The Ring Road System – Implementation (1980 to 2001)

This is the third of a four part series on the history of Calgary’s ring road, covering the period when construction of the road first began. While this site continues to focus on the Southwest portion, I wanted to cover the history of the rest of the road, to provide some context to the story. Part one of this series (Initial Outlines) can be found here, and part two (Integrated Planning) can be found here.

After many studies, and many more years of planning, this period marked the first time that physical work on the project was undertaken, and the road was finally becoming a reality. Even with the route of the Transportation Utility Corridor (TUC) being largely set in the 1970s, the path to a finished road was never going to be straightforward. In this period there were (and still are) many issues to resolve, agreements to make, and studies to undertake. Despite the false-starts and the setbacks involved in the business of actually constructing a road, significant progress was made; the ring road went from being a line on a map to the beginnigs of a constructed freeway system that is currently close to being three-quarters finished.

NAMING THE ROAD

On January 27 1981, the Calgary City Council voted to adopt the name ‘Stoney Trail’ for the northwest portion of the road, which until this point was called the Calgary Parkway Ring or the Northwest Bypass. Interestingly, on September 15 1980 the City of Calgary publicised their Calgary North Area Structure Plan I, which showed the road labeled as ‘Stoney Trail’ several months before the name was officially adopted.

This wasn’t the first time that the name ‘Stoney Trail’ was proposed for a Calgary road. In fact, ‘Stoney Trail’ was proposed and rejected by the Calgary City Council in 1965 as a potential name for Crowchild Trail.

A SLOW START

The 1976 establishment of the Restricted Development Area (RDA) entirely outside of the City of Calgary necessarily altered the design of the road in the northwest, as the 1974 ring road plan originally showed Sarcee Trail as being a part of the northwest section of the road, located within the City limits. When the RDA was established, the road was necessarily moved further north and west, and in 1979 the province adopted concept plans prepared by the provincial departments of Alberta Environmental Protection and Alberta Transportation and Utilities. By 1981, the Province had promised that construction was to begin on Stoney Trail by 1983, including the new bridge over the Bow river, and the road was scheduled to open in 1987. However, this new route also had its issues.

Environmental Concerns

On Tuesday, July 27, 1981, the City council voted to approve a slightly altered alignment for Stoney Trail in the region of the Bow River. The original plan called for the road to be built through an ancient stand of Douglas fir trees along the south side of the Bow River, west of Bowness Park. This route would have seen the removal of 32 of these trees, which were between 94 and 280 years old. The newly approved 1981 plan realigned the road 28 metres to the west, missing all but nine of the trees (two would be transplanted, resulting in a loss of seven trees). Although there was still concern for the impact the road would have on the remaining trees, the province was reluctant to move the road any further. A study of the realignment noted that if the road was moved any further to the west, the alignment “would result in a ‘skewed’ road requiring motorists to reduce their speed to navigate safely.” The remaining trees not in the path of the road were later protected by the Province when they were declared a ‘Provincial Historic Resource’ in September of 1982.

In May of 1983, the decision to endorse the realigned road was reaffirmed, despite renewed calls to move the road further west. Although construction was also meant to begin in 1983, at that time the Province did not budget any funds for the construction of Stoney Trail.

Economic Downturns, Delays and Redesigns

Despite the planning going on at this time, the road would not actually be started for another decade. The reason the road was put on the back burner is largely due to the economic downturn that affected Alberta in the mid-1980s. A reduced transportation budget coupled with a slowing of growth in Calgary meant that the need to construct the road was no longer seen as a priority. In 2008, the head of the ring road project at Alberta Transportation, Garry Lamb, was interviewed about the slow start to the road. “…there was quite a major (economic) downturn in Alberta in the early 1980s. When things recovered in the late ʼ80s, transportation wasnʼt the first priority in everybodyʼs mind. So allocation of resources to implement the ring road… wasnʼt a political priority in the late ʼ80s and early ʼ90s. And at that time, Calgary still had a good transportation infrastructure for its needs.” (Read the entire excellent article by Mike Stimpson here)

Although there was no money to construct the road, the project was far from dormant. Purchases of the land required for the TUC continued at this time (by 1982, the Province had only acquired 16% of the TUC lands, which rose to 85% in 1993, and 92% by 1996), and further studies were commissioned to tweak the road in the face of changing requirements and local conditions.

