By Dave Carpenter

You can imagine the satisfaction that the project team felt this past September upon the completion of Calgary’s Crowchild Trail Upgrades project, one of North America’s most innovative transportation construction projects deemed ‘never been done before’ in the media from the outset.

The upgrades stemmed from a multiyear transportation corridor study that began back in 2015 through to 2017 when Calgary City Council approved it. The study provided short, medium and long-term recommendations for the project.

City Council gave the nod to the short-term recommendations right away.

Crowchild Trail is a vital north-south connection on the west side of Calgary. However, over the years, it has outgrown the capacity that commuters, public transportation, emergency services and the commercial moving of goods require.
“We needed to rearrange some of the on-and-off ramps to improve the flow in the area. It’s been one of the notorious problem spots in terms of Calgary traffic for a number of decades,” says Jeff Baird, Senior Transportation Engineer at The City of Calgary, who played a critical role in bringing the complex undertaking to fruition. “There aren’t really any alternatives in terms of people on the west side of the city going north and south, to and from downtown.”

The Advantages of Rehabilitation

This smoothly orchestrated project with readily apparent benefits was funded through a combination of funding received from The Alberta Provincial Government, The Calgary Municipal Government, grants and accumulative transportation levies.

“We improved the traffic flow in the area and made it easier for the movement of goods and commuters. We did so while leaving the bridges in service and reusing them in their entirety rather than completely demolishing them to build brand new infrastructure,” Baird says.

The project consisted of rehabilitation measures and widening multiple bridges, adding lanes and relocating ramps, which cost less than rebuilding one bridge over The Bow River. Further, Baird and the project team completed the project without working in the river, which also cut down upgrade costs.

“There’s savings with avoiding that in-stream work and all the complications that come with it. Just reusing what was already in place to the best that we could saved a lot of money,” Baird says. The project is also estimated to have created 700 new jobs.

Innovation Keeps City Traffic Flowing During Upgrades

The Crowchild Trail Upgrades construction team (provided by Graham Construction) worked on bridges that spanned over train tracks, busy roadways, pathways and sensitive habitats, which required the team to work around these impediments while allowing traffic to flow on the bridges. Crews installed temporary access platforms over the river to meet the challenge, effectively building new bridges underneath the existing bridges. Baird says this unorthodox approach allowed the team to complete the rehabilitation efforts without impacting service along rail lines. Further, they successfully avoided impacting the Bow River and accommodated vehicle and pathway traffic above, below and around them.

“There were a lot of constraints throughout the entire site that we had to work around while doing heavy demolition and rehabilitation of the existing structures, then rebuilding them back out to add the lanes and relocate the ramps effectively,” Baird adds.
From the outset of this project, the media and construction industry deemed the complex Crowchild Trail Upgrades unprecedented across North America. Baird says the added pressure motivated the team to ensure their efforts proved successful.

“It’s hard to pick a more challenging spot to rehabilitate and widen bridges. With the amount of planning and detail that went into any activity, even to just get started, there really wasn’t a break in terms of challenges to overcome,” Baird says. “When it comes to mapping out a project of this scale, there’s a pretty expansive team involved, and you really just focus in on the risks, how to mitigate them and how to execute the work.”

Yet Baird maintained an objective mindset about the upgrades. “Like any other project, you have a scheduled date you need to hit, the critical activities you need to do and the amount of planning that goes into both,” he says. These challenges included working on the bridge’s substructure and widening the piers, then moving up top to widen and pour the bridge decks.

The work continued 24 hours a day through the winter season, which can last up to seven months in Calgary. “It was a pretty relentless project in a lot of ways,” Baird admits. However, he also says the public’s reception has been worth it and gives credit to the lead contractor’s stellar work. “Graham Construction really performed well on this project and brought it to the end goal,” he says. Baird also credits Associated Engineering, WSP Global Inc. and ISL Engineering and Land Services for their innovative design of the project’s bridges.

Communicating With The Public Key to Project’s Success

Baird describes The City’s communication with the public about the project as “over the top” from the start compared to past infrastructure projects in Calgary. “From the corridor study to coordinating with the residents and businesses as we’re doing night work right outside their doors,” says Baird. “The team provided regular updates using multiple tactics which was a key piece in keeping communities in the loop while closing ramps at different times or switching traffic configurations.” Baird says their near real-time communication strategy with Calgarians stands as a significant win for the project.

“People are happy with the traffic flow and impressed by how the project came together,” Baird says. “From the community associations to the commuters, city councillors and area businesses, it’s been nice to hear from the public that it’s been well received and that the benefits of the upgrades are being realized.”