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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

A bigger highway for Saint John: the MacKay expansion

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SAINT JOHN – What does car dependency look like? Travel Saint John’s MacKay Highway during rush hour and you’ll see. Every rush-hour, thousands of commuters pack the MacKay Highway, sometimes causing several kilometers of stop and go traffic. The four-lane, divided Highway connects the suburbs of Rothesay and Quispamsis to the city of Saint John. The Provincial government has promised to add two lanes, one in each direction, to ease traffic, increase safety and to speed the movement of commercial trucks travelling to and through Saint John; the MacKay Highway is part of Route 1, which connects New Brunswick to the Canadian-American border.

There are many reasons why adding lanes to the Highway is a bad idea. For me, three related issues stand out: induced traffic, the positive feedback loop that exists between road capacity and car dependency, and the suburbanization that results from highway expansion.

First issue: increasing road capacity increases traffic, a phenomenon known as induced traffic. Let’s consider traffic to be the absolute number of cars on the road and congestion to be the delays caused by all that traffic. Congestion happens when roadways begin to reach capacity. Heavily congested roadways encourage people to change their travel patterns to avoid delays — most people hate sitting in traffic. Drivers might change modes (walk, bike or take transit), they might choose a different route, change the time of their trip, or opt not make the trip. Regardless, there is a limit to the amount of traffic one road can handle. Increasing road capacity temporarily relieves congestion, making it faster and easier to drive. But over time, people change their habits and the result is more driving — more traffic.

You can see how this is a vicious cycle. Roads become congested and are expanded to reduce congestion. Roads become wider and more difficult to cross. Destinations become more spread out. When cities devote more space to cars it makes walking, biking and transit less attractive. Traffic slowly fills up the available road space, creating congestion, and further expansion appears to be the only solution. This is the second major problem: creating space for cars helps create car dependency.

Saint John isn’t growing but it’s planning a highway expansion. The City has been shrinking for decades. The regional population has been steady for twenty years. Why is there more traffic on the MacKay Highway? Suburbanization is the reason: Quispamsis and Rothesay are growing. Despite the heavy traffic, it’s still easy to live in the suburbs and work in Saint John. Commuters that used to travel within Saint John now rely on the MacKay Highway. This is the third problem: transportation options influence where people live and work. Easy commuting results in suburban growth. The City of Saint John is already struggling to provide basic services like safe drinking water and sewage treatment. Losing tax-paying residents to the suburbs won’t help.

There are no easy solutions to these traffic problems, other than expanding the Highway. Parking in Saint John is cheap, providing no disincentive to driving. Suburban densities are low; conventional bus service is not economically feasible. A regional express bus service is popular but hundreds of new transit riders have not decreased Highway congestion. The distances are too far to walk. There are few alternative routes to the MacKay Highway. Congestion pricing is a political non-starter.

While there are few short-term solutions short of Highway expansion there are many long-term solutions: reduce the amount of parking in Saint John; encourage more residential development in Saint John; support job growth in the valley so that not everyone has to drive into the city to work; allow higher density development in the suburbs so buses and other alternatives become more practical; invest in sidewalks and bike lanes so people can get to buses, carpools or vanpools without driving; continue expanding express bus services; provide incentives for flex-work and telecommuting. None of these are easy and none of them will be effective on their own.

A new strategy is required. Most cities will create more jobs, more businesses and more people and goods to move – more traffic. But will that traffic be cars, bikes, pedestrians or buses? The question that all regions must ask —and Saint John especially — is when do we stop building for cars? When do we look to alternative modes and congestion pricing? When do we encourage new patterns of development? When do we look to the future instead of thinking only about today? The answer to all these questions, for all cities but Saint John especially, should be now.

photo by Sean McGrath



  1. I have to admit that your point of view seems a little jaded. It seems you have a certain hatred for ‘The Man’. The expansion of the Highway is going to help the Greater Saint John Area in many ways. Yes there are certain things that could be done to enhance how these lanes are used but not to expand is not helping anyone.

