Mt. Lehman Road expansion goes ahead, leaving other road projects waiting

Funding sources trump need in prioritizing infrastructure

The expansion of Mt. Lehman Road was announced on Aug. 19

Feasibility may trump need when it comes to deciding which local infrastructure projects get a green light.

This is likely why a widening of Mt. Lehman Road from north of Simpson to the Abbotsford International Airport was announced this week, while the widening of Fraser Highway between Station and Mt. Lehman roads – perceived by many to be more necessary – remains on the wishlist for now.

The majority of the $22 million cost of four-laning the two-kilometre stretch of Mt. Lehman Road is being provided by the province, with the federal government pledging $8 million, and the City of Abbotsford kicking in a $2 million share.

Numerous online comments on an Abbotsford News story about the announcement criticized the decision, saying it was not as necessary as more lanes along Fraser Highway.

“Fraser Highway from Station Road to Mt. Lehman is a goat trail,” wrote one commenter. “With this plan we’ll just be trading one bottleneck for another…”

But it’s not as simple as politicians choosing one project over the other. Unlike Mt. Lehman Road, which is a provincial highway, Fraser Highway falls under municipal jurisdiction, meaning the city would be on the hook for the estimated $40 million cost.

The city would first need commitments from developers along the stretch of Fraser Highway before going ahead with any plans, according to Abbotsford Coun. Dave Loewen, who said he is aware of congestion problems on that road.

“I avoid it, especially in rush-hour time. I’m told it’s quite taxing on the patience,” he said.

The municipality raises capital for such projects by collecting “cost shares” from developers who build along the road in question.

“Until something significant happens there in terms of development, we don’t feel we can impose that bill on the property taxpayers of Abbotsford,” said Loewen.

The city paid upfront for new sewer and drainage infrastructure leading to the Clearbrook Industrial Park and recovered the costs when developers subsequently built there, but Loewen said that scenario is unlikely to repeat along Fraser Highway. Loewen said improvements being made to King Connector will likely provide some relief to the congestion on Fraser Highway in the interim.

The City of Abbotsford has previously determined the stretch along Fraser Highway, which is currently zoned for agricultural use, is not viable for agricultural-industrial use, according to city manager George Murray.

City engineering staff are currently studying the viability of Fraser widening and will likely have a report ready this fall, he said.

The widening of Mt. Lehman will provide better access from Highway 1 to the airport for both passengers getting to flights and commercial traffic to the airport, said Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce executive director Allan Asaph.

The chamber compiled a list of five infrastructure project priorities in 2014 in conjunction with the city, with Mt. Lehman widening in second place and Fraser Highway at the bottom. (Widening of Highway 1 between 264 Street and Whatcom Road topped the list, with a Vye Road rail overpass and 16th Avenue improvements coming in third and fourth place.)

This ranking was not necessarily based on how each completed project would benefit local businesses and the community at large, but was rather a listing of the more feasible projects on top.

“A lot of the reasoning for the ranking in that order was the availability of funding, because that’s really what it boils down to,” said Asaph. “The federal government had announced the fact that they were going to have a major investment in infrastructure dollars and that’s what would qualify for the widening of Highway 1.”

Asaph said that if he was able to snap his fingers and make one of the five projects happen, it would be the widening of Fraser Highway.

“Anybody that looks at that sees that there’s need there,” he said.