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Calgary city council approves $295-million airport tunnel

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by Richard Gilbert

Councillors voted eight to seven on Feb. 7 to proceed with the project, which involves the construction of a tunnel to extend Airport Trail eastward to 36th Street N.E. and connect to Métis Trail.

Calgary city council has narrowly approved an investment of $295 million to construct a tunnel beneath the new airport runway.

“The industry senses that this project is imperative for the future growth of the City of Calgary, because the airport is a major transportation hub,” said Calgary Construction Association executive director Dave Smith.

“However, the industry is concerned whether or not the airport authority will embrace this project, which should be built in conjunction with the new runway.”

Councillors voted eight to seven on Feb. 7 to proceed with the project, which involves the construction of a tunnel to extend Airport Trail eastward to 36th Street N.E. and connect to Métis Trail.

Proponents argued the tunnel is needed because Barlow Trail is closing in April for the construction of a new 4,270-metre runway.

The City of Calgary’s Transportation Department released a report on Feb 2, which estimated the construction cost of the airport underpass was $222.6 million.

“This report confirms that we must build this underpass now,” said Naheed Nensh, the new mayor of Calgary. “It’s the right thing to do financially, it secures a vital east-west network, and it lays the ground for future LRT connection to the airport.

Building it later at an astronomical cost would be a huge mistake.”

The report estimated that constructing the airport underpass later, which would require boring a tunnel under a live runway, would cost $1.5-$1.6 billion.

The cost of not building the underpass and undertaking improvements to the surrounding road network was estimated to be $325-$425 million.

“The airport tunnel has been in planning since 1995, and it’s about time we take a proactive approach with this east-west link and the Calgary International Airport, which is growing exponentially year over year,” said Smith.

Calgary International Airport is experiencing a steady growth with passenger volumes reaching 12.5 million in 2008. This represents an increase of more than three million from the 2004 or almost one million passengers a year.

Many business owners and commuters supported the tunnel idea during the public consultation process, because the new runway would cut them off from airport traffic. In addition to this problem, Deerfoot Trail, which is the other main route to the airport, will become too congested.

Since the airport authority has already started construction of the new runway and a terminal building, the City of Calgary is investigating how the new road connection could be implemented in a very short timeframe.

It was also argued that the cost of building alternate routes or delaying the project would be even more costly in the long run.

Opponents of the project expressed their concerns about expediting such an expensive project that will take funds away from other important infrastructure projects.

Council made its decision despite the fact that land prices and other financially risky elements of this project are still under negotiation.

The project will use a large share of the funds that would be needed to finance other construction projects in the short-term. Council also decided to study a user toll for motorists, a first for Alberta. It also decided in an amendment to apply some sort of levy on the owners of future businesses that stand to benefit from the project.

For mayor Nenshi, the vote to approve this construction project is considered to be the fulfillment of a key election promise.

Nenshi argues that the far northeast is one of Calgary’s few remaining identified growth corridors. Thousands of new residents and businesses are slated to be added to this part of the city in the upcoming years, and they will need road and transit infrastructure.

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