Tunneling the Weaselhead

If you can’t go around it, and you don’t want to go through or over it, what’s left? Going under it.

The tunneling of the Weaselhead was alluded by the Province of Alberta in 2011. Their  ‘Plan B’ for a southwest Calgary ring road alternative route that did not require land from the Tsuu T’ina identified several non-traditional concepts for road building, including tunneled and elevated highway construction. However, the idea of a tunnel in the Weaselhead area is not new; it was first mentioned publicly almost 40 years ago. But while tunneling may technically be an option, is it realistic?


Public Input

In 1975 the Lakeview Community Association hosted a public information session by the City of Calgary to discuss preliminary options for a Sarcee Trail extension in the Weaselhead area. A study of the extension was mandated in 1974 as a condition of development in the Midnapore area (More on Midnapore here). That mandate started the process of studying route options for the road, and resulted in the 1977 publication of the Sarcee Trail South Route Location Study. The process also had a public input component that required public meetings and the formation of a citizens advisory board that included area residents (More on the 1977 study here).

Members of the public in attendance at the meeting suggested that the road could be tunneled under the Elbow River to save the Weaselhead from intrusion by the road. While the concept did not gain much traction at the time, the idea has resurfaced many times since.

2001 Civic Election Issue

In 2000 negotiations with the City of Calgary and the Tsuu T’ina, despite being in the pipeline since 1984, began to bear tangible fruit. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was made in that year between the Province, the City and the Tsuu T’ina, which set up the relationship between the groups in regards to running the Sarcee Trail extension through the Reserve. The agreement contained conditions that were unsatisfactory to some at the City, including Alderman Bev Longstaff, and in the run up to the 2001 civic elections, Longstaff proposed a study of alternatives to a Tsuu T’ina route, forcing the road and it’s route to become an election issue.

Ward 11 Alderman Barry Erskine ran for re-election that year with the tunneling of the Sarcee Trail extension on City land as a prime platform. Alderman Erskine’s ward included the Weaselhead, as well as the nearby communities of Lakeview and Oakridge. In his campaign, Erskine touted a tunneled option for the road as a way of fulfilling commuting needs of the south, while at the same time protecting the Weaselhead and homes in Lakeview.

His proposal, reportedly examined by specialists and engineers, would have run from the intersection of 37th street SW and Glenmore Trail to just south of 90th avenue SW. The entire route would have been contained within the city limits of Calgary.

A $300-$350 million estimate was assigned to the project in 2001, putting it at a reported $50-$100 million more than a high-level bridge estimate. It is unclear where these numbers came from, and no methodology was publicly attached to them. Indeed, at the time the figures were criticised by Weaselhead Preservation Society President Brent Johner, who stated that engineers he had spoken to had priced such a tunnel ‘astronomically higher’ than Erskine’s $350 million figure. Then-Alderman Ric McIver also stated that he hasn’t been convinced that the estimates are legitimate. “If he can show me it isn’t (too expensive), I’ll sign up but so far I haven’t seen that” McIver stated at the time (more on Ric McIver’s history with the ring road here). No functional plans were completed, and no official numbers were ever attached to Erskine’s proposal. Additionally the tunnel, in Johner’s view, would not save any houses from Lakeview. He stated that a cut-and-cover type tunnel would have required the demolition of 3 rows of houses east of 37th street to accomodate the angled trench walls that would be dug durring construction.

Within 3 weeks of the election which saw Alderman Erskine returned to office, the City Council voted 8-6 against a motion to explore alternatives to a Tsuu T’ina alignment, and the tunnel idea was again shelved, though not for long.

2002-2003 Sarcee Trail Options

Criticisms of the 2000 MOU did not end in 2001. When the 2-year agreement expired in June of 2002, there were renewed calls to steer the progress of the road away from the conditions contained in the 2000 MOU, and build the road on City owned property. In 2002 the Council’s transportation committee approved a motion to restrict any city roads from being built on private property. This meant that the city would be restricted from building a Sarcee Trail extension over Tsuu T’ina lands if the land in question was only leased to the City, as had been agreed to in the 2000 MOU.

