Thirty years ago, when Maureen Palmeter travelled from her home in Fernleigh Park subdivision just off the Bedford Highway to her office on Spring Garden Road, the morning rush-hour trip took about 15 minutes. These days, she says, that same trip is three times longer.
“It was a quick run,” Palmeter recalls. “Where you could allot 15 or 20 minutes to get downtown, now it’s 35 or 40 minutes. It’s dramatically changed.”
One of the problems, she says, is the sheer volume of cars travelling the Bedford Highway at the same time, making the trip much slower. But the problem, too, is the access she and her neighbours in Fernleigh have to the highway. There’s only one way in and out of her neighbourhood, wedged between the newer developments of Southgate and Larry Uteck. So when a study released by the HRM in November suggested the Bedford Highway as it is now could handle the increased traffic brought the thousands of residents in five new developments proposed for the area, Palmeter thought the suggestion was “out to lunch.”
“I know what’s it’s like to get 19 homes out into the traffic in the morning and back in at the end of the day,” Palmeter says. “All these new developments are being proposed and being approved along the Bedford Highway are all multiunit developments, so they are going to have a queue of cars trying to get in and out. And that’s driver frustration, and that is a recipe for an accidents. And when you get an accident and when there is nowhere to go off the highway, it just stops it.”
HRM started looking at the Bedford Highway when it received a number of proposals for new high-density developments for infill spots (new developments in established areas) along the route. Rather than look at each development application on its own, officials decided to review the bigger-picture effect such projects would have on traffic overall. HRM declared a moratorium on development on the Bedford Highway.
“There’s always a concern with infill projects because they are close to areas where congestion is already evident, so there is typically traffic concerns, and we have those concerns as well,” says David McCusker, HRM’s manager of strategic transportation planning.“ And we want to make sure everything will work when something is approved.
McCusker says the study, which was conducted by MMM Group Inc., recommended improving transit and making key infrastructure changes such as widening Bayers Road. Other changes such as the Highway 113 and the Burnside connector were considered as ways to reduce traffic on Bedford Highway, too.
“They found, in general, traffic was accommodated,” McCusker says. “It was really more of a comparison of what impact the higher-density would have above the baseline of just the sites developing as normal, and they concluded that, particularly with higher levels of transit, there really wasn’t that big an impact.”
But according to Councillor Tim Outhit (District 16 Bedford-Wentworth), most of the recommendations were based on assumptions of what could happen to ease congestion. And some of those suggestions depend largely on financial assistance from the federal and provincial governments.
“Right now there is nothing on books for the 113; I am not sure it’s ever going to happen,” Outhit says. “The 102 interchange, MLA [Kelly] Regan is working on that but it’s not going on the books in the next five to 10 years. And, of course, the Burnside connector is kind of on and off again depending on negotiations with DND and Municipal. I just felt there were too many assumptions there.”
But McCusker says a solution is possible. “Most of what I heard was critical of the assumption that the Bedford Highway is congested now,” he says. “How is it possible to generate more traffic and it’s still going to be okay? The answer to that is when the capacity is added to the other corridor, Bayers Road and Highway 102, is that a fair bit of the existing traffic migrates to that corridor off the Bedford Highway and that opens up capacity for more growth that contributes to the Bedford Highway. So it’s a matter of shifting where the demand goes and opening up new capacity for some growth.”
Still, not too many are convinced. Business owner Fred Shuman shares the traffic concerns. He’s operated his store Say It With Stitches on the Bedford Highway for 25 years. He’s seen the increase in traffic but more cars on the highway, he says, doesn’t mean more business.
“I can’t speak for the Halifax section of the highway, but here in Bedford it’s a busy highway and it’s very difficult for small business, your engine of the economy, and for customers to pull into that engine of the economy and get out, and people are reluctant,” Shuman says. “I’ve had people going by that will come in and say, ‘You know something? I’ve been driving by here for 25 years and I never come in.’ And I ask them why and they say, ‘It’s a pain. It’s a pain to turn in and I have to try to get out…it’s intimidating.’”
Widening Bedford Highway, Shuman says, is not the answer since it could mean expropriating property (likely parking lots, in many cases) of businesses. He’d like to see more exits off of the highway, much like that from Larry Uteck, which he says should work in theory, but the practice has proven otherwise.
“They now have so much development up there that never mind people coming up from the Bedford Highway,” Shuman says. “Nobody from the Bedford Highway is going to go up to Larry Uteck to get on the [highway]. It’s such a high-density development up there with the apartments and condos that they have their own traffic problems already.”
Other ideas such as commuter rail and a fast-ferry system are also part of the discussion. But how they exactly work in the bigger picture depends on whom you ask. Outhit is a champion of rail first and a ferry, even though it could create parking congestion on the Bedford waterfront.
“I think many people in Bedford would be just as happy if that money was spent on improvements on the Bedford Highway and improving public transportation,” he says. “I think if we widen Bayers Road it will, A, move the bottleneck a few blocks and B, be used to move buses. And I think there are far more people interested in being transported by ferry and train than there are by bouncing around on the back of a bus.”
Councillor Matt Whitman (District 13 Hammonds Plains-St. Margaret’s) wants a train, too, plus turning lanes and reversing lanes along key spots on Bedford Highway. But, he says, commuters need to change their attitude about the bus.
“Let’s make it worthwhile to get these folks out of their SUVs and onto a bus,” says Whitman. “Change how people think of the bus. In Toronto, big shots take the bus; here they don’t…Ninety per cent of the time it’s one person in a car. So we can do this and we can have better transit, better trains and better roads if we could just start sharing rides.”
Even recent small changes such as giving buses the right of way to get back into traffic was a good idea and could increase ridership. Whitman says that change drove him “nuts” at first, but he now sees its wisdom. “That was direction we need to go,” he says. “Have advanced lights for buses to pull out and they are not sitting in traffic.”
While everyone’s views on exactly how to move people along the Bedford Highway differ, what everyone agrees on is that the HRM needs foresight when it comes to development, transit and transportation. There needs to be a plan of action and not just temporary solutions.
“This is not a unique problem,” Shuman says. “This is a problem that exists in every municipality. You need a thoughtful plan. It’s nice to have tax revenue by having high-density developments, which councillors love and the city loves. However, you have to invest in creating and maintaining infrastructure that will support that high-density development.”
Whitman says in an ideal world, everyone would work close to home, therefore avoiding traffic all together. But if that kind of perfection is not an option, he says changing people’s minds about how they get from one place to another is the way to go. Take the bus, he says, trains if we get them, share rides and keep that second car in the driveway. “Start using what we’ve got and we will make what we’ve got even better,” Whitman says.