October 2011

October 29, 2011

Keeping our highways safe and scenic --The Guardian Letter to the Editor

If the provincial government thought its proposals for realigning the Trans-Canada Highway west of Charlottetown would go unnoticed, it underestimated the public's interest. Judging from the turnout this week at public information sessions in Cornwall and Crapaud, Islanders are quite interested - and some are concerned - about the options on the table.

With the aid of federal money from the Atlantic Gateway Initiative, the province wants to eliminate some of the dangerous curves along the Trans-Canada Highway by straightening portions in Churchill, Crapaud or Tryon. The information sessions are being held to help government make a final decision on which project it will submit for funding.

The costs for the projects are estimated at $9.5 million for the Churchill portion of the highway, $16.8 million for the Crapaud section and $9 million for the Tryon stretch of the highway. By far, the most controversial proposal is the Churchill one, which would put the highway through a portion of the scenic Strathgartney Provincial Park. A steady stream of people dropped into the public information sessions in Cornwall to inquire about this option, and the Green party held a rally Tuesday at Province House to protest anything that would disrupt the park or its natural area.

The Ghiz government has a significant public relations challenge on its hands. First of all, it can't ignore the safety concerns about some of the twists and turns in this highway. According to maps posted at the Cornwall session, for example, there have been 33 accidents on the Churchill stretch during the past five years, 31 along the Crapaud section of the road and 13 at Tryon. In some people's view, these areas are dangerously configured and could be improved by being straightened.

But government also needs to look at what might be compromised in proceeding with any of these options. In the case of the Churchill proposal, would straightening the highway there compromise the integrity of what everyone agrees is one of P.E.I.'s most spectacular vistas and prized natural areas? And as one letter writer to this newspaper pointed out, does straightening a highway necessarily make it safer, or simply encourage motorists to drive faster and with less care?

What's also worth emphasizing is that the province is offering three options, but ultimately will choose only one. In other words, what's up for discussion is where the realignment will occur, not what it will entail. What would happen at Churchill, Crapaud or Tryon, if they're chosen, is non-negotiable.

Given the growing public concern about the Churchill proposal, government should revisit it and possibly come up with a redesign for that area. If it can't do that, then it may have to seriously consider dropping that option entirely.

October 28, 2011

Strathgartney and the design of our roads -- Guest Commentary in The Guardian

By Ole Hammarlund

Blessed with an extraordinarily beautiful Island, we can all enjoy the pleasure of driving here, be it along the shore, through the hilly terrain or through quaint villages.

Tourists too enjoy the sights from their cars, motorbikes and bicycles and the pleasant drives possible here must be one of our major tourist attractions.

However our engineers responsible for designing our roads seem to be focused on other goals, primarily getting from here to there in the straightest possible manner. Such is the case in Strathgartney where they propose to obliterate a protected park in the name of increased safety and a straighter road.

Personally I have always liked that particular stretch of road. It is pleasantly curved as you wind your way through the hills with the vistas constantly changing. As far as safety is concerned, the road has an extra passing lane, so it feels very safe as well. In fact I consider this particular stretch of road as proof that a safe and beautiful road can be built. So I have a really hard time understanding why anyone would even consider changing this particular road.

But highway engineers seem to have tunnel vision, as if the only function of the road is getting there the fastest and straightest way possible.

The destructive way of their vision can be seen, for instance, in Morell. Here we used to have to slow down a bit for the pleasant diversion of driving through a small village. The slower speed offered one a chance to see what services were offered, such as a small restaurant and even a small museum. But the engineers removed the village feeling completely by widening the road brutally through. Despite the posted speed limits, people speed through as if the village is not there. "Did we pass through Morell?" I have to ask my wife, when we drive that way. We sometimes used to stop at the restaurant there, but now we no longer get tempted, thanks to the encouragement to speed through.

Narrow streets forcing the traffic to slow down are therefore key to keeping that village feeling and key to encouraging the traffic to stop to support local business. And, of course, they are also key for a pleasant drive for Islanders and tourists alike.

