Depending on the time of day, taking Ray Gibbon Drive can either be a breeze or an exercise in futility. The road, both loved and reviled by St. Albert-area commuters, is one of the city's main thoroughfares, ferrying rush-hour traffic into and around the city each day.
Long before traffic levels became the focal point for an argument in favour of twinning the much-used road, Ray Gibbon Drive was a source of conflict between city councils, businesses and community groups.
Where did it all begin? This week, the Gazette looks back at the roots of a vital piece of infrastructure.
The road that turned an election
Elections rarely have one defining factor that blots out all other issues, but the municipal election of 2001 saw Ray Gibbon Drive – formerly known as the West Regional Bypass – become the linchpin debate.
Arguments about the road's creation had engulfed the community for years. Environmental groups pushed back against paving over wetlands around Big Lake, and controversy erupted over two potential road alignments: one, favoured by the business community, would be the north-to-south western road we see today; the other, favoured by the majority of the city council at the time, would cut through Riel Business Park.
Two city aldermen made a failed bid to put the road alignment on the 2001 ballot as a plebiscite question. Instead, the election turned into a plebiscite of sorts as residents turfed the entire municipal council and voted in candidates who promised to get the show on the road. Former city mayor Richard Plain, who had already served one term at the city's helm from 1974 to 1977, trounced incumbent mayor Paul Chalifoux (who would go on to regain his seat in 2004).
Plain favoured a larger western road that could be built to provincial highway standards, which would cross the Sturgeon River, following the original plan for the road alignment.Neil Korotash, at the time a 21-year-old university student, was voted into office alongside Plain. Korotash said the debate over the road's alignment was "pretty heated" and "pretty intense."
“I remember sitting in the election at one of the debates ... and people were fired up. There were signs in the audience about supporting one road over the other, and there were environmental activists that were protesting building the road next to Big Lake," he said.
“I remember that debate vividly.”
By the time Ray Gibbon Drive became the political issue of the day, the road had already been decades in the making.
In the 1960s and '70s, the province began looking for an alternative route for St. Albert Trail. As the province identified the need for a ring road around Edmonton – now Anthony Henday – provincial eyes also turned to the importance of a main north road for the growing population just outside Edmonton.
Dean Schick, the City of St. Albert's manager for transportation and engineering services, said as the province began planning for the road, it went so far as to purchase land in the northwest area of the city before pausing the project in the mid-to late-'70s. The reasons for that pause aren't clear.
Around the same time, St. Albert was also recognizing the need for a St. Albert Trail alternative and determined that would be required by the time the population hit 50,000. Around 1996, when the population rose to 46,000, the city did a study to look at alignment options for a western bypass.
It was at this time that the province told the city the road would be a municipal issue. The province would not help build it.
The first two lanes
In 2001, with a new council keen to move forward, the city determined the road was necessary to the transportation network and decided to go ahead with or without the province's support.
By 2002, the city began preliminary design work for the first phase of construction, running from LeClair Way to McKenney Avenue.
Schick said due to significant environmental concerns, it took two more years to complete the environmental impact assessment and get the approval for the road to cross over the river.
The city transportation expert noted that was the right amount of environmental scrutiny for a project of this magnitude.
“There needed to be strong review in regards to natural plant life in the area and the water investigations and litigation for any type of river crossing,” Schick said.
Korotash said the project needed to take into consideration wetlands surrounding the area and water runoff from the road. The road has curbs on it to trap the water so it doesn’t run off into the river or lake. That water is funnelled through the storm water system and treated so it doesn’t upset the natural ecosystem in the area.
Korotash said they also needed to create three times as much artificial wetlands as they damaged by building the bridge.
“The environmental assessments that went on with that project were incredible and I’m glad we did them and it turned out for the better,” he said.
Once the environmental assessments were done, the city broke ground on the road in 2004 and construction for the first two phases was completed in 2007.
It was during this construction period that the province and city began looking into the possibility of turning the arterial roadway into an eight-lane freeway, which was the original vision for the road.
After a meeting between then-premier Ed Stelmach and then-mayor Paul Chalifoux on Sept 11, 2007 it was decided the road should be built to the provincial standard and eventually become a provincial responsibility. In 2007, Ray Gibbon Drive opened from LeClair Way to Giroux Road, with a further extension to Villeneuve opening in 2013.
A 2009 functional planning study for Ray Gibbon had the city asking Alberta Transportation for roughly $45 million to reimburse the costs of building the road so it could eventually be upgraded to an eight-lane divided freeway.
“It boiled down at the time that there was an agreement between the city and province that the city would be responsible for the land, design and construction costs for the first two lanes and the province would be responsible essentially for the rest,” Schick said.
Mired in politics
All strides made on Ray Gibbon Drive over the years came from intense political pressure either on council or the province, said former St. Albert mayor Nolan Crouse.