    You say the population of the City is not growing, which is probably true, but people dont want to live in the city. The valley is meant to live, not to work, and yes there are some local businesses out there but people dont want big companies in the valley, hence walmart not getting the go ahead a few years back. People want a nice, clean respectable place to drive home to at the end of the day where they can have their land and enjoy some escape from the busy life. New Brunswick is nothing like toronto where someone would need to live a long way out to get that kind of lifestyle. This highway allows people to enjoy their lifestyle without the burden of giving into a city life. With the populations of these surrounding areas growing then new lanes give capacity to allow them to get to work. That is unless you want everyone crowding the Old Hampton Highway and Rothesay Ave roads as well which run right through residential areas?

    If the expansion were going to destroy precious land or residential communities i would agree with you. But have you driving the highway, there is much there and by adding a lane to either side you arent really hurting anyone. What should be done to make the expansion more advantageous is only allow the transit buses and carpools with more than 3 people into the centre lanes. This will allow people that are thinking green to have an advantage over others.

    You say take away parking from the city but what good will that do? Uptown parking is hard as it is and now you want to make it even harder? What will the tourism industry think? This will reduce the amount of people driving through the province who want opportunity to stop in and explore. It is these tourists that help out city! 

    As for your sidewalk comments i am just confused. Where do you want more sidewalks because in town there are plenty. Do you want them on the highways? That would be a great idea and i cant wait to see you biking from the valley to the city in the middle of winter! 

  2. One last thing, the expansion will create new jobs! People need work!

  3. I agree that many people want to live in Rothesay or Quispamsis – in the Valley. That is their choice and I see why many people enjoy it. I don’t think Rothesay or Quispamsis should try and be the City, whether that means the amount of employment in the Valley or the residential density in the Valley. But there could be more businesses and jobs in the Valley without destroying what people enjoy.

    What I’m suggesting is that one lifestyle choice that people make, living in the suburbs, is often dependant upon highways. Expanding those highways has many consequences, beyond an easier commute to work. No, this particular highway expansion won’t relocate neighbourhoods or bulldoze buildings. But it will have long-term impacts beyond the immediate addition of two lanes on the MacKay Highway. How will traffic get on the MacKay Highway, will we need to build a new exit in the Valley? Will the City of Saint John have to add stop lights or new turning lanes to handle more traffic? Or maybe the City will need to subsidize a new parking garage at Peel Plaza to accomodate more cars.

    Living in the suburbs is a choice, just like living in the City is a choice. Driving to work is a choice. Alternatives to driving are generally harder to come by in the suburbs, but some of the suburban advantages (big lots, lower density, fewer big businesses) make it difficult to provide alternatives to the car. Suburban commuters choose to live in the suburbs and their choice requires infrastructure to support that choice: in this case road capacity. Highways are a resource; they only have so much capacity and they cost money to maintain and expand. Public money is needed for highway expansion and maintenance; as a taxpayer I can ask: is expanding highways a good use of public money? My arguments above suggest highway expansion is not a good use of public money. Highway expansion encourages people to drive and ultimately encourages further roadway expansion, whether that expansion is in Quispam, Rothesay or Saint John.

    Would it be good public policy to provide more generating capcity so people can use as much electricity as they please? Maybe we could focus on conservation. Would it be good public policy to build bigger water pipes so people can use as much water as they like? Maybe we could focus on water conservation. Road capacity is a resource, even though we give it away for free. Should road capacity be expanded at significant cost to the public, without first considering how we can reduce the demand for road capacity?

  4. There are studies that support the author’s opinion. If these studies were referenced then perhaps his argument would have more weight. As for the comments from Mr. Scott, it is perhaps true, people may prefer the valley. I would not argue that. The only point I would like to make is that the highway is paid for by everyone in this province, if you decide to rely heavily on this infrastructure, then it is only fair that you pay more for that choice.

