Highway 63 to oil sands stirs resentment over construction lag

Most say the road should be twinned. Few agree on who should pay

November 05, 2012

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Photographs Ryan Girard

This much is true about Alberta’s infamous Highway 63: you can’t appreciate the 400-plus kilometer white-knuckle wagon trail to Fort McMurray until you put rubber to pavement and drive it.

It’s what rookie Alberta Transportation Minister Ric McIver did in May as the highway quickly engulfed his portfolio. It’s what two Wildrose MLAs did, hoping to earn street-cred as they hammer the government over its handling of the file. I first drove it two years ago, loosening my grip on the steering wheel of my 1999 Mercury only as I rolled along the final kilometer down the hill and into the heart of the city. Fittingly, it’s the sight of the hospital that tells you you’ve made it.

“It’s the government’s job to build highway infrastructure in the province. I think we’re relatively in agreement there.”

Locals have long complained about the road. Twinning of the main 240 kilometer stretch was announced in 2006 but work has since been glacial in pace – although the Alberta government announced in October it would complete the project by 2016, seven years earlier than it had previously planned.

The accelerated timeline on completing the twinning no doubt was spurred by a fiery, head-on crash in April that reenergized public outcry for a bigger, better highway. Seven dead bodies – including those of a pastor, his wife and their baby – tend to have that effect. “The biggest thing I’d like to see is the twinning of the highway,” says Ronald Thompson, 59, who took custody of his grandson, Timothy, after the April crash killed his daughter Trena, son-in-law Shannon and their youngest son, Ben.

Timothy survived, pulled from the flaming wreckage with just a scratch on his forehead above his right eye. Now four years old, he began pre-kindergarten this fall in Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador, where Thompson lives. “He doesn’t talk a lot about it,” his grandpa says, saying the route needs passing lanes and, eventually, twin roads. “Hopefully, they’ve learned from this one,” he says.

 

The case for twinning – and the scheme to actually pull it off – is, however, anything but cut-and-dried. On paper, there’s little reason for it. The route is relatively straight and clear, the collision rate is below the provincial average – from 2006 to 2010, the province says there have been 81.87 crashes on the highway per 100 million vehicle kilometers. The provincial average is 107. And traffic levels don’t meet the province’s threshold for expansion.

Nonetheless, the government has already spent $1 billion on the route and neighboring Highway 881, which runs up the eastern edge of Alberta, and expects to spend $1.1 billion more to finish the upgrades. More than 120 people have died on the highway since 2000. The flashpoint has become a priority. As such, it raises two questions: why twin the thing, and who should pay for it? The latter question boils down to whether the oil and gas industry should foot the bill for an upgrade that, without the sector, wouldn’t be necessary.

That’s answered easy enough. Industry was never asked to pay. “It’s the government’s job to build highway infrastructure in the province. I think we’re relatively in agreement there,” says Mike Allen, a first-term Progressive Conservative MLA and former city councilor from Fort McMurray. Industry leaders, of course, say the same thing.

The former question, however, is more complex: Why twin it? Though the numbers don’t add up, other factors help make the case. One is the dissonance between Fort McMurray’s national economic clout and the state of the route to it – imagine a frayed, swaying rope bridge serving as the only entrance to Parliament, and you get the idea. Secondly, it’s not just cars and semis on the road; it’s wide-load after wide-load clogging things up. Yet another factor is the lack of emergency crews. In some cases, it takes an hour for help to arrive to a remote crash site. Emergency responders refer to it as the “golden hour” for a reason – if response is too slow, people die.

Most of all, though, it’s the drivers. A Highway 63 expansion is largely an idiocy mitigation project – this is why you need to drive it to know it.

Something overcomes people along that road. Maybe it’s that they’ve worked two weeks straight and are desperate to get home. Maybe it’s because the cops have been AWOL, and they have, a recent enforcement blitz notwithstanding.

But it’s definitely because drivers are in a hurry. The speed limit is 100 kilometers an hour, but only at 130 km/h did Allen, who authored a report on the highway earlier this year, even begin tracking speeding cases. The highest was clocked at 228 km/h.

Such speeds are inexcusable, but the circumstances are often similar: a driver gets stuck behind one of those wide-load trucks that are crawling along at an infuriating 80 km/h, with a long tail of cars behind them. The driver finally loses patience, pulls out into the oncoming lane, miscalculates the space and smacks into something, head-on.

 

So, this brings us to today with a government scrambling to speed up work and slow down cars, acknowledging it has dragged its feet. Traffic is projected to only get worse as the population of Fort McMurray is expected to double between 2012 and 2030, and oil sands production is forecast to grow from 1.6 million barrels per day to five million per day during that same period. But expanding Highway 63 is no easy feat. Spongy muskeg, thick boreal forest and mating seasons of the dwindling caribou population all slow construction efforts.

“We like challenges. So the more complex, the better,” says George Trefanenko, a consultant working on a passing lane project along where the tragic April crash occurred. The $7.1-million contract is scheduled to add two new passing lanes and extend six others this fall. Ministry staff call it the most difficult highway project in Alberta history, but construction crews offer a different view. “Well, you can compare it to Highway 43 [to Grande Prairie]. There’s probably not a lot of difference,” Trefanenko says. Adds another veteran construction manager, who asked that his name not be published for fear of losing his contracts with the government: “I don’t think there’s any difference other than the attitude of the people on the road.”

In the short term, new passing lanes will be accompanied by more speed enforcement. The government has also mounted a campaign to shame people into slowing down, and hopes to schedule wide-loads to travel on slow days, or at night, to free up traffic flow. “I think most importantly, we’ve got lots of balls in the air. We’re doing about as much as a government, or any other body for that matter, can do at one time,” McIver says.

Things like land acquisition, engineering and land clearing take time, and are progressing or done, he says, but aren’t as visible as paving work, which comes last. The project is, as such, like an iceberg, in that much of the work isn’t visible to drivers. But it’s still four years away from completion. When McIver got his job this spring, he had no idea the battle he was walking into. “Literally, before I was minister, this was top of mind. Was I surprised? Yes, I was,” he says.

 

As oil prices slump and the province slips into a deeper deficit, the notion of industry paying for it remains a non-starter. “It’s an easy scapegoat to say they should pay for it all,” says Melissa Blake, mayor of Wood Buffalo, the municipality that includes Fort McMurray. Ken Chapman, executive director of the Fort McMurray-based Oil Sands Developers Group (OSDG), argues provinces have always built highways, and it’s not industry’s job. Does Blake buy it? “In this case, I do,” the mayor says.

Chapman also bristles at the notion of otherwise subsidizing the highway with a toll or other charge. “If they’re going to toll this road, they should also toll the Calgary Trail, the [Anthony] Henday and the Stoney Trail as well. Don’t just pick on this region for tolling,” Chapman says, listing Calgary and Edmonton freeways. Instead, his OSDG offered to front cash for certain projects, and have the province pay it back later. The province has since said it will pay for the upgrades through capital markets.

Highway 63 is the foremost of many infrastructure needs facing the region. The airport, for instance, handles four times the traffic it was designed for, Blake says. Earlier this year, the province struck up a transportation committee for the region, chaired by Suncor Energy Inc.’s vice-president Heather Kennedy, who says there are no silver bullets.

“People need to drive safely. They need to be sober on the road. They need to be not tired and they need to take public transportation whenever possible. I think that’s been industry’s position all along, and I think it still is today,” she says. “Twinning is absolutely important, but if you don’t change behavior, that just gives people extra lanes to behave in a foolhardy way.”

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