The Long Road
Recently, City manager Murray Totland informed Saskatoon commuters that they’ll have to wait until July 31st of 2013 to put rubber to asphalt on the Circle Drive south bridge.
Still, let’s make some lemonade out of these lemons. Because we’ve now got nothing time until we can actually drive on the damn thing, Planet S decided to look back at the long, complicated road to we’ve taken towards building… well, this long, complicated road.
“This bridge is about 10 to 15 years late, and a hundred years in the making,” says Kent Smith-Windsor, executive director of the Greater Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce.
We started envisioning this castle in the air a long time ago: a complete ring road encircling the city was first proposed in 1913, by then-City commissioner Christopher Yorath. The support of various city planners followed over the years, and subsequent traffic studies further emphasized the need for a perimeter road.
But when it came to actually making a circle out of Circle Drive, nothing happened.
Finally, a 1992 transportation study concluded that both a north and south bridge would be required if Saskatoon was going to grow to a population of 250,000, and in 2007 City Council confirmed that the south bridge was the City’s number one transportation project priority. The cost of this roughly $300 million project, which Totland notes is still on budget, was split between the federal government ($96 million), the provincial government ($98.5 million), the City of Saskatoon ($93 million) and the Rural Municipality of Corman Park ($200,000). (No such funding has thus far been devoted to the construction of a north bridge by our austere higher-ups.)
When the south bridge finally opens, it will mean a lot for the city — and not just in practical terms.
EAST AND WEST, UNITE!
Predicted to eventually carry more than 27,000 vehicles per day, the bridge will significantly reduce congestion on the 22nd St. and Idylwyld corridors. The City estimates that traffic on the Idylwyld Bridge will be reduced by 35 per cent during peak periods.
As well, access to the east side will improve for residents of new neighbourhoods on the edges of the west side, including Hampton Village and the Blairmore area.
“Transportation flow times should be reduced dramatically. In terms of access for large parts of the city, such as connecting to the airport, you’ll see some of that graduating to the west,” Smith-Windsor predicts.
But besides convenience and efficiency, what kind of potential economic benefits are we talking about? Well, Smith-Windsor sees potential economic positives for those who live in Holiday Park and Riversdale, including better access to economic opportunities.
“The west industrial area is innately attractive, but it ended up being an island because it was disconnected by the river,” he says. “The industrial quarter we loosely call the West Industrial, between Ave. H, Ave. W and, say, 20th and further south, I think will become very attractive for future development.
“From the standpoint of employment, prospects in the Riversdale area are very good. Sometimes for people working their way up the economic ladder, transport issues can be a restraint. So it’s going to help [core] neighbourhoods, and [might be good] for people wanting to improve their wage scenario,” Smith-Windsor says.
While we all have angst around the Idylwyld and Ave. C “chokepoint,” Smith-Windsor hesitates to predict what impact the south bridge might have on traffic snarls in the north end until we have a functional north bridge.
“Traffic engineers can make their predictions. But it’s much like when a landscape architect does a drawing of a park, and says the path is here — but soon the grass is worn out somewhere else. It’s not fully predictable,” he says.
And with significant employment growth happening in Saskatoon, planning for changing traffic patterns is especially difficult. “We will set categorically historic employment records this year. With that kind of change in the market, the models that you have projecting where traffic will — and will not — go are just educated guesses,” says Smith-Windsor.
MANY MILES TO GO
Big wheels were set in motion on March 29, 2010, when City Council awarded a design-build contract to Graham Flatiron Joint Venture (GFJV). That meant that the contractor was tasked with designing and building the largest single project in the City’s history, includingwork on the new south bridge, the construction of seven kilometres of freeway from Clarence Avenue to Clancy Drive, four railway grade separations, sound attenuation walls, pathways for pedestrians and cyclists and the relocation of utilities. (Whew!)
This contract was the first of its kind to be approved by the City of Saskatoon, and was meant to help establish costs up front, make for better scheduling and ultimately shorten the construction period.
You might find it ironic that, for a project which has experienced so many delays, “schedule certainty” was touted as a major advantage. But under a traditional design, tender and construct process, the City could have faced fines due to weather delays, according to Totland. He says the City gave up some control, but transferred risk onto the contractor.
“This isn’t a traditional project, in which the City controls the direction of the work of the contractor; this really was a design-build project, where the contractor is responsible for the schedule and direction of the project. So, we don’t intervene, we don’t direct the contractor. They’ve assessed the project; they believe it’s going to take them until the end of July. That’s all we’ve got to go with for now. I think — depending on the weather in the spring — if we have an early spring that will benefit the project,” Totland said.
Right from the start, City administration admitted in public information sessions that high groundwater levels, land acquisition issues and regulatory red tape would be significant challenges for the project.
In May 2010, a sod-turning ceremony saw politicians posing with golden shovels to announce the beginning of construction. But after a month of work, the city had been hit with a record-setting 147mm of rain — almost as much rain as Saskatoon usually sees throughout all of May, June and July. Because of this excess moisture, the project was left spinning its tires in the mud.
To add to the frustration, a sub-contractor hired by GFJV to install rigid concrete pipe for the underground portion of the project found itself in financial trouble. In Dec. 2010, the parent company of IONA Contractors Ltd., Envision Engineering and Contracting Inc., filed for creditor protection. IONA took the City to court, arguing that the pipe products the City required were deficient and delayed work on the project’s massive underground storm sewer system.
Despite these setbacks, by 2011, the project seemed to have gained some ground. After an early spring, “the contractor was actually quite optimistic that they were on schedule,” Totland recently recalled.
So it wasn’t until June 2012, after more soggy weather conditions,that GFJV announced it could not meet the original Sep. 30, 2012 deadline, and to expect delays. A tentatively revised deadline of Oct. 31st also came and went, and weather was again cited as a contributing factor.
At this point, in order to have the entire project finished and open for business before winter set in, the contractor would have had to rush to complete temporary road surfaces, said Totland.
“We were very concerned about the safety aspects of that. At best, it could have been probably a single lane that would have been on a single lift of asphalt, which might have been fine [only] for the winter,” he said. It would have only been opened in a reduced capacity, requiring winter maintenance and further refurbishment in the spring, he added.
Currently, construction of the bridge proper is finished, 11th St. is open to traffic, and the interchanges are ready — but off-ramps on the west side, connecting roadways on the east side of the river and pathways for cyclists and pedestrians remain incomplete. As of press deadlines, the City aimed to have the section of roadway between Ruth St. and Lorne Ave. open to two lanes of traffic by Nov. 14th.
GFJV could be responsible for penalties of up to $10,000 per day beyond the original September 30th deadline, although the contract gives them relief from penalization through the winter months. “That fine would not be in effect from Nov. 1st until the end of March,” said Totland. The City will be in discussions with the contractor over the winter to determine how to work out these penalties, he added.
Ultimately, the City was able to get “favourable pricing on this project,” Totland reminded reporters, since surplus funds from Circle Drive south meant the City could afford to build the Preston Avenue Interchange.
So, cross your fingers for an early melt next year. If the weather gods favour us, the new July 31st deadline won’t be just another vanishing point in an artist’s rendering.