(Sorry, everytime I see the word Balgonie I think of the many sandwiches of my youth.)
I’m not going to pretend I have any answers on this one, but I do have a bunch of questions.
Once upon a time, the intersection at the Town of Balgonie’s Main Street and Highway 1 was a death trap. Residents were forced to either cross two lanes of the busy TransCanada to turn left and head east, or to get into town, or merge into highway-speed traffic by turning right to drive west to Regina (thank you to everyone who helped me out with the directions in that sentence). Unsurprisingly a lot of people have died at this intersection, including this nasty 2014 crash which killed one man and 12 horses, and that had residents calling on the provincial government for a solution.
That solution was found when talk began in 2010 of the Regina Bypass, which would include a new Highway 1 overpass for Balgonie. Fast forward to July 2017 when that overpass opened with much fanfare, with particular focus on the roundabouts included in the design, because there’s an irritating narrative in this province that suggests Saskatchewan people aren’t smart enough to navigate them.
Anyway, it was a matter of days before shit started hitting the fan, not because of the high rate of incidents of drivers trapped in endless roundabout loops, but because semis and tractors were getting stuck in the Balgonie-overpass roundabouts’ narrow, single lane design.
The provincial government immediately assured the public that they totally did that on purpose.
“The provincial Ministry of Highways said access road width was “absolutely not” an oversight. “The interchange is, in fact, designed for large trucks, and farming equipment can get through,” said David Stearns, executive director of major projects for the ministry.”
“Stearns said drivers carrying large equipment may have to drive onto the curb.”
Oh, okay. And…
“”we are looking to make some potential changes to some of the curbs, where instead of having square faced curbs, we would have rounded curbs.””
Got it. Makes perfect sense that you wouldn’t have thought of this initially.
“He did not give a specific figure on how much changing the curbs would cost, but said it would not exceed the budget.”
While all of it is ridiculous, that last bit is a total pile of bullshit.
See, what I don’t understand is that nobody (that I can find) is talking about the fact that this roundabout is not just your normal, everyday roundabout – it’s a P3 roundabout, meaning the Ministry of Highways can’t just march in there itself and alter the curbs, and the Regina Bypass’s private-sector partner (a group which aptly named themselves the Regina Bypass, but is made up of a consortium of construction companies and engineers) sure as hell isn’t going to do it for free, or within “the budget”.
Even worse for the people of Balgonie is the fact that their former access to and from town – that deadly intersection mentioned above – has now been totally blocked off, as per a decision imposed on the town council in 2014.
This sucks because while Local Area Farmer is trying to pry his hundred thousand dollar tractor (or a trucker their trailer, or a mover their RTM) out of the roundabout, the town is basically cutoff from the outside world.
Understandably, the town’s volunteer firefighters and first responders are howling, because if they get a call and one of the roundabouts is plugged, someone in a crumpled car on the other side is going to die waiting for them.
2000+ people have signed a petition, and there is a Facebook group dedicated to reopening only the right turn lanes at Main Street – meaning eastbound traffic could turn right to enter the town, and drivers exiting the town could turn right to head east – aka Right In and Right Out.
To be clear: Balgonie residents are not asking for the entire intersection to be reopened or to cross the highway – they just want to be able to turn right.
Back when the Regina Bypass was just a twinkle in the Saskatchewan government’s eye, the Ministry of Highways did present options to the Town of Balgonie, including one which would have kept their Main Street access open in addition to the overpass, and that’s the one the town selected. Shortly afterwards, however, the Ministry came back and said nope, the Main Street access will be shut down completely – and they’ve been stubbornly refusing to give ever since.
“Any time you have at grade intersections there’s potential for conflict,” said some
uselessdeputy minister. “Putting in an overpass takes away the at-grade component of it. So we’ve made it safer by adding the overpass. With the overpass there, there’s no need to have the intersection.”
Here’s what I think is really going on.
I think that the monolithic contract signed between the Saskatchewan government and the Regina Bypass’s P3 partner clearly lays out the route of the bypass, including that existing stretch of Hwy 1, and the provincial government can’t go ahead and change that route – ie. reopen Balgonie’s Main Street access, even partially – because the altered traffic pattern would contradict the terms of the contract.
Even if I’m not in the ballpark on that theory, I know the Ministry of Highways can’t just declare the curbs will be changed, because they don’t have the right to make that change themselves. According to Schedule 19 of the contract, the province has to submit a “Variation Enquiry” (fancy-shmancy way of saying Change Order, but whatever) to the Regina Bypass, and then the two parties will spend a couple months going back and forth hashing it out, including what the taxpayer is going to pay for said Variation. Then once – and if – the Variation is approved and everyone has extricated themselves from the red tape, the Regina Bypass will eventually commence the rebuild/addition/alteration/etc.
Has the Ministry of Highways submitted a Variation Enquiry on the roundabout, or on re-opening Balgone’s Main Street access (even just partially)? I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone else knows either because to the best of my knowledge, the Ministry hasn’t actually mentioned any of this.
That said, should they commit the taxpayer to paying for a “Variation”? Sure, the provincial government signed off on the design, but is the Regina Bypass really going to eat the cost of fixing this hot mess on a regular basis for the next 30 years?
Because remember, this is their roundabout to maintain, not ours.
The above picture was posted on Facebook on September 18th, and those curbs don’t look rounded, so my guess is this issue is locked in a dispute between the provincial government and the Regina Bypass over who’s going to eat the cost of redoing those roundabouts (because make no mistake, they will be redone), and/or whether or not the Ministry of Highways can alter the traffic patterns, which form the basis of the Operations and Maintenance terms of the contract, by reopening the Main Street intersection for right-hand turns.
Here are my questions:
What impact does the P3 contract have on this issue? So much of the contract that is available to the taxpayer has been redacted by the provincial government that it’s impossible to answer this question myself.
Has the Ministry of Highways brought up the P3 contract during their debate over this issue with residents of Balgonie?
Did representatives of the Regina Bypass consortium attend the public forum called by the Ministry of Highways last week, and if not, why not?
The provincial government likes to say it owns the Regina bypass, but how that works when it’s not even close to being paid for is beyond me. However, if they are positioning themselves as the ultimate decision maker on this issue, I believe they are not being completely honest.
What I do know for sure is that residents of Balgonie will win this if they keep up their fight, but they must get political about it. The town is located in Don McMorris’s riding of Indian Head-Milestone, which he won by a massive margin in 2016, including the Balgonie polls. This is a double-edged sword for residents, because while they’re the SaskParty’s base, but there’s also very little risk they’re going to vote against them, so there’s not as much incentive for this government to work with them (sad, but oh so true). The fastest way to get action is to telegraph clearly that your votes are not a given.
What I also know for sure is that residents should be focusing their efforts on SaskParty and NDP leadership candidates – polling each of them on where they stand on this issue and then holding whoever wins to account. Further, tell the next politician, or
Sask Party apologist radio talkshow host who snipes that Balgonie residents whined for the overpass and now they’ve got it so shut up, that if a kid asks for a kitten, and mom and dad present the child with a dead one, the kid isn’t going to be happy and the parents don’t get to say “you wanted a kitten and you got one, go play with it”.
Finally, if Balgonie hasn’t been given clear and transparent answers on how the P3 factor is impacting their access to the outside world, they need to demand them. I’m certain there are epic levels of bureaucracy underneath the surface of this issue that they don’t know about.
The Balgonie overpass is the first to open along the Regina bypass. There are ten more to go.
For those of you who care, I’m Tammy Robert. I’m a writer, but pay the bills consulting in media and public relations. Email me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Categories: Saskatchewan politics