CALGARY (Canadian OH&S News)
Alberta has released a roadmap to creating a safer connection into oil sands territory — a route that has claimed 123 lives since 2000.
The infamous Highway 63, otherwise known as the “Highway of Death” currently serves as the only roadway option workers have when travelling from Edmonton into Fort McMurray.
Released on June 29, the report — entitled “Towards a Safer 63” — was drafted by Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA Mike Allen. Allen was appointed by Premier Alison Redford as the Highway 63 adviser to Alberta’s Minister of Transportation, Ric McIver.
Currently, the highway is a two-lane, undivided 240-kilometre expanse that carries 4,200 vehicles per day. The report recommended ways to improve safety through expanding it into a four-lane highway and installing a physical barrier between the northbound and southbound lanes, which McIver said would mitigate risky driving.
“A lot of the bad things that happen on the road are due to bad decisions,” McIver explained. “The road will be twinned, and [drivers] won’t be passing in a lane where there’s an opportunity for a head-on collision.”
However, Wood-Buffalo mayor Melissa Blake said the report leaves something to be desired.
“It still didn’t define a timeline for completion, but it did identify how long it would have taken, which was completely unacceptable,” Blake said.
While Allen initially estimated completion will take 11 years, McIver said they can reduce that — assuming there is money to fund the highway’s construction.
“We know we can beat the 11 years … which will take it down somewhere in the neighbourhood of seven and a half [years],” he said. “It is about money. But it’s also about the time it takes to build the road.”
Safeguarding Highway 63 is nothing new and dates back to 2006, when the provincial government originally pledged to twin the highway — a project that came with an almost $1-billion price tag. Alberta’s provincial government has set aside $450 million in the budget for the next three years of construction, according to McIver. But the remaining $550 million required to complete the project remains to be seen.
The majority of Albertans think the oil companies should foot the bill, according to a poll conducted by Forum Research. Fifty-three per cent of those polled agreed that oil companies, such as Suncor Energy Incorporated and Syncrude Canada Limited, should pay.
“Time will tell,” McIver said. “[The oil companies] know they’re welcome to do so and no one has come forward with a proposal to fund it. We’re not holding our breath, but we’re going through our options to get a decision made.”
Nick Sanders, president of the Fort McMurray Chamber of Commerce said the burden should not rest with the industry, and more funding should come from both the federal and provincial governments.
“This is an Alberta problem, this is not an industry or business problem,” Sanders said. “The oil sands companies, they give enough, they pay enough. The economics around having a safe transportation corridor between Fort McMurray and the rest of Alberta, I just think makes good economic sense.”
Carol Christian, a communications adviser with the Oil Sands Development Group (OSDG), a non-profit organization representing various groups of the oil sands operators and developers, frequently travels Highway 63. For Christian, the multiple-fatality collision on April 27 — which sparked a public protest after the incident left seven dead and two injured — was the turning point.
“You will see other motorists not being careful and they do participate in risky driver behaviour,” she said, speaking as a resident. “Lead foot, slaloming in and out of traffic … You see certain drivers ignore all of those rules, and away they go.”
McIver expects the southern portion of the highway to be twinned in the next two to three years.
“We know there are no shortcuts, because in the muskeg, boreal forest area, if you don’t do it right, you’re building a temporary road, and we need to build a permanent one.”
Sabrina Nanji is the editorial assistant of Canadian OH&S News