In 1984 the Province had commissioned a reassessment of the TUC, which resulted in the 1985 ‘Calgary Transportation/Utility Corridor Reassessment’ study by Stewart Weir and Associates. This report continued to refine the route, to outline the required road connections, and to specify the type and location of required interchanges. The study also narrowed the TUC as the new plans could be implemented using significantly less land than was previously allocated for the corridor. According to the province, “These reports and drawings (included with the 1985 study) raised TUC planning from the conceptual to the functional level. The reassessment study was eventually adopted as government policy to be use (sic) in guiding the implementation of the TUC.”

THE 1984 SARCEE TRAIL PLANNING STUDY

The 1984 Sarcee Trail Planning Study plays an important role in developing the Southwest Calgary Ring Road, and while I will mention the key points here, I will cover it in detail in a future article.

In 1977, the Sarcee Trail Route Location Study was undertaken to identify an alignment for the South extension to Sarcee Trail. The report concluded with three alternate routes identified, the preferred of which was the first officially endorsed route through the Tsuu T’ina Reserve. The 1977 study, however, failed to include the Tsuu T’ina themselves in the study process, which resulted in the Nation announcing in 1976 that they would undertake their own study of the issue. That study was never completed, and instead, in 1982, the Province, the City and the Nation agreed to co-fund and co-produce a new study which had a central focus on the benefits a road would have to the Nation. (More on the 1977 study here.)

The 1984 report concluded with a preferred route that generally mirrored the 1977 ‘Route K’ alignment (three sub-options of this route are shown in the map above), which in turn would share many aspects of the alignment that was eventually designed in the mid-2000s as part of the modern ring road. Additionally, the report detailed the many development opportunities that the road would offer the Nation, with suggestions ranging from the development of single-family houses, hotels, office parks and shopping centres. In the summer of 1984, the Tsuu T’ina voted and agreed to take part in negotiations for the road to be built through the Reserve. This marked the first time in the history of this road that formal negotiations began for land on the Tsuu T’ina reserve. The promise of development on land adjacent to the road would play a major role in all future negotiations with the Nation (more on this here).

In 1987 a Functional Planning Study of the Sarcee Trail Extension was completed by the City of Calgary, and while the issue of the road came up in public occasionally, negotiations stalled and the issue seemed not to be a priority to either the City or the Nation. This time was a period of turmoil in respect to the land use and ownership of much of the land required for the road, with a large portion of the right-of-way identified in the 1977, 1984 and 1987 studies being returned to the Tsuu T’ina (more on this here). Reports of sustained interest in negotiations did not arise again until 1998.

STONEY TRAIL IN THE 1990s

In 1991/1992, the City of Calgary and the Province of Alberta signed the “Ring Road and Highway Penetrators (RRHP) Agreement”, which bound the two parties to plan, design, fund, construct and maintain the ring road system, and included design standards for the roadway. It also contained a ‘Long Term Network Plan’ which set out standards, locations and classifications for intersecting highways and their interchanges along the ring road.

Moving Ahead

In 1993 the City initiated detailed design of the first leg of Stoney Trail, from Trans Canada Highway to Crowchild Trail. That same year the City of Calgary approved a document that kicked started the construction of Stoney Trail. Interestingly, this wasn’t a transportation plan or a road building contract, but rather, it was the approval of a new northwest neighbourhood that mandated the start of the road. (At this point it is worth pointing out that a 3 kilometre section of Highway 8 was constructed in 1992 along the TUC alignment, and could technically be considered as the first constructed portion of the Calgary ring road under the then-new Ring Road and Highway Penetrators Agreement, though for this article, I will not consider it as such.)

On July 5 1993, the City approved the West Scenic Acres Area Structure Plan which set out the neighbourhood now known as Tuscany. Part of the requirements for any neighbourhood is to consider road and transportation connections, and Tuscany was no different. The requirements mandated a new road connection to be built south of Crowchild Trail along the Stoney Trail right-of-way, to be temporarily connected to Tuscany Blvd.

The First Leg

The first leg of Stoney Trail, from the Trans Canada Highway to Crowchild Trail was a City of Calgary project, with the City managing the construction, and the Province providing the majority of the funding. The project was divided into two halves and set out as two separate contracts, the north half from Crowchild Trail to Scenic Acres Link, and the south half from Scenic Acres Link to the Trans Canada Highway (16th avenue NW).

