Co-written with Shannon LeBlanc
Another deflating battle in the 60-year saga of a debate concerning the fate of Jackson Park has been waged and lost, with Peterborough City Council voting to accept and endorse an Environmental Assessment of the proposed ‘Parkway’ road that includes a recommendation to build a massive bridge spanning over the city’s Jackson Park.
Three hundred residents were on hand for the presentation of the Parkway Corridor Environmental Assessment on November 13. More than 400 were on hand the next week, November 20, when city council met to hear public deputations from concerned citizens.
Some of the speakers included Rob Steinman of the Friends of Jackson Park group; young siblings Cameron and Kaia Douglas, whose father Jake Douglas also spoke; Mike Hendren, executive director of Kawartha Land Trust; and Ann Farquharson, a former councillor whose father was one of the councillors who originally passed the Parkway plan in the 1950s.
The most notable speakers in favour of the bridge were local artist, art dealer and property owner Peer Christensen, and former mayor Paul Ayotte, who was the last speaker to address council.
Over 70 individuals presented—of which only six were supportive of the bridge, the remainder being in various degrees of vociferous opposition—forcing Wednesday’s session to adjourn and reconvene the following evening. At least 150 residents were on hand for the final night of deputations at Adam Scott Collegiate, after which council debated the report amongst themselves.
After a motion by Coun. Dean Pappas to remove the bridge from the proposed plan and revisit the design process narrowly failed 6-5, council ended its two-day marathon consultation session by voting 8-3 in favour of accepting the report. Councillors Pappas, Keith Riel and Jack Doris were joined by Councillors Henry Clarke and Lesley Parnell in the failed attempt to remove the bridge from the accepted plan.
Clarke and Parnell then joined Mayor Daryl Bennett and Councillors Bob Hall, Dan McWilliams, Len Vass, Andrew Beamer, and Bill Juby in ultimately voting to accept the report.
Couns. Pappas, Riel and Doris maintained their staunch opposition.
The idea of building a ‘Parkway’ in Peterborough has been around for more than 60 years. In the 1950s it was envisioned as a freeway bypassing the industrializing core of the city. But as the city grew and the economic character of Peterborough changed so dramatically from the ‘70s to the new millennium, the Parkway’s purpose shifted: it is now conceived of as an expressway arterial road moving traffic from the southwest to the north of the city.
One essential characteristic has remained constant through all the Parkway’s iterations, however: it is a road prefaced on the dominance of the car as our chief mode of transportation.
“Dependence on the car leads to congestion, pollution and unhealthy lifestyles… The Parkway would literally cement our dependence on the car.”– Julian Tennent-Riddell from Sustainable Trent
The overall aim of the construction of the Parkway would be to act as a transit corridor connecting Fleming College and the Trans-Canada Highway in the southwest to Trent University and the north end of the city. Several stretches of the Parkway have already been built, but the majority of the proposed course has not yet been begun, and the idea of building another bridge over Jackson Park has always been highly controversial; a lightning rod issue dividing the community and generating a massive, well-organized citizens’ coalition in opposition.
Other parts of the Parkway have generated less opposition, though a smaller contingent of the community are opposed to any use of the city’s limited budget to build a major highway-like road spanning from suburb to suburb.
For most, however, the proposed bridge is the main point of contention. Three-hundred-sixty-six meters long in the section spanning the park and 26 metres wide – or as Coun. Doris cannily expressed it, three times as long as an NFL football field and wider than a NHL hockey rink – the bridge would loom 24 metres in the air as it passes over one of the most-used and loved sections of the Park.
“Jackson Creek is the heart of our community… If we don’t get what we want tonight, we’ll continue to fight.” – Coun. Doris
Proponents of the Parkway argue that the city’s projected growth necessitates the construction of a major arterial road, drawing traffic away from residential streets. The provincial government’s projections envision Peterborough surpassing 100,000 residents by 2031, while the city’s own Master Plan predicts more modest growth to 88,000 by that date.
