There is a joke that the needs of the bureaucracy will be met by the ever-expanding bureaucracy. A similar joke could be made about our devotion to meeting the ever-expanding needs of the Anthony Henday.
When the meme-worthy sign went up recently, bragging that “We Done B**ches,” the truth was we were done, but just for now. Today, responding to traffic demand and car-dependent development that saves some of us money up front but costs all of us more in the long run – all literally incentivized by the Anthony Henday’s design – the province will announce an expansion of what is already the most expensive infrastructure project in Alberta’s history. It all exposes the truth that, on our current path, we will never be done building this mega road, nor will we become the city we say we aspire to be. And despite the dizzying public subsidy one form of mobility and lifestyle is about to receive, I expect we will hear comparatively little outrage from fiscally-conservative columnists or anyone, really, about today's announcement. It’s easier to debate the cost of a politician’s orange juice, a protected bike lane network, or even a public investment in a downtown hockey arena, than it is the cost of, say, an interchange in the middle of a roadway that we only see as it flashes by, or the expansion of a ring road. We lack even the language to debate the cost of this way of developing in Alberta, so in our silence we let it make decisions for us.
The Henday, as most call it, was first proposed in 1950s, and over the past six decades has become Edmonton’s main infrastructure project, swallowing at least $4-billion of investment in a province where hospitals and courthouses still require staff to place buckets to catch water due to leaks whenever there’s a rain storm. Portions of the roadway are part of the CANMEX corridor, an uninterrupted trade route that connects Mexico to Alaska. Some sections are wholly funded by the public, while others have been built as a public-private partnership. Today, the Henday is one of the busiest roadways in western Canada.
Undeniably there are positives that come with having the Henday. And yet.
The politicians who represent residents living in the southwest of Edmonton, where traffic is by some accounts becoming unmanageable, are responding as best they think they can to the apparent problem. The Henday has incentivized more drivers and more sprawl, and therefore, obviously, we need to build more of the Henday to keep up. It’s hard to blame these decision makers on one hand. But then again, on the other, it’s almost impossible to imagine one of them breaking from this pattern and doing what’s needed, which is invest these hundreds of millions in upgrades to transit infrastructure for these communities or, at the least, to have a very honest debate about the sustainability of building cities the way we are.
You may detect a sense of frustration (and rushing, too, as I have to write in my little spare time) in this blog and you’re right. Over the past year, I have worked on my own time and without a paycheque in order to push for a bikeshare in this city of nearly one million, despite bikeshare systems taking root in cities as small as Kelowna, Waterloo and Victoria. I’ve sat at tables with federal, provincial and municipal leaders and shown the incredible statistics – the cost-effectiveness of the systems, the amount of car trips they divert onto bikes or as connections to transit, the myriad benefits to street retail or health outcomes or carbon emissions or infrastructure wear and tear. Literally, they provide more mobility for less money than car dependency.
And yet despite all this, I’ve also been told, countless times, that such a project doesn’t really qualify for government help, or should really find a way to pay for itself, or will only work if it’s self funded, or backed by a celebrity with deep pockets, or perhaps should be funded by a private corporate backer. All of these leaders I’ve met with have meant well, have seen and acknowledged the promise of bikeshare, but have come up against the sheer inertia of car think. Of projects like the Anthony Henday. Once you start building them, induced demand will guarantee you will keep building them. At the cost of so many other things.
Today is a great day to have this discussion. But I don't expect we will.