  5. Wow. Not sure what traffic congestion is being spoke of here. This stretch of highway might be congested for 30 minutes of the day tops. And by congested, I mean not being able to drive more than 120k from Hampton to Blacks Harbour. I’ve never had more than a 20 minute commute from the north Valley to downtown, ever. So what is the LOS during peak hours? B at worst? Certainly not screaming for more capacity. 

    @ Evan Scott: Its a painfully weak argument to suggest that a make work project is enough reason to widen a highway. Buying votes is what it is. Financial resources for transportation are far better spent elsewhere.


  6. I am a transportation engineer and I fully support the author’s opinion. There is no way that this highway expansion can be quantitatively warranted. It is a very poor use of tax money and a step in the wrong direction for sustainability. There are plenty of other smarter solutions that although may take many years to implement, will be much more beneficial in the future. There are loads of short-term solutions toward diluting that 30-minute crunch time each day. Think carefully here before making a terrible choice you won’t ever be able to back away from!

  7. The issue isn’t black and white. Changes need to be made to several parts of this stretch of highway. 

    At the Dolan Road, the Irving Station access to the highway needs to be permanently closed, it’s a deathtrap. The overpass needs to be rebuilt for additional lanes. A whole new configuration needs to be worked out between the overpass and the firestation, there’s room but it’s tight. An extended onramp/third lane for 3/4 of a km would improve things considerably.

    At Fox Farm, again the problem is Westbound. The onramp should be reconfigured into a collector lane, preventing merging until the traffic is past the dip in the landscape there. 

    At Rothesay Ave, the off ramp and onramp should be permanently closed. The offramp has caused many bad accidents and the onramp is constantly clogged by loaded trucks and underpowered cars slowly crawling up the hill. This closure should only happen after the construction of the original and correct 3mile house exchange which would connect the end of McAllister drive and the Foster Thurston Road over the highway. Please don’t confuse this with that exit by Stresscon, that’s not 3mile.

    All of these things, together, would dramatically improve the entire east end of the city for traffic. 3 mile is no 1 mile, it would be relatively low in cost. Connecting from the east side to the Hospital would be 10 minutes quicker, and congestion at Fox farm and Dolan road would be alleviated. 

    Just an opinion, take it or leave it.

  8. As much as 6 lanes would be nice, I must admit it really isn’t necessary. Road quality should be improved between fox farm and the dolan road exit, though. Also, the dolan road off ramp is certainly a major contributor to the problem when exiting the highway. The way it connects to Campbell Road is dangerous for those turning left. It’s too tight of an intersection to the on/off ramps of the highway. Not sure what a bridge costs but an interchange at Marr Road would make a heck of a lot more sense and would connect traffic more efficiently to those quadrants of Rothesay/Quispamsis. It should also be designed as a Parclo A-4 interchange, which Ontario uses. It’s really good for accomodating large volumes of traffic exiting the highway and is much safe. The interchange could even have an extension east (or leave the land available), beyond the highway to connect with all that undeveloped land/existing subdivisions in French Village. Let’s face it, sprawl is inevitable, but no need to keep going North/farther away from Saint John when there is lots of land in the east borders of Rothesay around French Village- this would help keep commutes less than 20km and closer to 15. Even better, is that there would be a high capacity, effective, and safe interchange in place to accomodate the traffic as neighbourhoods are built- assuming we want our region to grow. What do you think about that?

  9. Who’s paying for this? The provincial government says – according to the article – another lane is required. I’ll bet the provincial government “expects” funds from the federal government. But who’s really paying? I assume part of the funding is provincial but if you drill down, I’ll bet significant funding is providing via the federal government. But the federal government doesn’t pay for anything. They only redirect funds. It’s real Canadians that end up paying via personal tax dollars.

    People need to realize the federal government doesn’t pay for anything. The federal government takes money away from people in “have” provinces to give to people in “have-not” provinces. And, in the process, they skim to pay for bloated bureaucracy. The NB provincial budget is supported, to the tune of 40%, by Canadians/taxpayers in the rest of the country. If you lived elsewhere – other than NB – would you be willing to pay extra personal tax dollars to support another province adding lanes to a suburban highway?