The Southwest Calgary Toll Road

The Tsuu T’ina are holding an election today (November 26 2012) for Chief and Councillors, and naturally the issue of the ring road has been among the forefront of the issues being raised.

Two of the contenders for the position of Chief, current Councillor Ivan Eagletail and former-Chief Roy Whitney, have at one point or another been on record as favouring a toll road payable to the Tsuu T’ina Nation in order for the Southwest Calgary Ring Road to be allowed through the reserve. While Eagletail made his support known recently, Whitney last mentioned support for the toll concept over a decade ago. Though this type of deal may be a departure from the current proposals, it is not a new idea for this road.

2000 MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING

In 2000, the City of Calgary, the Province of Alberta and the Tsuu T’ina signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), framing the conditions for negotiating for a road through Tsuu T’ina land. One of the most important clauses of this agreement was that the land for the road was to remain under the ownership of the Tsuu T’ina. While the agreement did not go into the specifics of how that lease was to be paid for, the Nation stated that they favoured a ‘silent’ toll system that would track the number of cars using the road, which the Province or City would then pick up the tab for. Toll booths would not line the route, and drivers would not be responsible for the toll charge directly. No dollar figure was mentioned as a potential toll fee at this time.

Before the MOU was signed by the City a draft was circulated, and there were calls by both citizens and aldermen to amend it. In addition to the potential route of the road, seemingly the most contentious issue with the agreement was the land ownership and the toll-payment model. Calls to amend the MOU were rebuffed by the City, as then-Chief Roy Whitney had let it be known that the concept of a leased road payable by toll was non-negotiable. A land sale was reportedly out of the question.

Around the same time, from 1999 to 2002, the Tsuu T’ina had partnered with the construction company PCL in order to develop the northeast corner of the reserve. Reports at the time stated that the partnership could also be responsible for privately building the portion of the ring road through Tsuu T’ina land, potentially implementing a toll road to cover costs and compensate the Nation for use of their road. The partnership made no tangible progress towards development and was soon dissolved, along with the Nation’s plans for a privately built southwest ring road.

After two years of stalled negotiations and just as the 2000 MOU had expired, then-Alderman Ric McIver introduced a motion to the Council which would prohibit the City from building a road on land it did not own. This motion passed, and in McIver’s words it “establish(ed) the principal that Calgary tax dollars for roads should only be spent in Calgary. In the same way that we would not expect our neighbours to pay for our roads, we cannot be expected to pay for theirs.”

The Nation had seemed frustrated with the City, blaming them for holding up negotiations, and soon their efforts were focused on negotiating with the Province directly, bypassing the City. By mid 2004 an agreement in principle between the Nation and the Province was signed, which stated that the land required for the road would be transfered to the Province, in exchange for access, a one-off payment and a land swap for the Nation. The concept of a toll road had been left behind.

PRIVATE TOLL ROAD

In the time after the breakdown of negotiations with the City, but before a new agreement was struck with the Province, private interests sought to fill the void. In 2003 a new idea for a road was brought forward, and it too embraced a toll road concept. A private company, Sarcee Trail Extension Inc., was formed for the express intent of constructing the road through the Tsuu T’ina reserve. The idea was that Sarcee Trail Extension Inc. would procure a perpetual lease from the Nation for the land required. In exchange, they would make a one-off payment of $80,000 to every Tsuu T’ina member directly, plus a perpetual $5 million per year to the Nation itself. The construction costs, the annual payment to the Nation, and the company’s profit would be recouped by a silent $2 per-car toll on the road, paid for by the Province. The company stumbled in the eyes of the Nation, however, with the way they handled the proposal. Rather than taking the project to the Tsuu T’ina Council, Sarcee Trail Extension Inc. brought the deal directly to the Nation’s members. Chief Sandford Big Plume characterised the direct engagement of the residents as an attempt to by-pass the authority of the Council, and the payment as a ‘bribe’. The proposal did not gain traction with either the Nation or the Province.

RENEWED INTEREST

The idea of a toll road was last broached, and quickly shot down, by the Province in June of 2012. Despite appearing to consider tolls as a way to pay for certain Provincial highways, notably the upgrades to Highway 63 to Fort McMurray, Premier Redford stated that the concept was not going to apply to Calgary’s ring road. Provincial Transportation Minister Ric McIver reiterated this position, and is quoted as saying “In Alberta, we donʼt choose to have toll roads and we havenʼt got any plan to change that.”

Interestingly, Ric McIver may actually have been the first person to publicly float the idea of a toll road on the southwest portion of the ring road. On October 13 1998, the Calgary Herald reports that while running for Ward 12 Alderman, McIver stated “If the province cannot or will not provide funding, we should build it anyway now… we need to get together a private-public partnership to build it as a toll road on a 20- to 25-year payback basis.”. The idea was for a traditional toll road as limited-time implementation to cover construction costs, rather than as an ongoing method of paying for a land lease.

Click here for a video of Alison Redford commenting on a toll road in Calgary

Former-Chief Sandford Big Plume, in running for re-election in November 2012, waded in on the toll-road debate, saying he did not favour a toll road because “…The province has made it very clear that they simply will not entertain a toll road.”. He added “…A toll road would take years, maybe decades to start paying out to Nation citizens. I think the Nation should see benefit immediately. That’s why I believe the new deal we are negotiating must include immediate cash benefits for the Nation, and Nation citizens as well as long-term infrastructure funding.”

FOR WHOM THE ROAD TOLLS

Whether a toll road in Alberta is politically palatable, and whether the Province would consider a road where the toll revenue would not go to the Province, remains to be seen. However, it is important to note that until or if we hear differently, the idea of a toll road is a historial one, and is not currently a part of the public debate.

ELECTION RESULTS UPDATE 6:45 AM NOVEMBER 27:
AM770 and CBC are calling the election for former Chief Roy Whitney, defeating Sandford Big Plume after 11 years in the job. This marks Chief Whitney’s third non-consecutive tenure as Tsuu T’ina Chief, first elected in 1984 for 2 years, then again in 1988 until he stepped down in 2001.

UPDATE NOVEMBER 30 2012
At Chief Roy Whitney’s first press conference following the election, he has been quoted as saying that the negotiations that were started before he took office would continue uninterrupted, and that as things stand “The economics of (a toll road) haven’t truly been explored as to be able to determine whether that is a viable process and the cost for the amount of the road is quite hefty.”

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