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Banff expecting pre-pandemic visitation, traffic chaos for Canada Day

Banff town officials are expecting 30,000 to 33,000 vehicles per day over the Canada Day long weekend, well over the congestion threshold for the four square-kilometre town
Banff expected to be busy for Canada Day. RMO FILE PHOTO

BANFF, Alta – The Town of Banff is gearing up for major traffic jams and delays over the Canada Day long weekend.

The tourist town is expecting 30,000 to 33,000 vehicles per day, well over the congestion threshold for the four square-kilometre town, which could lead to the closure of the Norquay Road entrance at certain times.

“On Canada Day, we think we’re going to be back to 2019 volumes,” said Adrian Field, the director of engineering for the Town of Banff.

“We anticipate volumes of 30,000 to 33,000 vehicles per day – that’s both entrances, both directions – and with those will come some traffic delays.”

The May long weekend saw visitation return to pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels, leading to delays of more than 90 minutes as vehicles came down from gondola and hot springs tourist attractions on Sulphur Mountain and tried to move across the Bow River Bridge.

For the Canada Day weekend, there are advance communications going out to visitors to expect delays, to warn that parking at the Sulphur Mountain attractions is at capacity, to encourage parking at the train station intercept lot and to take public transit.

The Town had also planned on suspending the resident parking permit (RPP) for the weekend, meaning visitors could park in about 350 stalls reserved for residents in surrounding streets.

But mid-afternoon Wednesday (June 29), the municipality reversed the decision following a backlash from residents.

Visitors won't be allowed to park on downtown residential streets designated with “resident-only” parking signs, which were established last year as a way to protect spill-over from visitors who do not want to pay for parking in the new downtown visitor-pay parking areas.

Town Manager Kelly Gibson said the municipality did not adequately communicate this part of its traffic mitigation plan to the community.

“We received overwhelming opposition from our residents. … We are acting on that feedback and we will continue to restrict visitors from parking on the designated downtown residential streets,” he said.

“We are sorry for the consternation this decision caused and we hope we can rebuild the relationship with residents who rely on the Town to act in the best interests of our community.”

During Monday's council meeting, Councillor Barb Pelham had flagged the suspension of RPP as a concern.

“It seems to be an adjustment out of desperation, which I completely appreciate, but it is a bit at the residents’ expense," she said. "I think there’s fear that this is a real slippery slope.”

Throughout the busy Canada Day weekend, flaggers will be stationed at key intersections in town, including directing vehicles to the intercept lot at the train station, and Parks Canada will have crews at the Norquay Road intersection at the Trans-Canada Highway.

Coun. Chip Olver Chip voiced concern about traffic backing up onto the Trans-Canada Highway at the Norquay Road entrance.

“I remember a few summers ago that the Lake Louise exit off the highway would sometimes be closed off and you had no choice but to skip it,” she said.

“Is that the type of thing we might be facing where we might have to close the other way into town, too, and say there’s just no room here?”

Field said the municipality is not anticipating anything of that scale, although the worst case scenario is that the Norquay Road entrance could be closed.

He said westbound traffic coming off the highway would be directed back onto the highway east towards the Banff Avenue intersection.

“The nature of the road system there is there is a lot more space between the intersection and the Husky, for example,” he said.

“There will be a lot of space for traffic to queue up.”

Field said traffic data from the May long weekend, when there were traffic delays of up to 90 minutes, shows that about 1,100 vehicles travelling to the gondola and hot springs had nowhere to park.

“The attractions were full and folks turned straight back around, adding to the congestion,” he said.

“They had miserable time themselves and caused misery for other people without any enjoyment or economic benefits for anyone,” he added.

“If we had a 50 per cent reduction in that traffic, that would greatly alleviate, probably solve congestion delays.”

Mayor Corrie DiManno said the big message for Canada Day is loud and clear – don’t drive.

“Do not get in your car, park the car, take transit, walk, bike – it’s a way more enjoyable experience,” she said.

“Do you want to be stuck in your car and drive up a mountain and right back down… and then circle the town to try and find a parking spot? That sounds miserable to me.”

Long term, Mayor DiManno said the municipality is keen to hear recommendations coming out of a Parks Canada-struck expert panel looking at the sustainable movement of people in Banff National Park.

“We are very rapidly approaching the end of the line in terms of what we can do in the Town of Banff,” she said.