Canadian Consulting Engineer

Circling Edmonton

January 1, 2008
By Nordahl Flakstad

The new ring road under construction in Edmonton moves into new territory in several ways, so it's appropriate that the freeway carries the name of an 18thcentury explorer of western Canada, Anthony H...

The new ring road under construction in Edmonton moves into new territory in several ways, so it’s appropriate that the freeway carries the name of an 18thcentury explorer of western Canada, Anthony Henday.

While only about 50 kilometres have been completed of what eventually will be an 80-kilometre free-flow circle route, Henday Drive has altered driving patterns in Edmonton already. It has also prompted changes in the way the province of Alberta builds major roads, through the use of public-private partnerships (P3s).

Since the 1970s, significant volumes of Edmonton traffic have travelled on two major east-west arteries, Whitemud Drive and Yellowhead Trail. The latter forms part of the Yellowhead Highway, a key inter-provincial route that traverses the Prairies and provides an alternative to the more southerly Trans-Canada.

Conspicuously lacking in Edmonton until recently, however, has been a major north-south divided route passing through or skirting the city.

Not only has this frustrated truckers and motorists, the absence of a bypass also represented a missing link in the socalled North-South Corridor — a long-discussed super-highway connecting Mexico and Alaska. Within the province of Alberta, the government has championed a divided highway stretching from Coutts on the border with Montana, to Grande Prairie in the northwest, and beyond.

To advance the corridor concept, the province of Alberta in the late 1990s assumed direct responsibility for building and upgrading portions of the route where the corridor passes through the urban centres of Edmonton and Calgary.

The route of a future Edmonton ring road had been already largely determined in the 1970s when the province acquired land for a transportation and utility corridor to accommodate pipelines, electric transmission lines and roadways. While initially this route lay mostly beyond Edmonton’s built-up areas, the forward-looking concept envisioned the corridor eventually cutting a swath through an expanding urban landscape. Several pipe and transmission lines have been in place for some time, so the Henday roadway is the latest addition.

Southwest portion was technically challenging

First, Alberta Infrastructure and Transportation (INFTRA) decided to tackle the four-lane, 11 kilometre southwest portion of the Henday ring road. Running from Whitemud Drive in the west to Calgary Trail going south (which becomes Queen Elizabeth II Highway) this leg of the new ring road contained some of the most technically challenging elements.

The challenges included a 360-metre crossing of the North Saskatchewan River, the first bridge built over this waterway in the Edmonton-area since the 1970s. Three ravine crossings called for award-winning designs to accommodate pedestrian traffic and wildlife movements (see page 39). These bridges also involved geotechnical innovations to build on the workings of a former coal mine.

Currently, the roadway has four to six lanes, but earthwork already done along the route will make it easy to expand to five lanes in each direction.

At $320 million, Henday’s southwest leg was Alberta Infrastructure’s most ambitious contract to date. Done as a traditional design, bid, build initiative, the department decided to divide the project between two teams. One, the “ESR” team, was led by Stantec Consulting (Carl Clayton, P. Eng.) and included Earth Tech Canada and EBA Engineering Consultants. The other, headed by UMA Engineering (Kelly Yuzdepski, P. Eng., Tom Clarke, P. Eng.) consisted of Associated Engineering, AMEC Earth and Environmental, and AMEC Infrastructure. The lead firms, Stantec and UMA, were responsible for engineering, project and construction management. Begun in 2000, Henday southwest was fully opened to traffic in October 2006.

Southeast section done as P3

By that time, work was under way on the southeast section, which was built as a design, build, finance and operate project. This was Alberta Infrastructure’s first P3. Bill van der Meer, urban construction manager at the Ministry’s Major Capital Projects Branch in Edmonton, has served as its pointman for the ring road. He concedes that compared to other governments, Alberta was a relatively late P3 adopter, something he attributes to a desire to avoid the pitfalls experienced elsewhere.

Henday’s southeast portion, also 11 kilometres long, passes through some sensitive wetlands, but generally presented fewer risks than the southwest section and therefore became a good candidate for the P3 approach. UMA Engineering served as the owner’s engineer. The southeast and southwest sections connect at the Calgary Trail, where traffic flows through a complex array of a dozen structures, including Alberta’s first three-level interchange.

The successful P3 proponent was Access Roads Edmonton Ltd. (AREL), a consortium led by PCL Construction and including engineering companies MMM (Chris Gauer, P. Eng.) and Stantec Consulting (Allan Neill, P. Eng., Marek Buksowicz, P. Eng.). With its 20 bridge structures, including five interchanges but no traffic lights, Henday’s southeast section opened in October 2007 at a capital cost of $365 million. Under a $493-million agreement, the AREL consortium has to operate and maintain this leg of the road for 30 years.

The winning consortium to build the north section of the ringroad, which will extend 23 kilometres, will be announced in August, with construction to follow in early fall. That would leave a shorter — eight kilometre — but potentially challenging gap in the northeast, which entails a further crossing over the North Saskatchewan River. This last link would speed movement into northexpand east Alberta, including Fort McMurray. Plans call for the entire circuit to be completed by 2015.

Though very satisfied with the P3 efforts to date, van der Meer stresses the risks of this approach will be assessed before they pursue further P3 options.

While the Henday’s role as a link in the north-south corridor is expected to gain prominence, its most immediate impact has been in shifting traffic volume from Edmonton’s Whitemud and Yellowhead arteries. “At present, it’s estimated only five to 10 per cent of the volume involves highway traffic. Ninety per cent or more is connected with movement within the city,” van der Meer says.

Metropolitan Edmonton’s population is expected to rise from its present 1 million to 1.4 million by 2030. By then substantial growth will likely have spread beyond the ring road. In line with their prudent predecessors decades ago, planners are already contemplating land development in anticipation of building another ring road.


Nordahl Flakstad is a freelance writer based in Edmonton.


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