Outcome of Council meeting for the Speedvale Underpass trail (Dec. 17)

photo credit: Guelph Today

With the Christmas season coming to a close, it’s time to talk about the outcome of the Dec. 17 council meeting and the Speedvale Underpass Trail.

The coverage in Guelph Today was a little sparse, and the Guelph Mercury didn’t even bother. Then again, council only began the discussion about it at 9pm, after the cannabis in retail stores vote. The actual speedvale underpass vote took place after 11:15 pm.

Here’s some background, in case you missed it:

The current bridge on Speedvale Avenue East (near Riverside Park) is nearing the end of its useful life. A new bridge will be installed in 2022. At the same time, $16 million in road improvements will be made to Speedvale Avenue.

GCAT and other community groups have recognized that the bridge reconstruction offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to build an underpass trail along the west side of the Speed River and make movement along our trail system so much safer and easier.

Last year, Mayor Guthrie and councillors unanimously supported moving forward on the project.. Twice. Especially since there was (and is) an enormous outpouring of public support for this trail.

However, since that council meeting, things didn’t turn out the way we had hoped.

At the Sept. 12 Open House for the Speedvale Underpass Trail,  instead of offering a trail on the North side of Speedvale, staff recommended an “Interim Solution.” This solution was basically to move the traffic light on Speedvale to the west, which may make it marginally safer to cross Speedvale Ave. After the city spends 16 million dollars to reduce congestion on Speedvale Ave, traffic will still be brought to a halt several times a day due to trail users crossing the road to go to Riverside Park or to downtown. It really doesn’t make much sense.

Staff did not actually say no to the underpass trail. They recommended, however, a wait of 10-20 years to construct a trail on the north side, when the retaining wall, which the trail will sit upon or beside, needs to be replaced. The cost? Over $5 million!!.

Fortunately, the staff consultant’s report determining a 10-20 year lifespan of the retaining wall was challenged by 2 delegations at the council meeting. Two engineers, Jack Tacoma, retired structural engineer and Harry Oussoren, geotechnical engineer, disputed the assessment. It turns out that the city consultant’s tentative estimation of 10-20 years is “based on the results of a visual inspection” (city’s report) of the retaining wall. Both Jack and Harry reckoned that the retaining wall could last another 50 years, or longer!  Tacoma emphasized that, with reasonable maintenance, many houses in Guelph have provided safe and comfortable homes for well over 100 years, and there is no reason to doubt, without conducting a more detailed assessment of the retaining wall, that it too will last and last.

If Tacoma and Ousorren are correct in their assessments, the city will be able to save the cost of an interim trail solution altogether and instead complete the entire section of trail as soon as the bridge is complete.

Another  bright spot did emerge that evening.  Staff did listen to our suggestions.

GCAT’s position, along with that of the Guelph Hiking Trail Club and the Guelph Wellington Seniors Association, was that the trail could be built in 2022 when the new bridge is installed. We asserted that, “There are perfectly workable and fiscally responsible ways to build the underpass and the trail. A simple variance to the zoning bylaw would allow an anchored boardwalk, attached to the retaining wall, next to a short section of steep slope.”

Well, it turns out that we were right on the mark. Before the council meeting, staff, after input from stakeholder groups, (as well as anticipating letters from the community 🙂 ) added amendments to their original recommendation to council. The amendments included exploring the feasibility of amending the policies and regulations that prevent structures from being built in floodplains, in consultation with the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA). This amendment, if favourable, would allow for them to design a trail on the west side. We are confident that the GRCA will support an anchored boardwalk to allow the project to proceed. These amendments, along with the original staff recommendation, were passed unanimously by council.

The only problem:  staff is tying the amendment of the zoning bylaw to allow a structure, with  a comprehensive City of Guelph Bylaw review that is expected to take 3 years. And how long do we have before they build the Speedvale Bridge? Three years.

That timing is being cut close. However we are optimistic that with continued pressure on staff and council, that we can still get the underpass trail built at the same time as the bridge in order to save costs.

The outpouring of public support has gotten us this far. It is very much appreciated, and has been absolutely crucial in getting this further amendment to the staff recommendation. We can’t thank the public enough for all they have done to help to keep this issue at the forefront.

Stay tuned; there will be more to come over the coming year.

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