BANFF – A vision for a car-free Banff to eliminate congestion and create a better national park experience for residents and visitors has been pitched by a private developer, but appears to hinge on the development of a gondola to Mount Norquay.
This week, Liricon Capital asked Banff council to consider implementing a resident-only vehicle pass as part of a big picture plan to create a transit hub at the train station, complete with two intercept parking lots, return of passenger rail service and a gondola to the summit of Norquay.
If council institutes a resident pass system, Liricon would provide the Town of Banff with 2,500 stalls at intercept parking lots on both sides of the train station rent-free for 30 years if a gondola opens.
“We are only able to make this offer if the gondola is operational,” said Jan Waterous at a council meeting Monday (March 25), noting the gondola will provide a revenue stream to finance free parking.
“We understand our ability to actually build a gondola is a Parks Canada and not a Town of Banff responsibility, but we feel very confident with the science that will ultimately support its construction and we believe the revenue stream will soon be available.”
Liricon, the personal financial holding company of Jan and Adam Waterous, has full ownership of Mount Norquay ski hill and has acquired leases from Canadian Pacific Railway for the heritage train station and surrounding lands both north and south of the train tracks.
Under the proposal, only residents would be allowed to park downtown and visitors with hotel reservations would park at hotel lots, while day visitors would be required to park at the intercept lots.
Visitors would walk or catch shuttles and buses into town and to points of interest in the town and throughout the national park from the intercept lots – a 500-stall lot on the south side of the tracks to open this summer, and another 2,000 stall lot proposed for the north side.
About 4.2 million people visit Banff each year, and that’s expected to reach five million within 15 years – and most of them are arriving in private vehicles. Congestion is getting worse, leading to lengthy backups and delays.
Jan said a resident-only pass has potential to entirely eliminate parking and congestion within the community.
“Perhaps less understood is the importance of mandating use of intercept parking if we really want to achieve a transformational change in the national park,” said Jan, pointing to the success of car free areas such as Zion National Park in Utah.
“We are certainly open to other ideas other than a resident-only vehicle pass and mandated intercept parking, but the experience in other car-free communities tells us that these measures do in fact work.”
Conservation groups welcome the opportunity for a long overdue community conversation about crowding, traffic and congestion, noting Liricon is pitching some exciting and interesting ideas.
However, the Bow Valley Naturalists say it’s unfortunate the discussion is being “held hostage” by a concept of a gondola.
Reg Bunyan, BVN’s vice-president, said the group is concerned about potential environmental impacts of a gondola, as well as the policy precedents that it sets for other businesses.
Since the gondola would need Parks Canada approval, the proposal essentially leaves Parks Canada and Canadians in the unenviable position of either living with the environmental impacts of another gondola or being the “Grinch that squashed the town’s traffic congestion solution.”
“It’s our belief that Banff needs another summer ‘attraction’ about as much as it needs another summer traffic jam,” he said.
The gondola aside, Bunyan said that with peak traffic volumes of 20,000 vehicles per day, it remains unclear as to whether 2,500 intercept stalls will even make a significant dent in the congestion issue.
“Or if it does resolve short-term traffic issues, what does it resolve in the long-term if growth and visitation isn’t managed?” he said.
“Without any discussion about the population cap and limits to growth, all we are doing is playing the parking lot game – a game that never ends.”
Both the approved site guidelines for Mount Norquay and the current park management plan allow the ski hill to submit a feasibility study for an aerial gondola between the townsite and the ski area.
Liricon proposed to develop a year-round, high-alpine tourist destination through the construction of a four-station gondola from the Banff train station to the summit of Mount Norquay.
The company hired environmental consultants at the Miistakis Institute to look at potential environmental gains, concluding that wildlife such as grizzly bears, wolves and cougars potentially stand to gain under the proposed gondola development under certain conditions.
One of the mitigations would include reducing traffic or decommissioning the road to Norquay, which cuts through the Cascade wildlife corridor, an important link for large wildlife like grizzly bears, wolves and cougars moving east and west across the park.
Other potential mitigations including relocating all public ski hill parking to the train station lots and fencing off areas of the ski hill considered sensitive to wildlife. The company proposes to restrict human use in the alpine to a fenced boardwalk system.
Jan said the next step is to do an environmental impact assessment for Parks Canada.
“Science conducted by Miistakis Institute shows potential for positive environmental gain for aerial transit from the train station to the high alpine, should the necessary mitigations by Parks and ourselves be put in place,” she said.
Parks Canada officials say they consider projects in the context of current policy and regulatory framework, including the Canada National Parks Act, the park management plan, and the ski area management guidelines, and with ecological integrity as its first priority.
“Parks Canada is currently reviewing the proposal and will take the time necessary to give it a careful, detailed review,” said Carly Wallace, a Parks Canada spokesperson, in an email. “Accepting a proposal for review does not constitute approval.”
Town council thanked the Waterous’ for making their plans public.
“Council is exploring the options for a resident vehicle parking system this year,” said Mayor Karen Sorensen, noting she wanted to know how a resident-vehicle pass system might affect the national park as a whole.
Jan replied that the broader hope is that Parks Canada would make travelling in a bus or shuttle mandatory to other areas of the park, such as Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, Johnston Canton and Lake Minnewanka.
“We see it like a Lake O’Hara example,” she said. “It’s part of the vision we see to make it a truly car free national park."