The stretch of Highway 104 between Antigonish and Sutherland’s River, a well-known hazardous traffic corridor, is on the way to becoming something far more safe and navigable.
A step in that direction took place Nov. 6, when in the 20 minutes of a drop-in session hosted by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal [TIR] for the route of the new highway, 50 people filled the MacKay Room at St. F.X.’s Bloomfield Centre.
Among those people was Ken McKenna, one of the many Antigonish County residents in support of the twinning of Highway 104, saying that he believes the proposed route for the new two lanes is a good choice, and an important part of making Highway 104 safer.
McKenna, who spent 31 years commuting from Antigonish to Pictou County to work at the Michelin tire plant in Westville, is well-versed in the dangers of Highway 104 driving throughout the year.
“I think it’s all for the best. People want it done. And the only way it’s going to get done in a timely fashion is through the P-3 [private-public partnership] model,” McKenna said. “In that sense, I am in favour of it. They made a statement that it’s not going to be tolled and that they’re going to maintain it through the partnership. I think they’re doing a good job in getting in started, anyways.”
The drop-in session constituted the first step in public consultation, and was an exchange of information between representatives for TIR who outlined the proposed route, and the public, who provided their opinions and perspectives on the matter.
“If there are any significant concerns we didn’t know about, we’re going to take them into consideration after this,” Jamie Chisholm, director of major projects with TIR, said. “We’re not saying we can meet everyone’s concerns, but we’re going to do the best we can, overall, to find a solution for the problem.”
The MacKay Room was decorated in charts and maps – the focal points of a conversation about the route of the new sections of highway to be added through the twinning.
While most of the highway between Sutherland’s River and Antigonish has a certain amount of right of way that is already owned by the province, the most challenging part of the twinning will be encountered in Marshy Hope, where TIR plans to divert the 10-km portion of the highway south of where it is now, to construct the new lanes.
“For the most part, 28 of the 38 km we are just twinning, adjacent to the highway, and this detour around Marshy hope will be 10 km of new highway,” Chisholm said. “You have a railway on one side, and a fairly significant river on the other, so the geographical features and the space really didn’t allow for an easy twinning through that area, without significant impacts.”
According to Chisholm, TIR considered two options; twinning existing lanes in Marshy Hope, or detouring. The department did a cost comparison and it was determined that rerouting Highway 104 would be more cost effective, and constitute less of an impact on the area.
Marshy Hope consists of a rocky valley where the highway presently runs between a creek and train tracks, between two steep slopes. The terrain there presents serious obstacles, when considering a route for another lane of traffic.
“It’s a section of highway that people have been looking to have twinned for a number of years. I think people are happy to see we’re finally moving forward,” Chisholm said. “Any other work we do is about mitigating safety concerns. When you break it down, we’re trying to make the drive between New Glasgow and Antigonish a much safer drive.”
“We will be reaching out to landowners, probably at the end of year, to look at that,” Chisholm said. “We will be meeting with landowners to discuss what the impacts are, and what we can do to mitigate it, which means doing appraisals and buying the property that we need.”
McKenna was enthusiastic about TIR’s plan to twin in the Marshy Hope area.
“I think it’s great – it’s pretty interesting how then plan to go around that mountain,” McKenna said. “North, south, north, they’re trying to avoid as much conflict as they can with that route.”
McKenna said the plan to construct the new lanes going around the rugged terrain of Marshy Hope was a decision he found satisfying to hear about, since, “when you go through there, it can be quite a significant temperature change, going from one end to the other.”
“Sometimes the temperature towards Antigonish is quite a bit different than what it is on the Pictou County side, and it can get quite slippery with all the ice that can form in there.”
Other than in Marshy Hope, the new stretch of highway will consist of two new lanes that run adjacent into those already in place, offset by a median.
Chisholm noted construction is expected to start in spring, 2020. A request for bids has recently closed, and the only things that remain to be done between now and the beginning of construction include a consortium, bid evaluations, shortlisting of three bidders and a request for proposal stage.
When asked what sort of response he was getting from residents during the drop-in session, Chisholm said what he was hearing was almost unanimously positive.
“With any project, you always have people who have differences in opinion, and they may not be happy, and there are going to be some people affected by the land issues, and we may have to purchase from them, but in general, it’s one of the more positive projects I’ve been involved with in a while.”