Saving lives with roads

On April 27, seven people were killed in a head-on collision on Hwy 63, the two-lane link that helps feed the engine of Alberta’s economy, Fort McMurray.

On April 27, seven people were killed in a head-on collision on Hwy 63, the two-lane link that helps feed the engine of Alberta’s economy, Fort McMurray.

The accident was all too commonplace. As many as 150 lives have been claimed on the highway that runs from Edmonton to Fort McMurray in the past 20 years.

And the death toll in the last six years alone is 69 and counting.

The fiery crash on April 27 counted two children and a pregnant woman among its victims.

Obviously, this is not just about a clogged economic artery. The lives lost leave an incalculable chasm for their loved ones.

Two years ago, volunteer firefighters in a community along the road stopped responding to crashes. They said the task had simply overwhelmed them.

Beyond the human cost, the economic responsibility that the narrow Hwy 63 carries is also no small thing.

Fort McMurray and its oilsands are increasingly critical to the future of this province.

This is about a government failure to protect either its citizens or to allow a region to realize its potential, for the betterment of people inside and beyond the community.

The carnage is a byproduct of the explosive growth of Fort McMurray, tied to the vibrant oilsands industry.

And it will only get worse as development is ramped up, and the community grows to support that development and the people who flock to the north to drive it.

Less than a month after the seven lives were claimed on April 27, Premier Alison Redford was in Fort McMurray promising to twin Hwy 63 in short order.

She asked for solutions within six weeks (five weeks and counting now), both to fast-track twinning and to introduce short-term safety measures.

“This government needs to do what it can to ensure Albertans who travel Hwy 63 get home safely,” Redford said a week ago.

Those Albertans include countless people from our region who travel back and forth weekly for work.

Part of the short-term solution is to crack down on speeders. Hundreds of tickets have been issued in the last month.

But the road remains an open wound, and it won’t be healed anytime soon.

Twinning work has plodded along since 2006. By next year, 185 km of the 443-km road will still be a narrow death trap.

It is projected that it will cost $1 billion to finish the twinning project.

The provincial royalties from oilsands bitumen in 2009-2010 alone totalled $1.9 billion. Projections call for the province to realize $184 billion in royalties from the development over the next 25 years (and another $187 billion in federal government tax revenue).

And the Canadian Energy Research Institute estimates that $218 billion will be invested in oilsands development over the same quarter-century. From that investment, industry will realize extraordinary wealth.

Based on those projections, and based on the historic expectation that the oilsands would pay huge dividends, Albertans have to wonder why the road wasn’t twinned years ago. (And, for that matter, why Fort McMurray’s infrastructure lagged horribly behind the demand for services.)

Redford’s insistence that a solution be imminent is good news.

But her government must also take note of the roots of this issue, and work to avoid a repeat.

The government’s own growth projections forecast the population of the province doubling in the next 38 years.

Getting ahead of the curve with infrastructure is the only way to avoid future problems.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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