Melanie Gattiker can stand on the edge of the cliff near her home west of Lethbridge and look east to see the nearest homes a good two kilometers across the wide gulf of the river valley.
The buildings on the other side appear miniature against the horizon.
This is how the new western neighborhoods of this small town in southern Alberta feel cut off; and that’s part of the reason why the debate over a new bridge here has become so entrenched.
It’s a matter of connection and security for some; for others, it’s about preserving that wild river valley and protecting the wallet. This unique bridge – debated for decades and recently put to a ballot – could cost $300 million.
That’s a property tax hike of up to 22% in a city of just over 100,000 people.
But this debate is more than just a bridge.
“This is the identity of Lethbridge,” said Gattiker, a longtime resident of the city’s west side.
Lethbridge was founded shortly after the turn of the previous century, initially rooted in the coal business, but quickly established itself as an agricultural and commercial center.
One of the city’s most defining features is its wide river valley.
Above the west side of the river valley, a smooth, cool pavement leads to new homes, schools and walking paths near the University of Lethbridge. It is also home to the YMCA’s new large recreation center.
The east side of the river valley is home to downtown, heritage buildings, and some of the oldest neighborhoods and homes that date back decades.
But there’s also the Costco, office buildings, hospital, and many other amenities that western residents use every day.
For some, a third bridge over the Oldman River, further connecting the two banks, is essential infrastructure.
During the recent municipal election in October, a question on the ballot sought feedback on the progress of the bridge project.
Sixty per cent of the 27,253 people who voted said they were in favor of council approving plans to build a third bridge before 2030 as a priority.
The Council is currently reviewing potential sites and ways to finance the project. The two potential locations are south of the two vehicle crossings that already exist.
Among citizens, however, it seems that the debate is not over.
More pressing needs
When Gattiker examines the needs of the entire city, she sees too many more pressing issues.
“We have a drug crisis, we have a homelessness crisis. We have an underfunded infrastructure community,” she said.
That’s why she thinks it’s about the identity of the community.
“Because if that’s what we’re going to prioritize, then it’s the privileged in this community who prioritize themselves over everyone else.”
By “privileged,” Gattiker said she meant people “who have mortgages and vehicles and have no trouble making ends meet.”
Security and Convenience
Matt Barkway, who runs Paradise Canyon Country Club, which is circled by the Oldman River on the west side, sees the need for a third river crossing every day.
He believes western communities are growing and need better access to the airport, big box stores and other amenities that exist on the east side of Lethbridge.
Traffic is also a concern. But beyond that, he believes the third bridge would address the issue of community safety.
“It takes an accident to close one bridge and then everyone goes to the other bridge and man, it’s a real problem,” he said.
Barkway said some guests at the country club and golf course have to make a circuitous trip every time they need to get there. And for those who live on the west side and need to commute for work or any other reason, the time spent in your vehicle adds up.
Rajko Dodic, who is a former mayor and current councillor, has seen the Third Bridge debate crop up several times during his time on council. He said the third river crossing would be one of the biggest infrastructure projects the city has seen in half a century.
However, Dodic does not believe the recent vote fully reflects community support for a bridge.
“When you ask a question like that, it’s like asking someone, ‘Do you want a new car?’ You can say, ‘Yes.’ Now, ‘Would you like to have a new car if it cost you $200,000?’ Now the stats would be skewed the other way.”
He submitted a request in December to explore how the bridge could be funded and where it would be built.
“40 years late”
Kelti Baird sees the bridge as a good marker of how the city sometimes prioritizes old-school community values.
“It’s a wonderful little community. … But, yeah, they’re 40 years behind when it comes to, you know, a lot of different ways of thinking about things,” she said.
Baird uses public transit and rides a bicycle as his primary means of getting around Lethbridge. She is one of many people who want to see the river valley and the riparian areas around it protected.
It’s a city she loves, she says, and she’s spent time campaigning for a council seat, owns a local brewery and sits on the board of the city planning commission.
She said that although most journeys to anywhere in the city remain under 20 minutes, people are clinging to the idea of having to cross a bridge to get around. Baird is from Kelowna, British Columbia, another city divided by a bridge, and said people feel a certain way of using the bridge to get somewhere.
“Lethbridge has the same attitude of, ‘Oh, the west side is so far away.'”
Baird thinks the bridge could eventually make sense, but it’s not the only way to meet the city’s needs and how it will develop in the future.
“I would rather see amenities than just a car bridge,” she said.
CBC Calgary has launched a bureau in Lethbridge to help tell your southern Alberta stories with journalist Jennifer Dorozio. Story ideas and advice can be sent to [email protected]