicles will travel northbound on Wanuskewin Road toward Warman during peak evening rush hour, Meinert said. 

Why does the province want to realign Highway 11 with Wanuskewin Road?

The area where the freeway would come near Highways 11 and 12, in Saskatoon's far northeast corner, would be a major traffic choke point unless something is done.

That's why the province is proposing to realign Highway 11 with Wanuskewin Road near where Wanuskewin Road passes Wanuskewin Heritage Park. This plan also calls for a flyover bridge to connect the old section of Highway 11 (which would be converted into an arterial road) to Penner Road, plus interchanges at Highway 12 and the newly realigned Highway 11.

A key part of the freeway plan calls for interchanges at Highway 11 and Highway 12, and for Highway 11 to be realigned with Wanuskewin Road. (Saskatchewan government)

Wanuskewin Road already gets a lot of traffic today, Meinert says. 

"There's approximately 23,000 vehicles a day travelling on Highway 11 and over 50 per cent of that is actually turning on onto Wanuskewin Road today," he said. 

Commuters travelling to work in Saskatoon's northeast industrial park currently have to contend with big truck traffic, says Keith Moen, executive director of the NSBA (Northern Saskatoon Business Association).

"They run into thousands of trucks and cars a day that don't want to be here in the city," Moen said. "They're beating up our roads. Maintenance on Circle Drive North is a regular issue. If we can get those vehicles off Saskatoon roads and around the city, that means [regular commuters] would get to where they want to go quicker."

What's this mean for Wanuskewin Heritage Park?

The park was one of several groups that took part in a workshop last June where it was decided the Highway 11-Wanuskewin Road realignment was the best option for that busy corner of the freeway. 

The park is looking to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

"Due to that, there are a number of requirements or setbacks that they want," Meinert said, adding that the park expects more traffic once it gets its new designation. 

"We've addressed that by putting a fully directional interchange at Penner Road. We're just realigning [that] a little bit north [to increase the distance between that interchange and the other planned interchange at Highway 12.

"We anticipate and Wanuskewin [Heritage Park] I think feels that it's a better and safer access into their heritage park [than] right now."

The province feels an interchange would offer a safer entry point to Wanuskewin Heritage Park. An elder is pictured here in 2017 giving a presentation in the park's main indoor gathering space.

Representatives for the park could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Moen says the park's concerns are being respected, but that some compromise may be needed.

"A place like Banff National Park, which is among the most pristine places in all of the world, has a four-lane freeway going through it," Moen said. "I think that if they can accommodate one there, I think that we can find a way to accommodate one here."

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About the Author

Guy Quenneville

Reporter and web writer for CBC Saskatoon

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