As Alberta Premier Alison Redford pledges once again to fast-track the twinning of the notorious highway to the oil sands, her point-man on the file has a warning: Traffic along the route will get worse before it gets better.
Transportation Minister Ric McIver says expanding the remote, 240-kilometre, two-lane stretch of Highway 63 into a twinned, four-lane section will take years. Meanwhile, the heavy loads of industrial equipment that back up the highway are becoming more common.
"In terms of just being straightforward with people, things are going to get a lot worse between now and the end of 2014," Mr. McIver told The Globe and Mail Tuesday, shortly after Ms. Redford spoke in Fort McMurray.
She announced that local MLA Mike Allen will look for ways to speed up construction, reporting back June 29, halfway through this year's construction season. The revelation fell flat for some.
"I would say the announcement is less substantial than we probably would have liked to see," said Nicole Auser, who helped organize a protest urging the province to speed up construction.
Many, including Mr. McIver, say traffic jams inevitably lead to risky passing attempts and, with just one lane in each direction, head-on crashes. He drove Highway 63 for the first time over the long weekend.
"It's pretty obvious that the road is not fit for wide loads and heavy traffic the way it is right now," Mr. McIver said.
The $1-billion twinning project began in 2006, but progress has been slow – hampered by several factors, including shifting muskeg terrain, weather, land acquisition, caribou calving season and the requirement that it be built to withstand extra-heavy loads. In the meantime, there have been more than 50 fatalities since 2006 – most recently, a crash last month that killed seven people, including two children and a pregnant woman.
It also left Ms. Redford facing political pressure. Of the 240 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, 16 kilometres have been twinned so far. Another 36 kilometres is scheduled to be done this year and opened next year. Mr. Allen, the local MLA, will be a "special adviser" on speeding that up and finding short-term solutions.
"I believe it's very important to very seriously look at what we're doing to accelerate the twinning of Highway 63," Ms. Redford said. "… There is no doubt we needed to do more."
Shayne Saskiw, the deputy house leader for the opposition Wildrose Party, said Mr. Allen should be searching for solutions anyway. "It just shows how powerless an MLA is if they have to get a special appointment to actually advocate on an important issue in their area," Mr. Saskiw said.
Melissa Blake, the mayor of the municipality that includes Fort McMurray (and a friend of Mr. Allen, a former councillor), said she was "entirely optimistic about where this will go in the very near term."
Police have boosted enforcement along the highway, catching speeders and drunk drivers, Ms. Redford said. But advocates were hoping to hear concrete solutions during her visit. Now, they'll wait until June 29 for a new plan. "I don't think they have any choice but to accelerate it at this point," Ms. Auser said.
The Oil Sands Developers Group says industry would share the cost of twinning sections north of Fort McMurray, where 17 kilometres has already been completed, and building bypasses in other communities. But executive director Ken Chapman said it's up to the province to expand, and pay for, the section in question south of Fort McMurray. "We expect that they would continue to do that," he said.