Woodland Roundabout: One of the items on Council’s agenda that grabbed a lot of the media attention over the last two weeks was the proposed roundabout at the intersection of Woodland, Lancaster, Mic Mac Boulevard and Highway 118. This intersection is a problem that I have been working on since being elected. Going door-to-door on Woodland Avenue and in Lancaster Ridge quickly reveals that many people are concerned about excessive speeds and are scared to turn left at this intersection or cross it on foot. The fear isn’t without merit. On average, there is a collision at the intersection once a month (latest was on Tuesday last week). Everyone seems to have a story of coming upon a crash here. Luckily, no one has been killed, but there have been 13 serious injuries over the last four years.
The reason the intersection doesn’t work well is because of its design. It’s hard for left-turning vehicles to see oncoming cars because of the change in elevation and highway speeds makes guessing wrong an unforgiving mistake. The highway to city street transition isn’t handled very well here as Woodland Avenue’s residential section appears farther down the road with no real warning. The problem stems from decisions made decades ago. Woodland Avenue was never meant to be the major street that it is today. The original plan was to connect the Circ to the Macdonald Bridge by building a new road across Brightwood, but that changed at the last minute and, instead, traffic was directed to Woodland/Victoria. As a result, Woodland will always carry high volumes, but there is no reason why high speeds and crashes need to be a routine occurrence.
Since the roundabout recommendation came out, I have received a lot of feedback on the idea, both positive and negative. I’m confident that a roundabout is the best approach here, but don’t take my word for it alone. The recommendation has been through three sets of engineers: (1) HRM’s staff (2) Provincial staff, and (3) external consultants. The army of engineers looked at several less disruptive options, but none of the roundabout alternatives address all of the issues. A roundabout would eliminate the Jeykl and Hyde nature of the intersection where speed is determined by whether the light coming off the 118 is green or not. A roundabout would, instead, force everyone to slow down. A roundabout would also eliminate the dangerous left-turns across traffic. There is no guarantee that collisions will cease entirely in a roundabout, but it has been well demonstrated that the slower speeds and different angles of impact mean that collisions in roundabouts are fewer and less severe. The engineers are confident that a roundabout is the best option.
There have been some common themes to the feedback on the roundabout idea so I thought I would give a bit of a Q&A.
Q: The Mic Mac Rotary was a parking lot! Why are you looking to recreate that failure?
A: There is a big difference between roundabouts and rotarys. In a roundabout, the traffic in the circle has the right-of-way and doesn’t have to merge across incoming traffic to exit. As a result, roundabouts can work well with high traffic volumes whereas rotaries get gridlocked. The modelling done by staff indicates a roundabout at Woodland Lancaster would actually have more traffic capacity than the current intersection does! The traffic will be slower, but it will be free-flowing.
Q: But couldn’t we make the intersection safer with better enforcement?
A: Enforcement is always part of the picture and it can be effective when it’s a small minority of people who are behaving badly. Studies have shown though that most people drive the speed that they feel safe at, not the speed limit that’s posted. If a problem is rampant, it’s design not enforcement that’s at play. This is clearly the case on Woodland. We can’t station a cop there 24/7 and even if we did, it would be far less effective than addressing the route cause: a highway that doesn’t clearly transition into municipal streets. Woodland is a design failure not an enforcement issue.
Q: But couldn’t we save a bunch of money by restricting left-turns to green arrows so that no one ever cuts across oncoming traffic?
A: Staff actually looked at this and it was actually the starting point for this project. Although a protected left sequence would fully address the dangerous left-turn issue, it’s not workable because it creates new problems. Restricting left turns to green arrows would increase the wait time for left-turning vehicles, which would cause waiting cars to overflow the left turn lane from the 118 to Mic Mac Boulevard. The cars waiting to turn left would block through traffic that has a green light, increasing the risk that someone not paying attention would plow into the back of the car in front of them. The Saturday before Christmas experience would be routine!
The only way to make restricted lefts safe would be to add space for waiting vehicles. This would mean adding another lane to both Mic Mac Boulevard and the 118. Given the cost of widening the roads to build the new lanes and the fact that restricted lefts would still leave the speed issue for straight through traffic unaddressed, staff concluded that a roundabout would be the best overall option. It costs a bit more, but it best deals with all the issues at once: eliminates dangerous left-turns, slows all traffic, and clearly marks the transition from highway to city street. It’s the best value.
So what happens next? For the first time, HRM and the Province have agreed that the intersection is a problem and on what the solution should be. There is still a lot to work out in terms of detailed design for a roundabout and then HRM and the Province have to agree on when it will be built. Although the roundabout topic dominated last week’s news, it will still likely be a few years before construction might get underway. Staff will return to Council in the future after discussions with the Province are further developed.
Before leaving the roundabout topic, I did want to acknowledge the Province’s cooperation on this issue. There are times where dealing with the Province can be an exercise in frustration. This isn’t one of them. They were responsive and open to working with HRM on this. It’s much appreciated.
