Should Lethbridge build a 3rd bridge? Depends whom you ask

·5 min read
West-side resident Melanie Gattiker stands before the coulees and river valley; in the distance is east Lethbridge. Some residents wants another bridge between the communities. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC - image credit)
West-side resident Melanie Gattiker stands before the coulees and river valley; in the distance is east Lethbridge. Some residents wants another bridge between the communities. (Jennifer Dorozio/CBC - image credit)

Melanie Gattiker can stand at the edge of the coulee bluff near her home in west Lethbridge and look east to see the nearest houses a good two kilometres across the wide gulf of the river valley.

Buildings on the other side look miniature on the horizon.

That's how cutoff the new western neighbourhoods of this small southern Alberta city feel; and that's part of the reason why the debate about a new bridge here has become so entrenched.

It's about connection and safety for some; for others, it's about preserving that wild river valley and protection of the pocketbook. This one bridge — debated for decades and recently put to a ballot vote — could cost $300 million.

That's a property tax hike of up to 22 per cent in a city of just over 100,000.

But this debate is about so much more than a simple bridge.

"It is about Lethbridge's identity," said Gattiker, a longtime resident of the city's west side.

City of Lethbridge website
City of Lethbridge website

Lethbridge was founded shortly after the turn of the previous century, initially rooted in the coal business but soon establishing itself as an agricultural and commercial hub.

One of the city's most defining features is its sprawling river valley.

Above the west side of the river valley, fresh smooth pavement leads to newer homes, schools and walking paths near the University of Lethbridge. It's also home to the YMCA's new, large recreational centre.

The east side of the river valley is home to downtown, heritage buildings and some of the older neighbourhoods and homes that stretch back decades.

But it's also got the Costco, office buildings, the hospital and many of the other amenities residents in the west use every day.

For some, a third bridge over the Oldman River, further connecting the two sides, is critical infrastructure.

During the recent municipal election in October, a ballot question sought feedback on moving forward with the bridge project.

Sixty per cent of the 27,253 people who voted said they were in favour of council approving plans to construct a third bridge before 2030 as a priority.

Council is now examining potential sites and ways to fund the project. Both potential locations are south of the two vehicle crossings that already exist.

Among citizens, however, it seems the debate isn't over.

More pressing needs

When Gattiker looks at the needs of the whole city, she sees too many more pressing issues.

"We do have a drug crisis, we have a homelessness crisis. We have an underfunded infrastructures community," she said.

That's why she believes this is about the community's identity.

"Because if that's what we're going to be prioritizing, then that's the privileged in this community prioritizing themselves over everyone else."

By "privileged," Gattiker said she means people "who have a mortgage and vehicles and don't struggle to make ends meet."

Jennifer Dorozio/CBC
Jennifer Dorozio/CBC

Safety and convenience

Matt Barkway, who manages the Paradise Canyon Country Club, which is encircled by the Oldman River on the west side, sees every day a need for a third river crossing.

He believes the communities in the west are growing and require better access to the airport, big box shopping and other amenities that exist on the east side of Lethbridge.

Traffic, too, is a concern. But beyond that, he believes the third bridge would address the issue of community safety.

"It takes one accident to close down a bridge and then everybody's heading to the other bridge and man, it's real trouble," he said.

Barkway said some patrons of the country club and golf course must make a circuitous journey every time they need to get there. And for those who live on the west side and must commute for work or any other reason, time in your vehicle adds up.

Jennifer Dorozio/CBC
Jennifer Dorozio/CBC

Rajko Dodic, who is a former mayor and current councillor, has seen the debate over the third bridge arise several times during his time on council. He said the third river crossing would be one of the largest infrastructure projects the city has seen in half a century.

However, Dodic doesn't think the recent ballot vote fully captures the community's support for a bridge.

"When you ask a question like that, it's like saying, asking someone, 'Would you like to have a new car?' You can say, 'Yes.' Now, 'Would you like to have a new car if it cost you $200,000?' Now, the statistics would skew the other way."

He put forward a request in December to explore how the bridge could be funded and where it would be built.

Jennifer Dorozio/CBC
Jennifer Dorozio/CBC

'40 years behind'

Kelti Baird sees the bridge as a good marker for how the city sometimes prioritizes old-school community values.

"It's a wonderful small community.… But, yeah, they're 40 years behind the times when it comes to, you know, a lot of different ways of thinking about things," she said.

Baird uses transit and rides a bike as her main way to get around Lethbridge. She is one of many who want to see the river valley and riparian areas around it protected.

It's a city she loves, she said, and she's spent time campaigning for a seat on council, owns a local brewery and sits on the municipal planning commission board.

She said though most commutes to get anywhere in the city remain under 20 minutes, people get hung up about having to cross a bridge to get places. Baird is originally from Kelowna, B.C., another city divided by a bridge, and said there's a certain way people feel about using the bridge to get somewhere.

"Lethbridge has the same attitude of like, 'Oh, the west side is so far away.'"

Baird believes the bridge could make sense eventually, but it's not the only way to address the needs of the city and how it grows into the future.

"I would rather see amenities than just a car bridge," she said.

CBC Calgary has launched a Lethbridge bureau to help tell your stories from southern Alberta with reporter Jennifer Dorozio. Story ideas and tips can be sent to jennifer.dorozio@cbc.ca.

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