I am not against good and safe roads. All I am saying is that there are lots of other considerations than engineering standards when it comes to the routing and design of our Island roads. Neither tourism nor local businesses are necessarily served by the solutions presented by the engineers.

Such is the case at Strathgartney. A straighter road may be good for truckers. But they are not the only people involved here. We have to look at the users of the park, the environment protected by the park and the regular users of the road. Likely they think like me that this road is spectacular just the way it is. If it really does need to be changed, then the obvious solution that would be safer for truckers and preserve the park is a tunnel through the hill. More expensive, for sure, but think of all the jobs created.

Even in the City of Charlottetown we are not safe from the heavy hand of engineers. My wife and I have spent years fixing up the appearance at the old Y at the corner of Euston and Prince Streets. Imagine my outrage coming home one day to find that a hundred-year-old linden tree had been removed in the name of highway safety. Removing the tree is just the beginning. The corners will be rounded and the streets widened. When you speak to the engineers about it, they claim it is all done to make it safer for children to cross. When you look at the actual design you can see it is all done to make it easier and faster for cars to traverse the corner, and the net effect will be a route to school more dangerous for children and result in work that is completely contrary to the city's effort to become more sustainable.

We obviously need our engineers to design our roads. However what we need even more is a group of people, a committee maybe, to oversee their work and to make sure that other important issues are considered. Such a committee might include environmentalists, architects and landscape architects and people involved in the tourism industry. Roads are really important to P.E.I., but for a whole lot of other reasons than just engineering.

Ole Hammarlund is an architect living in Charlottetown.

October 1, 2011

Strathgartney needs protection not pavement --The Guardian Editorial

Transportation officials should stay clear of the park in improving highway in Churchill

One wonders about the thought process in our provincial Department of Transportation to even consider blasting a roadway through Strathgartney Park to divert the Trans-Canada Highway around the big curve in the Bonshaw hills at Churchill. The land in Strathgartney was donated to the province by Robert L. Cotton on condition it be turned into a provincial park for the enjoyment of all Islanders. The property officially opened as P.E.I.’s first provincial park July 1, 1958.

The park is a popular destination campground and picnic area for residents and visitors alike. A nature trail was built through the Acadian forest, unique in that it has a natural beech stand in addition to other native species such as sugar maple and birch. Strathgartney Park is part of an extensive system of hiking and mountain biking trails that are used extensively by the general public in all seasons.

The key reason for the bypass proposal is to appease motorists, especially truckers, by taking out the steep incline and decline on a wide curve at Churchill. It’s true the steep climb up the hill is tough on truckers but it’s one of the few such climbs on the entire highway.

If there is federal money available for the Trans-Canada Highway for bypasses and straightening out the road, why isn’t is being used to construct the much-needed and much talked about bypass around the town of Cornwall instead of bulldozing into one of the most picturesque sites on P.E.I.?

There is no question our main highway is in need of upgrades. The Trans Canada needs a lot of work from Borden to Charlottetown, as any motorist will attest. Money would be better spent on overall improvements, while upgrading, widening or taking out some of the elevation in at Churchill would make much more sense than trying to blast through the park.

The local community rallied in support of the park when the previous government was going to close it down, and it may require another such strong public demonstration to save the park. One also wonders how the province could de-list the park when it was deeded over for that use only. It all makes no sense.

Many Islanders and environmental groups interested in preserving sensitive habitat are convinced the only areas worth protecting on P.E.I. are shorelines and dune systems. We do have valuable properties inland and Strathgartney Park is one of those sites.

The debate over Strathgartney entered the political election campaign when Green Party Leader Sharon Labchuk staged a press conference at the site to condemn any plans to construct a road through the park. Labchuk is circulating a petition to try and stop any development through the park before it starts. It’s a hot button item the government should pursue at its own peril.

Transportation Minister Ron MacKinley may want to improve the highway between Churchill and Borden-Carleton but his engineers would be well advised to develop and approve a plan whichdoesn’t include paving paradise.