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Banff to examine potential land swap with Parks Canada for intercept parking

“It is the single most crucial part of the entire equation.”
Banff Town Hall 1
Banff Town Hall. RMO FILE PHOTO

BANFF – A long-discussed but always rejected idea from Parks Canada is coming forward again in an effort by the Town of Banff to potentially add another intercept lot.

A governance and finance committee decision will see the Town hire a consultant to look at potentially available land that could possibly be swapped with Parks Canada to get the end goal of more intercept parking.

Coun. Grant Canning, a long-time Banff elected official, brought the motion forward to direct Town staff to begin the process of searching for a consultant at a budgeted cost of $30,000.

He said the reason for bringing it forward was his belief intercept parking is at the crux of issues the municipality regularly face with high levels of traffic congestion and having millions of tourists come through the mountain community each year.

“You need to create an opportunity to get people out of their vehicles before they come into town. Long-term, if you hope to address congestion, you need to discuss more intercept parking. Long-term, if you want to see a seasonal closure of Banff Avenue, I believe you need to discuss more intercept parking. Long-term, if you hope to have more people riding a bus or a shuttle around town, you need to need to discuss more intercept parking,” he said.

“It is the single most crucial part of the entire equation.”

Canning said a potential swap could propose land in a more environmentally sensitive area closer to a wildlife corridor, while the Town may get land closer to build infrastructure in return.

He noted traffic congestion has long been an issue in town and the intercept lot at the train station has been a “game-changer” but that it’s “simply not enough.”

The motion was brought forward a little more than an hour after the Parks Canada-struck expert panel had its recommendations released Monday (Dec. 5).

The expert panel’s report, which will have a public engagement process until Feb. 5, 2023, outlined eight recommendations to help people travel in the Bow Valley and Banff National Park.

The Banff Bow Valley Sustainable People-Moving framework’s main objectives are to recommend strategies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), improve the ecological side of the park and help accessible access for visitors and residents.

The 73-page report emphasized the need to have people use public or active modes of transit rather than simply relying on personal vehicles.

“Our report is a result of these discussions and the collective expertise and experience of the panel,” said Bill Fisher, the chair of the expert panel in a media release. “Many of the suggested solutions are bold and may take some time to implement, others are fundamental to better understanding visitor behaviour and expectations.

“We hope our report can serve as a guide for how to move people sustainably in the busiest national park in Canada and perhaps become a model for other protected areas to consider.”

Among the recommendations are increasing parking fees to entice more people to use other transit, expanding existing transit options and establishing a more unified transit service.

One of the key aspects, though, is the creation of mobility hubs where people can connect with multi-modal forms of transit in centres that have washrooms, a visitor centre and allow people to travel more easily without personal vehicles.

The study stated the Banff townsite and Lake Louise could be two such areas to have hubs, particularly in the area of Banff Avenue and Mount Norquay Road.

“Transportation hubs provide unique options for future management planning. There are many day-use parking areas that struggle with demand exceeding supply,” the report stated. “Effective transportation hubs should have the ability to increase and decrease levels of service to accommodate surges in visitors interested in going to and returning from areas such as Johnson Lake, Johnston Canyon and Helen Lake.”

Parks Canada, which established the panel and released the report, declined to make a person available for interview on the recommendations released.

Canning highlighted there was precedent in such a deal with Sunshine Village Ski Resort creating more parking in the area of Mount Bourgeau and Lake Louise Ski Resort exchanging land in the area of Porcupine Ridge.

“There is clear precedent for this,” he said, adding since the Town is a leaseholder who pays Parks Canada $500,000 a year it’s a hope the Town would also be treated similarly in approaching a potential deal.

“All leaseholders need to be treated the same,” Canning said. “That’s exactly what I’m asking for today and expecting now – the same consideration other leaseholders have been given. I believe it is vitally important for the Town of Banff to investigate this idea.”

Coun. Hugh Pettigrew voiced support, noting it will likely take time, but that it was “a good endeavour.”

Coun. Barb Pelham said it was “wonderfully creative and pragmatic” and that the Town understands its boundaries, but it could possibly be a win for both sides.

The Banff train station intercept lot opened in 2019 and has about 500 vehicle stalls, 24 spots for buses and 20 stalls for RVs. When the Fenlands is in the mix, as it was in 2020 and 2021, it brings the total to about 750 stalls.

