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35 years to upgrade the highway?

The plans to upgrade the Trans-Canada Highway near Brandon are at least 10 years old — and it shows. Just look at the scanned photocopy of the proposed upgrades that was presented to City Council on Monday (and that we ran on the front page):

The plans, if you have trouble deciphering them, show that both First Street and 18th Street will be pushed further apart where they meet the highway, so there is room to build partial cloverleaf interchanges and to move the service roads further from the highway.

These plans aren't new; they date to about 2002. And I seem to recall similar plans being discussed at City Hall even earlier than that.

In fact, although I couldn't find it in a quick search, I remember some alarm from city council of the day when they approved a zoning request for what was then the Visions electronics store.

Highway service roads are for highway-related services only, some councillors fretted, before rationalizing that travellers might need to buy emergency cell phones, and so an electronics store was approved. (That was the argument, seriously.)

The counter-argument was the rumour that Manitoba Highways wasn't happy with the burgeoning development around the Trans-Canada in Brandon, and that they had considered ripping out the highway and re-routing it further north, near the airport, to bypass all the development.

Apparently — and this is dimly remembered from the time, not researched and proven — but apparently this cloverleaf plan is the compromise.

Think about this, though:

  • The plans are a decade old, and they are just in the early stages of actually building it. And who knows how long it took to actually conceive and complete the plans themselves.
  • There's no firm timeline to actually build the project, and even the 20–25 year estimate seems to be a best-guess, based on other development in the area, and whether or not the province or the feds kick in any money.

Upshot: At least 35 years will elapse between planning and completion.

Are the any guarantees that a decade-old plan is the best possible solution for a quarter-century in the future?

I have no doubt that the Trans-Canada Highway will still be an important transportation route in 25 years (no mag-lev Via trains or teleportation, ha ha) and I'm sure that both First and 18th Streets will be important entrances to the city.

But that just makes it more important that we get the plans right. And I do have some doubts about this plan.

First, a step back. Let's rewind to, say 35 years ago today, and take a look at Brandon in 1977. How would a plan developed then be greeted by the city if the ribbon-cutting was now.

Here, take a look at the Brandon Sun from April 2, 1977:

Brandon Sun - 2 April 1977

Some context: Brandon's population at the time was around 33,000. Prisoners were still housed on Victoria Avenue East, near where the water tower is. The Keystone Centre was brand-new. The "Brandon Mental Health Centre" was a new name -- it had until recently been the "Brandon Mental Hospital for Mental Diseases."

There was no Waverly — heck, there was hardly anything south of Richmond Avenue or west of 34th Street.

There was no Internet, obviously. Businesses still used typewriters, not computers. The brand-new kid on the block, technology-wise, was Westman Cable, with the cutting-edge cable television. IN COLOR, as the old motel signs used to read.

Do you think that a plan devised back then would necessarily be appropriate in today's hyper-connected online world?

Well, maybe. After all, we're still talking about roads and intersections here.

But a lot has changed since 1977. Do you think city planners back then envisioned the Corral Centre? Of course not! The first "power centre" style shopping mall wasn't opened until the mid-80s.

In fact, with the Brandon Shoppers Mall still-new and about to expand, with the paint still wet on Scotia Towers downtown, and with plans for the Brandon Gallery said to include several storeys of apartments above, you'd have been called a fool if you thought that Brandon's biggest commercial development was going to go in an empty field behind the brand-new Sportsplex.

So I worry that, a quarter-century from now, when we snip the ribbon on two new cloverleaf intersections, based on decade-old plans, we'll be wondering why in the heck we bothered.

Here are some concerns that I have:

  • Is a cloverleaf intersection the best approach? Check out this PDF from North Carolina that diagrams a few different options. The cloverleaf doesn't look bad, but I'm intrigued by the Modern Roundabout Interchange and the Split Diamond Interchange (both near the end). There's also the Diverging Diamond Interchange, or the Double Crossover Merging Interchange, which would put Brandon on the (traffic engineers') map.
  • If we're trying so hard to attract passenger air service, what are we doing to make sure that these changes improve access to the airport? The current access is off of Highway 10 (which is First Street, far north) but could easily be reconfigured to be from 18th Street as well. In the future, I would hope we're considering transit service to and from the airport, and that should be considered, as well.
  • My understanding may be muddled, but I thought that it was best-practice to have major interchanges no closer than 2 miles. The current intersections are just a mile apart, which is why they are being pushed further away from each other. But it looks like they'll only be a mile-and-a-half apart, even under the new plan. Why not more?
  • If the city is gung-ho to develop the vacant North Hill land known as the Black Farm property, what allowances have been made for integrating it with the rest of the city, given that it will be bounded on three sides by divided highways with service roads?
  • The above point is especially true for pedestrians and cyclists. If you live at, say 10th Street and Moreland Ave., you'll be closer to the Trans-Canada than you will be to Braecrest.

Finally, remember that these new interchanges are designed to speed traffic on past Brandon. The city will have to think long and hard about how to snag tourist and business traffic from the highway and bring it into the city.

My longtime thought is that we need to expand our marketing on the highway — with Manitoba Highways' blessing. Remember that First Street and 18th Street aren't the only entrances to Brandon. There's also Highway 1A (through Kemnay) as well as Grand Valley Road and the new Eastern Access Route (kudos, by the way, to whoever stopped calling it the Eastern "Bypass" Road).

By my count, if you're driving along the Trans-Canada, that gives you five ways to get into Brandon.

So why don't we have big green signs that say "Brandon: Next 5 Exits" on them? That simple addition would do more to give Brandon a "big city" promotional feel than anything else I can think of.

Along those lines, if we're serious about developing the Black Farm property, one aspect of that development should be that it is visible from the highway. To people whizzing past, the highway is all they see -- and the bulk of Brandon is so far further south (and down in the valley) that we look only one-tenth our real size.

The Black Farm development, whatever form it takes, will have to do some of the heavy lifting in attracting people off of the highway and into our city. It needs to be visible from the highway, and do some visual beckoning: "There's more... just over here..."

But I guess we've got 25 years to worry about that.

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