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The Globe and Mail

Five questions with Karen Sorensen on Banff’s congestion problem

Mayor Karen Sorensen says Banff

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Mayor Karen Sorensen is looking to Banff's past to solve a very modern – and unlikely – problem afflicting the scenic mountain town: congestion. In peak summer months, she says, the roads are clogged with cars. Her answer is to revive passenger rail service from Calgary through to Lake Louise, Alta. The town is seeking $350,000 in provincial funding to study the option.

Where did this idea come from?

We are in a situation here where we're really anxious to start moving people and not cars. And we have still lots of room in Banff and lots of room in the national park for hikers and cyclists and skiers and visitors, but Banff's local road network is at capacity almost every day in July and August. We know that in 2015, six million vehicles entered and exited the townsite, and that was an increase from the year before of 9 per cent. And I think, too, if people have been to Lake Louise as well during those very busy times, they're finding the same thing.

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Once people get here, we're really encouraging our residents and our visitors to park their vehicles, leave them at their campsite, leave them at their hotel, and take our transit or walk or cycle to wherever they're going to. It really is just easier. And Banff is a very walkable and compact community.

You're partnering with Cochrane, Canmore, Lake Louise and Calgary, which is also seeking provincial funding for inner-city transit projects. Is there enough cash to go around, given the state of the provincial economy?

You'd have to ask the provincial government that question. I think there's a benefit to a number of communities working together. And on a higher level, you know, not necessarily picking one project over the other. I think any projects that are working towards getting people out of their vehicles and into alternative modes of transportation is money well spent.

What impact could rail service have on tourism?

We would like to believe that this could be a tourism attraction, that it would be seen as a really interesting visitor experience. Banff was founded through CP Rail, and [former CP general manager] Cornelius Van Horne. For us, it's a step back in history. I think a lot of our history is based on the rail. Visitors back in the late 1800s when the Banff Springs Hotel first opened [arrived] by train all the way from Toronto. So I think there's a real appeal to our history and to our heritage and I think it's a pretty interesting alternative for somebody who's in Calgary, whether they just want to come out for the day, or whether they are coming out for a longer period of time, to arrive by train and return by train.

How much would it cost, and how soon could service start, assuming the plan moves ahead?

That's what the study will identify, what the capital and operating costs, and the economic viability, of it will be. And certainly the study is examining a service using existing infrastructure in terms of track. We may need to look at things such as sidings or other enhancements, but right now, the request is to look at it using existing infrastructure.

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The first step is to find out about the grant. We'll find out on March 31 if the grant is approved and at that point, if it was, we would get started immediately. The study in my estimation would probably take a year or more. And then if the operation was deemed viable – and that is still a pretty big if – it would be great to think we could be running a summer trial, say, five years down the road.

Speaking of roads, why not build more of them instead?

Building another lane of highway between Calgary and Banff, I suppose, might help. But our issue is once we're in Banff. And I think that's a really important point. We are on a set footprint. We cannot expand out of that footprint. We can't build our way out of congestion, because of the fact that we have a municipality within a national park. And we completely respect our footprint. We completely respect the cap we have on commercial development. It's a unique situation in Alberta. We are limited. There's still room for people in the park and in Banff. It's our road system that is at capacity.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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