Taking back the streets

The only sound in the downtown core louder than the noon gun is that of 18-wheelers clanging and banging over the potholes of Hollis and Lower Water streets. Sadly, it’s just as reliable, too.
No sensible city would design itself this way, but Halifax has. It began in 1969 with the building of the South End Container Terminal (then called the Halifax International Container Terminal). Ships have been docking at the Halifax waterfront for centuries to bring stuff to the city or take it away, but the container terminal upped the ante. The bigger the city got, the less sense it made to move these goods through our built-up downtown core.
Even though we’ve realized there’s a problem, we’ve done nothing to fix it. In fact, we’ve doubled down. Since the South End container terminal opened, it has expanded, adding larger cranes to accommodate larger ships carrying more cargo and requiring more trucks.
Cargo traffic is good, but only if all those containers bypass our downtown streets. Some containers end up on trains and go through the Halifax railcut, which is woefully under-used even though most of the second track was removed about 15 years ago.
The railbed remains, though, providing a place for weeds to grow as decision-makers dither over what to do. When CN announced in September 2000 that it was going to remove most of the second track, company officials said they would hold off doing anything with the railbed while Halifax figured out what it wanted to do about commuter rail.
Fast forward to 2016 and HRM is still mulling that over but, as I mentioned in last month’s column, it’s closer than ever to happening. If it doesn’t happen this time, we might as well give up on the idea of commuter rail and use the railcut for truck traffic and buses.
The downside to this, for CN, is that if it allows trucks and buses on the railcut, they could only go in one direction at a time. It’s manageable, but limits traffic flow.
Removing the remaining track would force Halterm to close, the grain elevator to relocate, and Via would have to find a new home for its downtown passenger station. That’s a lot to expect and won’t happen. So, while you’re stuck in traffic and a slow-moving truck clogs the road, imagine that empty railcut. We don’t need to widen roads to make room for traffic, we need to use what’s already built more efficiently.
Too much truck traffic on roads means you need to repave them more often. We could better spend that money on things like schools and hospitals. In a province with a $15-billion debt, being smart with our money is obviously a skill we lack.
It’s a question of misplaced priorities and funding short-sighted or self-serving ventures that has dug this hole. Now, we’re in a position where any business activity gets a free pass. Our economy is on life support and anything is welcome—like hundreds of trucks a day squeezing through narrow downtown streets.
Hollis and Lower Water streets were never meant for traffic, much less the amount that travels on them. Solving this problem is about more than just making city streets safer and less congested. It’s about remaining competitive in an industry that demands prompt delivery of goods.
As demand grew, we built a new container terminal in Fairview Cove to meet the demand for shipping metal boxes full of consumer goods hither and yon. It would have been great if the new terminal could have replaced the old one, but you’ve got to keep those shelves at discount stores stocked with low-priced products from China, so Halifax wasn’t so lucky.
Most of the goods coming through Halifax are destined for markets that are best served by rail. That’s why it makes sense to consolidate the two container terminals into one in Fairview Cove.
If the South End terminal remains, the containers moving in and out of there need to travel by train, or, if they are to be put on a truck, they should travel on a new paved road on the abandoned railbed.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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