Report: road building bungled. Public: well, d’uh.

Earlier this week, the city’s auditor released a quite damning report on the state of the city’s road design and construction branch. The report said that numerous cost overruns and delays on Edmonton’s endless road construction projects are the fault of a badly run department that keeps changing the rules of the game. City councilors were also in the dark about the extent of the projects, and in some cases the bureaucrats played fast and loose with the dollar figures.

The Whitemud-Quesnell bridge overhaul, which began in late 1963 (I have a vague memory of actually traveling over the bridge when there was no construction on it, but I was just a child) and is scheduled to be completed by August — although August of what year, nobody is saying — will cost the city $167 million, or $6.4 million more than reported. The road warriors also made some 150 changes to the project design, which might be the main reason why it went $6 million over budget.

Now, I’m no engineer or road planner, but it seems like the Quesnell widening was a pretty straightforward, if technically complex, project. Bottom line: make the bridge wider. How many changes could you make? Did they want it ever wider, or narrower? This isn’t like a house, where a homeowner might change his (or likely her) mind about the color of the carpet of what kind of tile to lay down. It’s a freakin’ road! There’s no choosing color of tar. There is no public art on display. The Quesnell bridge is as utilitarian as you can get. It has no design, other than it has to be flat and wide and gotten across as quickly as possible.

The Quesnell widening is bordering on boondoggle territory. When it’s finished, ort, should I say, IF it’s ever finished, ­I’m sure it will be wonderful to drive on, except you just know that anxious drivers — who have been stuck in kilometres-long traffic jams for years — will release their pent up frustrations by going waaaay too fast, resulting in weekly multi-vehicle accidents, resulting in traffic jams.

I get the feeling the city councillors really don’t have a clue about what to do with the road design and construction branch. The road builders tell council what they want, and council says: “Yeah, yeah, go ahead. We have bigger fish to fry, like a ban on smoking in public parks.” For example, last year the city dumped a crapload of cash on adding another lane on 170th Street, from 87th Avenue to the Whitemud. 170th already had three lanes that ran very smoothly, once you escaped the hell that is WEM traffic. Now, there’s a fourth lane, which exits onto the Whitemud going westbound. I’ve driven on that road countless times, and I’ve seen at best a handful of cars actually using the lane to exit onto the Whitemud. I can’t see any conceivable reason why it was built, and a cost of God knows how much money. Did anyone on council question the road department about why they needed another lane on a road that was running perfectly well?

I’m sure there are projects like that all over town. City councillors, however, seem to be oblivious to the work being done. Mayor Stephen Mandel has proposed a three-year moratorium on major road construction in Edmonton, and I’m in full agreement. If city councillors aren’t going to question the roads department about every square inch of asphalt they lay, then they shouldn’t approve any major projects at all.

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