In 2004, when Crouse was a city councillor, the city hosted a meeting with dozens of elected representatives from Westlock and Westlock County, Sturgeon County, Morinville and Barrhead. Those officials met with then-Spruce Grove-St. Albert MLA Doug Horner to demand the road be built, Crouse said.
“(Horner) heard loud and clear that the region wanted to have a road to bypass St. Albert,” he said.
“It was political in the late 1990s, resulting in a major election issue in 2001 ... Now, it's political again. Well, it just continues to be political."
A new kind of political pressure
During the 2019 budget process, the current city council decided to move ahead with or without provincial support.
Councillors approved $780,000 in 2019 for the engineering and design of improvements from the southern city limit up past LeClair Way. The recommended 10-year capital plan also earmarks $7,914,000 in 2020 for construction along that leg of the road.
In the spring, Heron said the city was more inclined to self-finance last fall after engineers determined the road only needed to be four lanes and not a six-lane highway. The new vision for the road dropped the price dramatically and made it more palatable for the province to chip in.
In February, the former NDP government committed to funding half of the twinning costs, with St. Albert front-ending construction.
Crouse views that promise as a continuation of the political pressure surrounding the road. The timing of the announcement, just before a provincial election, was "interesting," he said.
Design work for the road is slated to begin this year, as was outlined during the 2019 municipal budget process. The design of the segment running from the south city limit to around 300 metres north of LeClair Way will begin first, at an estimated cost of $780,000.
Who should own the road?
While the province originally came up with the idea for the road, and is slated to fund part of the construction, the road is still owned by St. Albert and all repair and maintenance costs fall on municipal shoulders.
Despite the original vision of the road as a provincial highway, transferring ownership to the province wasn't on the table during recent negotiations to secure funding. St. Albert Mayor Cathy Heron said that would have made the deal too complicated and the main goal going into negotiations was to get a monetary commitment for the twinning.
“It was (former transportation minister) Brian Mason at the time that we were negotiating with, and he pretty much said, 'Let's not worry about that now – let's just get the thing widened,' ” Heron said.
“I think it would have been quite complicated and longer negotiations, and I don't think we would have the funding that we do now if we were insistent that they take ownership.”
The mayor said there are benefits to the city owning the road.
“If we have control over it, then we make sure that it's maintained well. So we're making sure it's plowed and (we fix) potholes and stuff,” Heron said.
Crouse said when he was mayor he tried to orchestrate a swap of responsibility so Ray Gibbon Drive would become provincial and St. Albert Trail would become fully municipal. The province rejected that proposal.“My working with the province was basically we would take over 100 per cent of the responsibility and not have to worry about the grant money for St. Albert Trail and they would take over 100 per cent of the responsibility for Ray Gibbon Drive,” Crouse said.
The former mayor said he remembered receiving a letter from the province saying they weren’t ready to take over the road.
St. Albert NDP MLA Marie Renaud and Morinville-St. Albert UCP MLA Dale Nally both said Ray Gibbon Drive remains municipal because the road is not technically part of the provincial highway network – it needs to fully connect to another provincial highway first.
Renaud said her understanding is once the road is twinned, it will need to extend past Villeneuve Road to connect with the existing Highway 2 before the provincial designation can be shifted from St. Albert Trail to Ray Gibbon Drive. The twinning will help the roadway meet the provincial standard for a freeway.
Now that plans are in place for the city and province to once again move forward together on funding the road, questions remain around the stability of funding with a new government in place.
The NDP guaranteed the money to the city but since the change in government, there have been mixed signals.
Earlier this year, Minister of Transportation Ric McIver, in an email to the Gazette, called Ray Gibbon an important link and acknowledged it was one of the top five priorities of the Capital Region Board, but noted the project will be considered along with all other provincial projects this upcoming fall.
"We are reviewing our capital plan projects to make sure that (the) highest priority projects are approved and tendered without delay," he said in his email. "This project will be considered alongside other capital projects across the province in preparation for a budget this fall."
But Nally said not to worry about the funding of the road.
“I don't think that it's up in the air. I mean it was indicated that it was a priority. You can appreciate that the budget is not done, so nothing is carved in granite ... but the signals that I have received from Transportation is this is one of the provincial priorities and we're going to do our best to honour that commitment."
Crouse is more skeptical about the future funding and ownership of the road.
“When you have many other demands around the province that have these tremendous loads (of) traffic, this one doesn’t have the load on it at all – not at all. You have sluggish times of the day but you don’t have terrible traffic. It's not like Yellowhead or the highway between Edmonton and Calgary backed up in Leduc. You have traffic but not crazy,” Crouse said.
The former mayor said he isn’t optimistic the province will ever take over ownership of the road.
“That’s one of the reasons why you really have to question why the city is putting any money into this. As long as the city is willing to take on debt and take on responsibility, the province is willing to hand it over to them,” Crouse said.