It’s just past 3 p.m. Tuesday and The Telegram Jeep is bobbing and weaving its way through alarmingly deep snow and ice on a section of Redmond’s Road in St. John’s.
The road, one of the few in the city that’s still dirt, has been cleared and smoothed.
The Jeep comes to a halt and a journalist and photographer step out into the crisp, January air which smells of freshly cut pine.
Their surroundings are worth the iffy ride. Stretching out as far as the eye can see to the left and right is the future resting place of the Team Gushue Highway extension.
The terrain is relatively flat, except for a small dip towards Blackmarsh Road off in the distance to the right. A small herd of cattle huddle together in an enclosure on one side of the road as seagulls circle overhead.
Probably the most sticking feature of the vista is the shrub and brush that has been cleared away in a straight line stretching for kilometres on either side.
The line of cleared land is where work crews have started levelling the area — the next step in the completion of the highway extension.
Work that is finally moving.
The provincial government announced Tuesday Pennecon Heavy Civil has been awarded the $13-million contract to prepare the highway bed for paving. Crews have been at the site since last week.
Work is well underway.
Tuesday, crews used measuring instruments in the clearing, while excavators, massive trucks and other heavy equipment could be heard towards Blackmarsh Road.
After decades of waiting, the completion of the highway is finally within sight, said Transportation Minister Tom Hedderson.
“When we go into any project the hardest part is getting it out of the gates. This one is not only out of the gates, but of course we’ve got a section of the highway already completed and open. So this piece brings us closer to the completion of a good series of bypasses and overpasses and so on,” said Hedderson.
The road is designed to alleviate congestion on all major roads into the area.
According to a provincial news release, Pennecon has been contracted to prepare a strip of 5.3 km, out of a total of 7.1 km, of the remaining section of highway. The extension will snake from the Kenmount Road overpass to Robert E. Howlett Memorial Drive and Pitts Memorial Drive. However, Pennecon will, so far, only be prepping from Kenmount Road to Brookfield Road.
The final section of highway will have a separate tender, as will the overpasses where it intersects with major roads.
The extension is scheduled for completion sometime in 2014.
But that projection is based on everything working perfectly, said Hedderson.
If there’s a problem in the process, something that is not unusual for work like this, that timeframe is flexible, he said.
“There’s always challenges when you do these types of projects. In many cases you’re going to be going through some private land so there may be some delays as we take care of that type of business,” said the minister.
“Coupled with that, is that it’s both a federal and provincial investment. So where you have two levels of government sometimes there are challenges and delays. Not purposefully, but sometimes it’s just getting the paperwork done.”
Residents of the area should also prepare themselves for a long construction process. Construction will require intermittent blasting to clear some of the route, though the province is assuring homeowners they will be warned well in advance.
Traffic slowdowns can also be expected on Topsail and Blackmarsh roads. No closures are expected at this time, but a detour will be put into use for a section of Old Pennywell Road.
The cost of the project is being shared between the province and the federal government. However, ownership of the highway will fall to the City of St. John’s once it’s completed. That has been a controversial issue for several years.
St. John’s city council has always argued the highway is a regional project that will benefit everyone. So in its view, the City of Mount Pearl should help pay for the upkeep of the road. Work that is expected to cost a little less than $1 million a year.
But Mount Pearl council has contended the highway is rightfully the responsibility of the province. The council has said that neither city should have to be responsible for the upkeep, but since St. John’s already agreed to take over the road it will have to shoulder the burden alone.
When contacted by The Telegram the mayors of both cities praised the project and expressed relief it is finally moving. But that is where their agreement ended.
“It’s another example of why we need more regional co-operation for road systems and other things,” said St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe.
“If the city of Mount Pearl had wanted to take ownership of it, then we would have shared in the cost of maintenance and snow clearing. But somebody had to take ownership of it; otherwise it wasn’t going to be built. So we took ownership in order to get it built,” said O’Keefe.
But Mount Pearl Mayor Randy Simms reiterated his city’s stance on this point. Saying the province and the federal government should never have stipulated that a municipality must take ownership of the highway, as it’s not a responsibility either city can easily manage.