Banff National Park has more than four million people visit each year – 30 per cent more than a decade ago – with the majority coming in personal vehicles.

The Town has been attempting to ease traffic congestion for several years, promoting more active modes of transit in ways to get people out of vehicles and using public transit, bikes and walking.

The Town brought in fare-free transit for residents last spring and a key aim of the visitor paid parking program is to incentivize people to use the free intercept parking as opposed to driving around the mountain town. Council will discuss potentially raising paid parking rates during service review.

In Banff and Canmore, paid parking has already been established in attempts to push people out of vehicles and use more active modes of transportation.

The region has put significant resources into growing Roam transit, which has fare-free transit in Canmore for all riders, while growing path networks to promote pedestrian, cycling and e-bike travel.

However, this past year saw visitation return to pre-COVID-19 levels and significant delays took place for vehicle traffic, particularly across the Bow River Bridge for people travelling to and from the gondola and Upper Hot Springs on Sulphur Mountain.

But despite visitation returning to the norm, the Town’s vehicle counters show vehicle volumes dropped by six per cent compared to summer 2019. During the summer, there were 56 days that surpassed Banff’s vehicle threshold of 24,000 per day, versus 66 days in summer 2019. The busiest day was the Sunday of the August long weekend with 31,526.

Banff and Lake Louise Tourism, the Town of Banff and Parks Canada are working on a tourism master plan, which is aiming to look at the community well-being, the environment and economic prosperity.

A first look at the 10-year plan occurred in November and outlined enhanced transportation to be an important piece of the puzzle.

The Banff Long-Term Transportation Study – released in 2016 – identified intercept lots as an answer to congestion in the townsite and pushing people to leave their vehicles for public transit.

The study estimated 1,000 spots were needed in the short-term and up to 2,000 stalls would be needed by 2045. It stated “in all solutions intercept parking is required (to) maximize the success of investments.” It also noted stalls should be evenly distributed between both entrances into town.

Elk Woods was a potential intercept lot for the east entrance into Banff in the area of A&W and Banff Voyager Inn at the corner of Banff Avenue and Marmot Crescent. The study outlined a potential cost of about $3.5 million or roughly $7,000 per parking stall, with operating costs of about $1 million a year.

Elk Woods, however, is outside the townsite boundaries and belongs to Parks Canada. The 2016 study has conceptual designs of slightly more than 500 parking spots.

The Town has lobbied Parks Canada for several years – dating back to 1992 in the downtown enhancement plan – for a new intercept lot in the townsite, but the federal agency has been consistent in shutting the door.

In an August interview, shortly after the new Banff Management Plan was released, the national park’s superintendent Sal Rasheed was clear new intercept lots were off the table.

“I think there are some hard lines. … Parks Canada really isn’t interested to open those discussions up again because it would straw away from our core mandate,” Rasheed told the Outlook in August.

“We’ve been fairly consistent on that, that we’re not interested in talking about that.”

An email Tuesday (Dec. 6) sent to the Banff National Park field unit and Parks Canada wasn’t immediately responded to. After seven days, the Banff field unit responded on Dec. 13 to say they weren't in attendance and couldn't respond in regards to the motion. Parks Canada has yet to respond, but the story will be updated if they do.

In the statement, the field unit noted Parks Canada is waiting for the public engagement period to conclude on the recommendations of the expert panel and they will work with partners to "explore regional transportation and parking solutions within established boundaries and in conformance with applicable legislation and policy."

Kira Tryon, a public relations and communications officer with the field unit, said in the statement Parks Canada Banff National Park Management Plan identifies the need to invest in regional transit and "Parks Canada remains committed to collaborating with the Town of Banff on the development of additional parking on existing, already-developed lands within the legislated Town boundary."

The management plan outlines any development is limited to the Town's boundaries and what has been identified in policy and legislation under the Canada National Parks Act.

"All national park lands, including those within the Town boundary, are owned by the federal government," she said. "Proposals for use and development outside the existing legislated Town boundary on undeveloped national park lands pose environmental, policy and legislative challenges."

Canning said at the meeting the hope is to ultimately find a solution that’s positive for both sides.

“We know what we need to do, but currently don’t have options available to us to do that,” he said.

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