The Southwest Ring Road: 60 Years in the Making

Today, the City of Calgary’s Transportation Department will present to the Transportation and Transit Committee on issues related to the yet-to-be-constructed West and Southwest Ring Road projects. As it happens, today also marks an important date in the history of the ring road. It was exactly 60 years ago that the Province of Alberta first announced plans for what would eventually become the Southwest Calgary Ring Road.

On Friday, November 18, 1955, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce held a meeting at the Palliser Hotel in downtown Calgary. Speaking at the event was Social Credit MLA and Minister of Highways Gordon Taylor, who provided a summary of the Province’s 12-month plan for highway projects in the Calgary area.


(The Hon. Gordon Taylor, Minister of Highways (Centre) shown here opening the Mewata Bridge, Calgary, 1954. Glenbow Archives NA-5600-7844a)

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Federal Funding Announcement

On Thursday July 30 2015, Federal Minister for National Defence and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney, along with Alberta Minister for Transportation Brian Mason, announced Federal funding for the Southwest Calgary Ring Road project.

At the announcement, also attended by Tsuut’ina Chief Roy Whitney-Onespot, Kenney detailed a commitment of $582.9 million, which represents one quarter of the estimated $2.8 billion cost for construction of this leg of the road. The funds are being earmarked from the National Infrastructure Component of the New Building Canada Fund, which ‘provides funding for projects of national significance’1.


(Map showing the newly revised route of the Southwest ring road; from Macleod trail in the south, to west of 101st street SW in the west.)

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Highway 8 and the Ring Road

This month, the Government of Alberta revised the plans for the Southwest Calgary Ring Road Project by extending the western portion of the road into the Highway 8 corridor. This section of the ring road, what is currently Highway 8 from Sarcee trail to just west of the Calgary city limits and highlighted below in blue, had until recently been a part of the West Calgary Ring Road Project. This change shifts approximately 5km of roadway to the Southwest ring road, adds one additional interchange (69th street SW) and a new crossing over the Elbow River to the project, while removing the same from the West leg of the road.1

July_2015_update_new(The previous Southwest ring road route in green, with the addition of a portion of Highway 8 in blue, making up the most recent Southwest ring road alignment.2)

This section of Highway 8, between Sarcee trail and 101st street, has played an important role in the history of the ring road, not only recently, but for many years before.

South Morley Trail, Springbank Trail, Richmond Road and Highway 8

The modern Highway 8 partially follows the route of one of the oldest roads on Calgary’s west side. Richmond road, first known as South Morley Trail, was a key trail west of the city in the 19th century, and originally connected Calgary to the Stoney Nakoda First Nation Reserve via Springbank.3

1894_Richmond_Road(The Richmond road corridor highlighted in pink, 1894.3)
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The Origins of the Southwest Ring Road

The City of Calgary and the Province of Alberta variously point to planning and studies from 1959 or the 1970s as the origin of the Southwest Ring Road.1 While these studies mark important milestones in the history of this road, particularly around planning for the current iteration, the truth is that the concept is a much older one than that.


(Township plan of Bowness, Mongomery, and what would eventually become west Calgary, 1953)

Though early efforts to plan for roads that encircled Calgary’s downtown area were undertaken, including some dating back to 1914, these were not acted upon in their time. It wasn’t until a post-war explosion of vehicle ownership and population growth in Calgary had occurred that the issue of bypass roads would again be brought to the fore.

The 11-year period between 1952 and 1963 constitute the practical origin of Calgary’s bypass road system, and would see incredible effort and progress on this issue: from outright rejection, to intensive planning, and finally to construction of key portions of Calgary’s first southwest bypass route.

Early Bypass Proposal

In early 1953, Calgary M.L.A. Fred Colborne wrote a memorandum on the benefits of building a bypass road between the Old Banff Coach Road (now Bow Trail) and the Shouldice bridge in Bowness. This memorandum was sent to the Minister of Highways Gordon Taylor in an effort to advocate for such a road; the first rural bypass road envisioned for the west side of Calgary.

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Storm Trunk Relocation: The first steps to the SW Ring Road

In June of 2015, the City of Calgary will begin to construct some of the first tangible work on the Southwest Calgary Ring Road Project. This work will not be on the road itself, but will be related to utilities that will run under part of the project.

The City and Province of Alberta has agreed to construct a new storm sewer line to replace the existing South Richmond Storm Trunk that currently crosses a portion of the Tsuut’ina Nation reserve known as ‘the 940‘. The new line will be located entirely within the City of Calgary city limits along 37th street SW in Lakeview when completed, while the old line will be abandoned. This abandonment and replacement is not due to the functionality or suitability of the existing infrastructure, rather it is necessary due to reasons that are political and jurisdictional in nature; reasons that go back more than 60 years.


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SW Ring Road Information Sessions Announced

Alberta Transportation has announced the dates and locations for their upcoming information sessions, covering the West and Southwest Calgary Ring Road projects.

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Crossing the Elbow River – 1956 to 1986

The release of a ‘virtual tour’ video of the Southwest Calgary Ring Road this past week has given the public a chance to view the proposed plans for this road in a way that maps have not been able to. The detail and context provided by the video has raised concerns over the impacts the road will have on southwest Calgary, including the Elbow River, Fish Creek and the Weaselhead. The nature, size and proximity of the cut-and-fill river crossing, combined with a realignment of the rivers, appear to be at the heart of these concerns.


(Source: Alberta Transportation)

The crossing of the Elbow river is arguably the most important link in the Southwest Calgary Ring Road project. This new crossing of the Elbow river in southwest Calgary, the first since the Glenmore causeway opened in 1963, is projected as being the single most utilized portion of the new road. Establishing this crossing has seen numerous proposals over the years; from a low-level bridge in the 1950s to a dam in the 1980s (creating a new reservoir upstream from the Weaselhead) to a consideration of a high-level bridge, and even talk of a tunnel, in the 2000s. A new crossing of the Elbow river is an idea that has undergone many revisions and alternatives in the decades since it was first proposed.

The first part of this story looks at the early proposals and the history of the crossing of the Elbow River, from the first proposal in 1956 to the project’s (temporary) cancellation in 1986. Part two, which looks at the modern river crossing plans and alternatives from 2000 to 2014, will follow.

Early plans: models and maps

In 1955 the Province of Alberta made public its desire to establish a bypass highway in Calgary’s southwest, and by the following year, the City had drafted initial plans for this road. Around the same time the City was also developing plans for the Glenmore Reservoir parks, and these two proposals would converge in the form of the first publicly released concept for the Southwest Ring Road, then known as the West Bypass, and its crossing of the Elbow river.

The ambitious plan for the proposed Glenmore Parks, containing an aquarium, a solarium, botanical gardens, an ‘Indian Village’ and more, was estimated to cost $3 million and would take upwards of 25 years to implement. When the City’s planning department was seeking approval from both the public and the City Council for the proposed park system surrounding the Glenmore Reservoir, they created a model of their proposed ideas. Along the western portion of the model lay the West Bypass, and its crossing of the Elbow river was presented to the public for the first time.


(Glenbow Archives NA-5600-8138a. Click for an enlargement of the Elbow River crossing)

The crossing, depicted as a 4-lane low-level bridge of about 180m in length with some amount of cut-and-fill on the north bank of the valley, was only conceptual at this stage. Detailed work on the entire development had yet to be carried out at the time of the model’s creation, and no engineering had gone into the designs at this point. (The road is shown along the bottom of the photograph above). Continue reading