Basing expected motor traffic patterns on current habits and these expected growth numbers, the city envisions that it will have serious motor traffic problems less than two decades from now, and so must build in anticipation of that traffic to avoid the kind of congestion that plagues most large North American cities.
Some residents in Peterborough’s north end already complain of excessive traffic on residential streets. That being said, Coun. Vass suggested that we “need to look in real time at where our transportation concerns lie today,” of which the most serious is congestion up around the Northwest end of Peterborough.
“No North American city has ever been able to build its way out of congestion issues with new roads.” – Yvonne Leicht
Critics of the Parkway both question its necessity and point to manifold deficiencies in the plan as proposed. One of their key claims is that it is impossible to accurately predict Peterborough’s growth over such a long period into the future.
In the 1950s it was estimated that the city would reach 100,000 residents by the 1990s; but instead the city went through a deindustrialization that has left the city with a serious lack of living-wage jobs.
As a consequence, Peterborough’s population has been relatively stable, with only modest growth over the past several decades. It is not without reason, then, that opponents of the Parkway question the reliability of Peterborough’s 20-year growth projections.
As Coun. Doris and other opponents of the bridge repeatedly emphasized, it strains credulity to say that Peterborough currently, as a whole, has serious traffic problems; and those that it does have would mostly not be addressed by the Parkway’s construction. According to estimates provided by AECOM, the engineering firm contracted to provide the Environmental Assessment, the proposed Parkway, when completed, would only save someone driving crosstown approximately two minutes compared to other possible routes.
Building the bridge over the park, meanwhile, would only shave 45 seconds off a driver’s crosstown trip.
Meanwhile, the main alternative to the bridge considered, which would involve widening Parkhill Road and Fairbairn Avenue to four or six lanes for several hundred metres, was deemed by AECOM to be only six percent less ‘efficient’ than the bridge in terms of its ability to move large amounts of traffic.
It would, however, require the purchase and destruction of 27 homes along Fairbairn, and it was estimated that this alternative would only resolve traffic congestion in the vicinity until 2031.
All of this depends, of course, on how many cars are driving on these roads.
Another one of the bridge opponents’ chief criticisms is that AECOM’s assessment assumes a relative continuity in the numbers of cars and drivers in the city per capita; it does not take into account the possibility that shifts in residents’ transportation habits toward increased use of bicycles or public transportation might over time obviate the need for larger roads.
Councillor Doris noted that 30 percent of Peterborough’s current residents do not drive, and numerous deputations pointed to the fact that ‘millennials’ are significantly less likely than previous generations to have a driver’s license or own a car.
The use of bikes and public transportation is up considerably among this same demographic, although obviously this is truer of urban populations than rural ones.
Critics also point to the outlandish cost of the proposed parkway. According to one city hall staffer, the bridge is the “least expensive option” (of those considered by AECOM), but the Jackson Park bridge crossing is by far the most expensive section of the proposed project, estimated to cost over $31 million; over a third of the total estimated cost of $78.9 million for the entire Parkway. In contrast, the Fairbairn-Parkhill widening would cost an estimated $14.9 million.
These estimates themselves are highly contentious, however. AECOM estimated a four to six percent annual inflation of the project’s costs of construction, which, given the 20 year timeline for the plan, could see the final cost of the Parkway rise as much as 80-120 percent just from inflation, not including other cost overruns.
Construction projects of this magnitude frequently end up far over budget. Coun. Riel warned that the “100-million-dollar plan” will financially hamstring council for the length of the project, estimated to be approximately 20 years long.
The actual construction period of the bridge is expected to begin in the year 2021 (eight years from now) and finish by the end of 2022, while the design period is planned to begin in 2018 ending midway through the year of 2020.
With the projected $78.9 million it would take to extend the Parkway, those extra two minutes pale in comparison to the potential economic and environmental concerns raised by it, including the likely closure of the park for two years.