Forum: The other significant bit of news through Council over the last two weeks was the future of the Halifax Forum. The Forum consists of two ice surfaces plus multi-purpose spaces. It’s used by a variety of groups and fills an important role on the Peninsula and in HRM at large. The Forum is a heritage building and, although it’s well-used, it’s also an aging mismatch of additions that don’t work very well together and that are in bad shape. HRM is planning to save the two prominent original walls and then build an entirely new Forum complex behind them. The new Forum will have two ice surfaces, plus configurable event space, a new public park out front on the corner of Windsor and Almon, and a new parking garage to the rear of the building by Windsor and Young. The total project cost is estimated to be between $71,000,000 and $86,000,000.
A number of people have asked how Council could possible consider spending so much money on the Forum. It wasn’t an easy call, but there also wasn’t a whole lot of choice. While $71 – $86 million is a lot of money, the reality is that’s what ice surfaces that also have stands and event spaces costs. There isn’t much that we can do about that. HRM is the owner of the Forum and opting to do nothing was also really not an option given the building’s condition. HRM can’t just wait until the Forum is condemned. Without the Forum, the Peninsula has no ice rinks or large multi-purpose community space. Doing nothing would be irresponsible and was clearly not a realistic option.
So all that was really up for debate was whether Council was okay with paying a premium to save the two exterior walls and there were mixed feelings about this around Council. To help Council in its decision-making, HRM prepared a cost estimate for a no-frills modern box scenario similar to the RBC and BMO centres. The cost of that bare bones approach was about $65,000,000. So the spread between saving the Forum’s facade and wiping the site clean is $6,000,000 – $21,000,000.
The idea of spending the upper end of the range for two exterior walls is hard to swallow, but I don’t mind paying a smaller premium on the lower end because it’s an investment in good design. The Central Library has shown that good design can be a powerful thing. Preserving the Forum’s heritage value is a way to make sure the project’s design is unique. It’s also not lost on me that, if the Forum was privately-owned and the owner was seeking permission to demolish it, Council might very well say no. We expect the private-sector to take care of the heritage buildings that they own so it’s hard, when the shoe is on the other foot, to argue that the Forum’s heritage value isn’t worth some consideration. Council ended up voting 7-6 in favour of proceeding (I voted in favour).
This isn’t the end of the story on the Forum. Staff will return to Council in the future to determine exactly how much multi-purpose space is needed and, potentially, with a private-sector real estate partnership. The real estate opportunity comes from the Forum’s frontage on Young Street. Young Street has been identified as a growth centre in the recently adopted Centre Plan, which means that it’s an area that HRM has identified as being able to handle significantly more density. Instead of just locating a parking garage to the north of the Forum along Young Street, HRM could partner with a private-sector developer. A developer might want to incorporate the parking garage into a larger commercial and residential development on the north side of the site. Allowing for private development would offset some of HRM’s costs for property that the municipality isn’t fully using, would fit in with the Centre Plan’s provisions quite well, and could produce a more interesting streetscape. It could be a win-win result. Staff will return with more information in the future.
- Rescinded Council’s earlier motion to look at banning plastic bags since the Province has adopted to implement a Province-wide approach
- Entered into new operating agreements and leases with a number of community groups who make use of municipal property including the Moser River Community Hall Association, the Sable Island Institute (Point Pleasant Park Suiperintendents House), Halifax Tars Rugby Club (Graves Oakley Park), Sheet Harbour and Area Chamber of Commerce (MacPhee House), Senobe Aquatic Club (beach area between Senobe and Mic Mac AAC), Abenaki Aquatic Club, Atlantic Division Canoe Kayak (Oakwood Park), and the Dartmouth Day Care Centre (East Dartmouth Community Centre)
- Renamed William Allan Drive in Harrigan Cove on the Eastern Shore to Charlie Shiers Lane
- Opted not to make amendments to the Police Commissioners By-law after legal revealed it wasn’t within Council’s power to bind the code of conduct (a power of the Chief of Police alone)
- Set about establishing a Women’s Advisory Committee as some other municipalities have done
- Appointed Councillors to the Halifax Peninsula Advisory Committee
- Increased the grant to the Sackville Business Improvement District by $500 for the Sackville Christmas Tree Lighting
- Approved revisions to the community grants program award from earlier including $12,500 for the Banook Canoe Club for emergency work on the Club’s heating/electrical systems
- Referred a request from the Downtown Dartmouth Business Improvement District for funding for the upcoming February Ice Festival to staff and the grants committee
- Implemented new local improvement fees to pay for paving a number of streets for the first-time in rural HRM
- Requested staff reports on a possible on-site septic financing program
- Approved the closure of a portion of Magestic Avenue and Monarch Drive in Beaver Bank (leftover remnants of portions of the streets that were never built)
- Adopted changes to the Community Council structure to create a new Regional Centre Community Council to handle some planning issues in the Centre Plan area (Peninsula Halifax, Dartmouth inside the Circ. I wrote about this here
- Agreed to contribute towards Discover Halifax’s intiative to create a tourism master plan
- Endorsed the principles in the Halifax Food Charter and affirmed HRM’s membership in the Food Policy Alliance