On September 16 2002, the Calgary Council directed the City administration to prepare a workplan to review and analyse costs, benefits and environmental aspects of a variety of locations to cross the Elbow river west of 14th street SW. A three-day workshop was held in December of 2002 which included technical experts as well as local, City, Provincial and Tsuu T’ina representatives. 142 creative ideas were narrowed down into seven options for three alignments. These were:

•Sarcee Trail via the Tsuu T’ina reserve by high-level or low-level bridge
•37th street by surface crossing, high-level bridge or tunnel
•Crowchild Trail by bridge or tunnel

The issue was tabled until the May 2003 Standing Policy Committee on Transportation, Transit and Parking meeting, and $100,000 was set aside for an environmental inventory for the Weaselhead area. While the Inventory was approved and the study completed, the alternative options were eventually shelved.

2007 Private Plans

In 2007, there was a restlessness in City Council about the speed of ongoing Tsuu T’ina negotiations with the Province, which started in earnest in 2004. Alderman Diane Colley Urquhart introduced a motion in January 2007 to once again begin the process of looking at alternatives to a Tsuu T’ina route, stating that the city should not wait any longer to propose alternatives to the Province and that the City should prepare a back-up plan. Barry Erskine, by now a seasoned tunnel proponent, again raised the idea of a tunnel to cross the Elbow river in the Glenmore area. However, this tunnel plan was more ambitious than previous incarnations. The plan Mr. Erskine was promoting was spearheaded by Charles Hansen, a civil engineering consultant who had been privately looking at the southwest calgary ring road leg since 2002.

The 2007 Hansen proposal, and the later 2010 revised plan, was an ambitious approach that was designed to deal with not just ring-road traffic, but also commuter traffic from the south. It was planned to connect directly with major roads that led into Downtown and the industrial employment centres in the East.

The proposal was a multi-leg tunnel which would cross the Elbow river along the 37th street alignment from the South, but then split traffic into different tunnels according to their destinations:

1) Ring road/bypass traffic uses a tunnel below the existing 37th street SW in Lakeview (Yellow, also see cross section below)
2) Traffic heading downtown would travel along a tunnel under North Glenmore Park and would join directly to Crowchild Trail (Orange)
3) Traffic heading to the east would utilise a tunnel under the 66th avenue SW right-of-way and join Glenmore Trail near the causeway (Pink) (Added after the initial 2007 version)

The tunnels were planned entirely on City land, to be built under new or existing roadways or right-of-ways, and was touted as not requiring a single house to be removed. In addition, proponents of the plan have estimated the cost of implementation at $450 million to $550 million, reportedly a billion dollars less than the construction component of the Tsuu T’ina alignment.

Although utilising tunnels extensively, the actual crossing was planned more as a partially submerged dam across the valley, seperating the wetlands of the Weaselhead from the Reservoir itself. In addition, a small bridge was still required to cross the river itself. (See below)

The plan had been presented to the City of Calgary and the Province between 2004 and 2010, but gained no official traction. The plan was heavily endorsed by former Alderman and Mayoral candidate Jon Lord in the 2010 civic elections.

Skip to 2:35 on the video below to watch Charles Hansen explain the plan:

‘Plan B’

In 2011 the Province included mentions of tunneling in their literature for their ‘Plan B’ public engagement. While no particulars were mentioned, it was noted that any tunnel would require a control centre with 24-hour monitoring, would have increased safety concerns, and would generally have negative issues associated with their construction. However the most compelling reason why the Province had shied away from the idea of a tunnel was cost. (More on the Province’s Plan B’ here).

Generally speaking, tunneling is typically far more expensive than surface-based alternatives. In an address to students at Mount Royal University on October 1  2012, Ring Road Project head Garry Lamb stated that a rough estimate for a deep-bore tunnel for the southwest Calgary ring road was in the range of $1 billion per kilometre. With a required length of around 7km, this small section of road would cost the Province in the neighbourhood of $7 billion, not including the portions of the road that would link in to the rest of Stoney Trail in the Northwest and Southeast, nor the interchanges along the route. With the other three-quarters of the road having cost about $2.6 billion, it’s easy to see why a tunnel of this sort may not be a palatable option financially.

Tunnel Vision

For an idea that has been around for almost 40 years, it has never been far from the minds of people looking for ways to accomodate a road in the southwest of Calgary, while attempting to mitigate the effects on the communities and parks in the area. How realistic it is, however, is subject to debate. What’s clear is that as long as a Tsuu T’ina alignment is still under negotiation, a tunnel will not be a part of the discussion.


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