“This is a huge cost and an irreversible change on the overall character of the community.” – Dennis Carter-Edwards
For one, it has not been confirmed how the city will manage to pay for the project, or if it will end up going over budget. While much of the cost would be spread out over the long duration of the project, most of the funding will surely have to be borrowed, burdening the city with a huge financial debt.
Such a large capital outlay for the Parkway would also necessitate the delay or deferral over other infrastructure improvements throughout the city; at several points over the course of the three sessions Coun. Riel read off a seemingly endless list of projects pushed to the side by the proposed Parkway plan.
Pappas’ failed motion would have seen the bridge removed and the EA revised to factor in alternative scenarios. It was estimated that the revision of the EA would cost approximately $50-60,000, a miniscule expense in comparison to the cost of building the bridge.
“The value to the community is the green space and especially to protect that park,” Councillor Clarke cautioned that the bridge will destroy the protected green space of Jackson Park.
This will not be the only huge concern for the surrounding residents of Jackson Park and the north-west end of Peterborough; the expected noise pollution which would be produced during the construction period would also be a concern.
Another key concern is the actual construction of the bridge and how to utilise the most economical, safe and least environmentally-damaging methods possible. The Environmental Assessment is incredibly vague as to how the bridge would actually be constructed.
“We hear that this bridge is somehow going to be built from above, like magic bridge elves are somehow going to float it in. It’s not going to magically appear. It’s not going to somehow be environmentally friendly.” – Coun.Pappas
AECOM, the engineering firm specializing in road construction, has also been criticized for lacking environmental credentials to complete a credible environmental assessment of the plan.
“The EA is not done for the good of the environment, it is done for the client,” Alison Werger told council, suggesting that the Environmental Assessment was inherently biased towards the construction of the bridge.
“It needs to be redone, to consider all the small remediations suggested by the public and the broad scope questions of all aspects of urban transportation.”
Without that, the course chosen would be based on politics, rather than on the real needs of Peterborough’s transportation system.
Coun. Pappas echoed public sentiment in suggesting that residents are particularly angry because council has not been honest with the public. Nearly all the councillors had been saying that their preference was to not build the bridge, and there was no discussion during the last election to suggest that the construction of the bridge would be included in the city’s official plans.
Members of the public, thus with reason, claimed that this council did not have a mandate to push forward the Parkway bridge.
With cheers from the audience, Coun. Riel repeated that “council did not run on a ticket of building the Parkway … We have now made this a referendum issue for the next municipal election.”
“Mr. Mayor, you don’t have a mandate to push this Parkway through.” – Ann Farquharson
Coun. Hall described the debate as “passionate, with reason and emotion mixed in. It’s been a very democratic debate. The amount of community engagement in this process has been outstanding.”
Each councillor in turn proceeded to enthuse about how proud they were with this consultation process, and how passionately and intelligently the public had expressed their views—especially those amazing precocious children. Then a majority of councillors reiterated that despite the overwhelming public input they had not changed how they would vote.
Despite great opposition from members of the public, including groups like Parks Not Parkways and Friends of Jackson Park, the go-ahead for the construction of the bridge is still in place.
There is no question that the bridge over Jackson Park will be one of the defining issues of next November’s municipal election in Peterborough.
As Coun. Hall reminded the assembled citizens, “ultimately it’s the people that will decide,” to which the members of the crowd responded by shouting out “we’ve decided.”
What remains to be seen is whether the public’s anger and outrage today will be sustained enough to sway the results of 2014’s elections.
In 2010, less than half of registered Peterborough electors voted; Bill Juby, the councillor who received the fewest votes, was elected by only 1273 ballots. It is not known yet which councillors will be running for re-election, but an upward surge of voter rebellion could certainly change the makeup of Peterborough’s elected Council.
“Maintain the Peterborough we love and not what engineering is being imposed on us.” – Roy Brady