Planning is moving forward for a proposed 55-kilometre stretch of four-lane divided highway that would help alleviate traffic congestion in Saskatoon, Sask., by diverting large commercial vehicles around the city.
The project, known as the Saskatoon Freeway, would begin at Highway 11 south of the city and loop around to the north and eventually connect with Highway 7 just west of the city.
The freeway would have 16 interchanges, five railway overpasses, at least two flyovers, and one major bridge crossing over the South Saskatchewan River, making it one of the largest infrastructure projects in the province’s history.
SNC Lavalin, AECOM and Praxis Consulting were retained by the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure to conduct a functional planning study aimed at identifying the design challenges and coming up with solutions. The study is being done in three phases and is expected to be completed next year.
“As our province grows, we need to ensure people can get around as safely and smoothly as possible,” says Minister of Highways and Infrastructure Greg Ottenbreit. “Increased traffic is a challenge of growth. The residents of Saskatoon and others traveling through the area would prefer to commute as seamlessly as possible.
“Our government is up to the challenge of large, visionary and important projects like the Saskatoon Freeway.”
Ottenbreit says that consultants are presently looking at phase one, which is the north section of the proposed freeway between Highway 16 west of Saskatoon and the South Saskatchewan River. It is the most complex of the three phases and public information sessions are being held to gain feedback on the framework.
In 2018, a general location study was completed that created a 500-metre-wide corridor in which land development was restricted until the exact location of the freeway was determined. The goal now is to reduce some of the land use restrictions that are in place and narrow the corridor needed for construction.
The present route was chosen as there are a limited number of viable locations for a future bridge. Also, it was the highest-rated route based on continuity, compatibility with highway, city and rural municipality networks, ability to meet standards, staging opportunities, and impact to future developments, existing property, utilities and the environment.
There is currently no timetable for a final decision on construction of the freeway, nor a price tag for the project. Details on when and how to proceed will be ironed out after the study by the consultants is completed.
The province is looking at a variety of solutions for construction. It could be a public-private partnership, a design-build, or the traditional build model.
Ottenbreit says while actual construction could still be a ways off, the project is necessary as Saskatoon has undergone significant growth over the past decade. Since 2008, the population has increased at an annual rate of about 2.6 per cent from 216,000 to more than 280,000. Surrounding communities have also undergone considerable growth, which has increased demands on local roadways.
“The freeway will improve safety by diverting larger commercial vehicles from their current routes in the city and alleviating traffic congestion from busy sections of Saskatoon. This will improve efficiency for producers, shippers and truckers in moving goods to markets. A new freeway will improve traffic flow, reduce congestion between commercial and light commuter traffic on municipal roads, and reduce the potential for collisions.”
Shantel Lipp, president of the Saskatchewan Heavy Construction Association, is keen on the project and hopes it will be under way within a couple of years.
“Projects like the Saskatoon Freeway are important to the province because it improves road safety and allows for more efficient movement of goods around the City of Saskatoon. It’s also creating jobs for the heavy construction industry in Saskatchewan. I’m not certain on the exact numbers this project will create, but if you liken it to the Regina Bypass project then the employment number should be in the thousands.”
Lipp says the freeway would take large truck traffic off municipal roads and divert it around the city.
“This will improve transportation timelines and improve the environment because trucks won’t be sitting in traffic.”
Saskatchewan is a land-locked trading province, notes Lipp. “We need to move our people and products efficiently through the province. Without major infrastructure projects like the Saskatoon Freeway going forward we can’t compete for investment.”
Highways and Infrastructure Ministry staff note that the planning process will take some time as the study will be comprehensive and, as of yet, there is no timeline for construction.
The consultants working on the study have much to consider. For example, a report from a working group tasked to look at the design challenges of the project indicated there are numerous technical challenges around interchanges and access points, and a key issue is preserving land around the Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a 240-hectare national historic site on the west bank of the Saskatchewan River.
While the study will address some of those issues, Ottenbreit says it’s premature to discuss them until the review is over.
“We are aware there will be one river crossing and there are also two swales, which will offer some challenges.”