The north half of the road was designed by Delcan Western Ltd. (DWL Engineering), and although the design included the portion from Crowchild Trail to Scenic Acres Link, only part of the road was initially constructed and opened. A 675-metre section, from Crowchild Trail to Tuscany Blvd (see North 1 on the map below) was opened in late 1995, and when it did, it officially became the first portion of Stoney Trail.

Work continued on the rest of that section (North 2 above), while at the same time construction was underway on the south portion, which was designed by a consortium of companies, including Stewart, Reid-Crowther, the ID Group and SLG.

The entire leg of the road south of Tuscany Blvd was opened to the public on October 9 1997, and the ring road concept for Calgary was beginning to properly take shape.

The Stoney Trail Bow River Bridge

One of the more important aspects of this road was the new river crossing that it would offer. Over the previous 50 or so years, the City of Calgary had developed plans to further bridge the Bow River including at Shaganappi Trail and Sarcee Trail, and although controversial, these crossings were considered important links in the future of the Calgary skeletal road network. The opening of Stoney Trail effectively reduced the perceived need for further river crossings in northwest Calgary.

Designed by J.R. Spronken & Associates Ltd., the $16.5 million bridge over the bow river was constructed between 1996 and 1997, and used a relatively new building technique: Incremental Launching. The Bow River Stoney Trail bridge was only the second incrementally launched concrete bridge to be built in north america, and the first in Canada. This technique was employed both because it offered some cost savings over traditional building, and because it was a more environmentally sensitive method of working. This technique reduced the construction footprint in the sensitive Bow River valley below, and allowed the majority of the launching work to be undertaken from the north bank of the river, away from the Bowness recreation areas and the sensitive stands of Douglas fir trees on the south bank.

Looking Forward

In 1996, prior to the opening of the road, DWL Engineering was commissioned to design the rest of the Northwest section of Stoney Trail. Their ‘Functional Planning Study; Stoney Trail, Calgary; Trans Canada Highway (West) to Deerfoot Trail‘ report, published in 1997, fleshed out the design of the road north of Crowchild Trail, all the way east to Deerfoot Trail. The study not only set out the design for the new section of the road, it also included improvements and future upgrades to the then-under construction first portion.

In 1999, Stoney Trail was extended north of Crowchild Trail as far as 85th street NW, in order to improve access for the gravel, asphalt and concrete industry. This extension was funded in part by local gravel operators. Finally, the road was extended to Country Hills Blvd in 2001 using un-allocated money from the initial Stoney Trail project. This extension would be the last portion of the road to be completed under the management of the City of Calgary; soon the Province would take over all responsibility for the Calgary Ring Road project.

In the next and final part of this four part series, I will look at the most recent period in the history of the Calgary Ring Road, from 2000 to 2011. This period would mark the beginning of the road as a Provincial highway under the control of the Government of Alberta, as well as seeing one of the most intensive freeway building projects in Calgary’s history.

———-

A huge thank you to  Mario Prezelj at ISL Engineering, Garry Lamb and Trent Bancarz at Alberta Transportation, and Scott Luger for their time and invaluable help in preparing the research of the road at this time.

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2 thoughts on “The Ring Road System – Implementation (1980 to 2001)”

  1. great history on the development of the ring road! Any comments as to why the city doesn’t go forth with at least completing the part of the SW ring road from 16th Avenue to Glenmore trail? It seems that the city has all the land to do at least that portion.

    1. You’re right in thinking that all of the land is owned by the Province, and in 2010 then Transportation Minister Luke Ouelette did say it was a possibility that they may proceed with the West Calgary Ring Road before the SW portion is confirmed. (The section you mention has been designed and designated as the West Calgary Ring Road, separate from the SW portion.) However, nothing has been mentioned recently, and according to the Province’s website, the project looks to be on hold.

      I will be covering part of this in my next article, but as I understand it, there may be design considerations for West Calgary Ring Road that may change depending on where the SW portion is located. There may also be a desire to construct the west- and southwest portions together for cost/management efficiencies, though I can’t confirm that at this time (I hope to have a better answer in the next article).

      EDIT: I should also add that it’s likely that traffic in the area does not warrant a free-flowing divided highway at this time, and that enough traffic would likely not be generated until a link is established to the deep south. If this is the case, then the Province would be understandably hesitant to develop this section of the road at this time.

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