A $1.1 billion six-lane bridge connecting south end Halifax to Woodside is just one in a series of radical changes to local transportation systems proposed in recent weeks.
The proposals---including a fast ferry to Bedford, placing a highway in the south end rail cut and the introduction of rural bus service, among others---raise fundamental questions about how Halifax goes about moving people around.
Last week, the Halifax-Dartmouth Bridge Commission issued a study outlining what it says is the need for a third harbour crossing before 2016. The study looked at current traffic patterns and expected growth, especially in the Eastern Passage area.
"If we do nothing, we'll see more greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles idling in congestion," says John Robinson, lead author of the study. "And buses don't move any faster either," as they'll be stuck in traffic.
Commission CEO Steve Snider outlines a fanciful "transit loop," with two traffic lanes dedicated exclusively to transit through the rail cut, across the new bridge, onto the Circumferential Highway around Dartmouth and across the MacKay Bridge.
But those visions aside, the study says that a new harbour crossing will result in an increase of about 20,000 single-vehicle trips daily across the harbour.
"Shifts to transit will never be as great as the growth of HRM," says Dave McCusker, manager of Halifax's transportation planning department, who participated in the study. No matter by what percentage transit ridership increases, he says, "the total number of commuters will not go down."
If that's the case, isn't the bridge commission, a provincial crown corporation, in effect violating the provincial Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act, which mandates a 10 percent decrease below 1990 levels in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020?
"No," says McCusker. "Those reductions will come with increased engine efficiency."
Asked where 10,000 new cars each day will go once they're on the peninsula, McCusker says that he envisions the bridge connecting to the four-lane highway through the rail cut that was proposed by premier Rodney Macdonald last month. That roadway would stretch to a new intersection with Robie Street, near where Robie presently dead-ends at Saint Mary's University.
And where will the 10,000 additional cars will be stored? There are presently about 8,000 parking spaces in the downtown and waterfront areas, explains Roxane MacInnis, transportation demand management planner with the city.
MacInnis is preparing a long-term parking strategy that adheres to the principles outlined in the Halifax Regional Plan adopted by council last year. Basically, it will call for fewer, not more, parking spaces.
Both McCusker and mayor Peter Kelly maintain that increasing transit use now will delay the necessity of a third harbour crossing. But the bridge commission did not consider transit-only options, such as a fast ferry to Eastern Passage, as part of its study.
Kelly did, however, push a measure dedicating $13 million in federal transit funds for the Bedford fast ferry through a secret meeting of the council, overriding concerns that the money could be better used on other transit projects, such as extended MetroLink service.
"That's just politics, and I wish they would cut it out," says Kelly, discounting the criticism.
Pointing at new rules that dedicate five cents of the existing gas tax to municipalities, or about $25 million annually for HRM, Kelly says that "if council chooses, it can fund every transit program we've looked at---it can expand MetroLink, buy new buses, start the rural bus service, build a new bus garage. Everything it wants, with the new gas tax revenue."
But since the $13 million in federal transit funds has to be spent on transit, while the gas tax money can be divvied up between any number of capital projects, including new roads, doesn't directing the transit money to the ferry result in the other projects becoming political footballs in a contest with road construction over gas tax money?
"That's what we do here," says Kelly. "It's all politics. Council has to decide where to spend that money."