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.

10-20+ Years – Too Long To Wait for the Speedvale Underpass trail

It’s be beginning to feel like the movie “Groundhog Day” around here.

Just like last year around this time, I’m writing for public support in order  to get the Speedvale underpass trail built.

It sure looked like the trail under the new Speedvale Ave Bridge was going to be built, after going to council last November 2017. There were 12 delegations, 26 letters, and 800 people signing a petition to get an underpass trail. In other words, there was overwhelming community support.

Not only that, but Mayor Guthrie  and councillors unanimously supported its construction.

What could have gone wrong?  

Well, according to a recent open house presentation for the underpass  put on by City staff , the underpass will be built. When, you might ask? In 10 to 20+ years, when a new retaining wall is needed.(The retaining wall is part of what the underpass trail will sit upon on the west side of the Speed River.) A 20+ year delay for the underpass trail could also mean that it will never be built.

Before I get too far, I want to give you some background.

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 Ave.

This bridge reconstruction is giving us a once in a lifetime opportunity to build an underpass trail  along the west side of the Speed River.

The benefits of an underpass trail are huge: A safe crossing alternative for Speedvale, an improvement to traffic efficiency and motorist safety on the newly built Speedvale Ave. as well as a direct trail link to the Evergreen Centre walkway. It also offers an opportunity for families with young children and/or those with mobility scooters to have safe, inviting passage to Riverside Park, and it will create  a more scenic and direct trail route to the TransCanada Trail. This trail will also link up with and the Guelph-to-Goderich Trailway just north of Guelph. Best of all, residents of all ages living north of Speedvale Ave will be able to use the trail to get all the way downtown without crossing any major streets.

No wonder we had no trouble garnering support from the public.

However, instead of offering the public an underpass, we were offered an “interim solution”  as a sort of a consolation prize:.

Trail users are being asked by City Staff, as a solution to the danger of crossing Speedvale Ave, to accept a recommendation to  move the crosswalk to the west by a few metres. The only problem is, that when Speedvale is completed, this crossing will become even more risky, given the additional turning lanes and the widening of existing lanes that will inevitably increase traffic speeds. Speedvale will likely be notorious for becoming a  “Speedway”, as evidenced by most newer 4 – 5 lane roads in the City.

The “Interim Solution” also subtracts from the City’s own $16 million investment in its road and bridge project. It will degrade traffic efficiency since the pedestrian activated stoplights will be activated  dozens of times a day.

So you might ask yourself, why staff is not pursuing the underpass trail?

The answer to this is, we’re not sure.  Stakeholder groups were supposed to be involved in the discussion process before the information was given to the public, but we were not. So we feel like we have been kept a bit in the dark.  But one thing that we do know: part of the problem could be the need for a zoning amendment, previously recommended by the consultants, to allow for a boardwalk along the retaining wall. Staff said they were not directed by council to pursue this possibility.

This boardwalk appears to be a key component to getting an underpass built.

A 38 metre central section of the retaining wall  will need a boardwalk to avoid the disturbance of the slope at a particularly steep section. Given the wording of the council motion and the zoning bylaw, boardwalks are not permitted in a one zone floodplain. The consultant’s report recommended that the city amend the zoning bylaw to allow a boardwalk in this small section.

The life of the retaining wall is the other piece of this predicament.

According to the latest consultant’s report, Staff says it is fiscally irresponsible to build an underpass trail now, but rather to  build it when the retaining wall is replaced in 10-20 years. The retaining wall is a very important piece of city owned infrastructure to protect the integrity of the slope where private property is built.  

This retaining wall that protects the slope behind the riverbank so as to enable development of private properties along Woolwich and Speedvale. Such concrete structures generally last 50 to 100 years, especially if it:  a)  has not been subject to vibration from traffic, b) has not been exposed to road salt, c) was constructed properly and still appears to be in good condition.

All these conditions apply. Yet the city forecasts that it will only last 10-20 years. The wall is in generally good condition, as stated by both the 2016 and  September 2018 engineering assessments of the wall,. However, maintenance does have to be done, such as removing trees from behind the wall that threaten the integrity from root pressure. Once these trees are removed, ongoing City inspection and maintenance of the wall to prolong its life will be easy.

In order to save costs, and build the Speedvale underpass at the same time as the Speedvale bridge,  a boardwalk zoning variance should be made, which would meet the requirements of the city. Voila. A trail in 4 years, instead of one that may never be built.

However, we once again need the public’s support to get this underpass built.

Our coalition’s  recommendations represent approximately 2% of the estimated $16 million cost of the Speedvale road and bridge project. (The minor repairs to the retaining wall must be done anyway to prolong the life of this major capital asset, and so are rightly not included in the cost of either project.)

So here is our ask of council, for the Dec. 17 council meeting: (Please sign up to delegate or write a letter to council for these asks:)

  • Amend the zoning bylaw by adding the word “unanchored” before “boardwalks” to resolve all planning policy issues;
  • Proceed with plans for detail design of the underpass, project to be completed following bridge construction in 2021, including construction of a c. 38 m, anchored boardwalk off the end of Gemmel Lane

Together, for the benefit of the city, we can get this underpass built.

* our Coalition for the underpass consists of: GCAT, 2Rivers Festival, GORBA, Guelph Wellington Seniors association,