POLITICS

Alberta premier orders up solutions by June 29 on notorious oilsands highway

05/22/2012 10:57 EDT | Updated 07/22/2012 05:12 EDT
EDMONTON - Alberta Premier Alison Redford says she wants solutions within six weeks on ways to fast-track twinning on the notorious high-density highway to the oilsands.

Redford, speaking in Fort McMurray on Tuesday, said she has directed area MLA Mike Allen to research and make recommendations on twinning Highway 63 and on short-term measures to improve safety.

Allen is to deliver those ideas to Transportation Minister Ric McIver before the end of June.

The premier said those ideas could include temporary options such as more passing lanes, better traffic planning or other approaches to law enforcement.

"There was an accelerated enforcement this weekend where unfortunately we issued 443 tickets and some of them were quite shocking," she said. "There were two trucks drag-racing at 180 kilometres an hour. There were people driving under the influence."

Redford warned that improving the highway is only one part of the equation.

"There's certainly work that needs to be done with respect to design, but as Mayor (Melissa) Blake and I have talked about, there are two components in an accident. One is design of a road and the other is personal behaviour.

"And it's going to be just as important for everyone to be ensuring that we're all judging everyone else who might be on that road and driving inappropriately. The enforcement commitment is certainly there."

Allen's job is to bring a local perspective to the issue and to consult further with key stakeholders.

"We're going to get the job done. We're going to come back to you with some results," he said. "We're going to have as much involvement as we can to come up with the best solutions, the right solutions and ones that are going to have some concrete action to them."

Blake, mayor of the Municipality of Wood Buffalo in which Fort McMurray is located, said she felt good about Tuesday's announcement.

"I've never felt more confident that we have a premier who understands and is going to take action to bring to fruition the completion of this road," Blake said.

Highway 63, a 240-kilometre stretch of undivided highway — one lane running in each direction — has become a knotty, financial problem for the province and a heartbreaking, flat-top backdrop to hundreds of crashes and deaths.

Last month, two children and a pregnant woman were among seven people killed in a fiery head-on crash.

Those deaths have sparked renewed demands from area residents to twin the road. There was a recent public rally in Fort McMurray and thousands more have signed an online petition.

Police have also since conducted crackdown operations on the highway and on the parallel secondary Highway 881. Hundreds of tickets have been handed out for speeding, seatbelt violations and for open liquor in vehicles.

Critic Shayne Saskiw of the Opposition Wildrose party said the issue reflects misplaced priorities by the Tories given they have paid out more than $1 billion for an experimental carbon capture and storage program along with hundreds of millions of dollars for MLA office renovations.

"They have to find the money somewhere because they've made all these irresponsible commitments," said Saskiw.

Liberal critic Kent Hehr said the government is trying to buy time.

"For them to say they need a special adviser on a plan to build a road from Edmonton to Fort McMurray? C'mon, that's a little bit ridiculous," said Hehr.

"It's time to make it a priority and find the money."

The teeming traffic on the highway — the only all-weather road into Fort McMurray — isn't expected to let up.

As oilsands activity has taken off in the last decade, the highway has become squeezed and overwhelmed, clogged by large lumbering logging trucks, mammoth flatbeds hauling heavy equipment to the oilsands, buses, pickup trucks, cars and service vehicles.

Travel has become treacherous, with speeding trucks carrying workers hurrying to Edmonton for time off, impatient family members keen to get home and business people meeting tight deadlines in Fort McMurray.

Crashes have become so commonplace that two years ago volunteer firefighters at Wandering River stopped responding to pileups, saying the work had become overwhelming.

Residents along the route and in Fort McMurray have demanded for years that the highway be twinned but the province has been slow to respond despite years of multibillion-dollar budget surpluses in the previous decade.

The province announced in 2006 a plan to begin twinning but since then only 19 kilometres south of Fort McMurray have been completed. A further 36-kilometre stretch much further south, near Wandering River, is expected to be completed by 2013.

About 185 kilometres still need to be twinned at an estimated cost of $1 billion.

It's slow going as crews must cut through and lay pavement on stretches of thick boreal forest, Aspen parkland and muskeg.

The human cost has been 46 deaths in the last five years to go with hundreds more injured.

— With files from CFVR