Industry works toward a weight increase on Alberta's high-load corridor

Alberta’s high-load corridor is a vital piece of infrastructure that has long served the construction industry and helped fuel oilsands development. By accommodating loads weighing up to 365,000 pounds, it allows for the transportation of heavy equipment and massive modules through the province. 

Today, industry is working with government to determine whether it’s possible to safely increase the weight limit of the high-load corridor, a move that proponents say could increase public safety while reducing construction costs.

“This is really directed at saving our customers money,” says Gary Trigg, vice-president, PCL Industrial Management. “If we can build heavier modules here at our facility, we reduce the amount of work that has to be done on the customer’s site, and the cost of doing the work on site is three to four times the cost of doing it in our shop.”

Trigg isn’t talking about chump change. PCL did a study looking a one major oilsands project that had 147 modules on it and found that if the weight of the heaviest 25 modules were increased to 500,000 pounds, $47 million could be saved. Another analysis done by Fluor Constructors a few years ago found that each heavy module could realize about a half a million dollar saving, bringing total cost savings to industry to about $180 million a year.

The high-load corridor initially came about as a result of discussion between industry and Alberta Transportation.

“We talked about removing the obstacles, such as burying power lines rather than having them overhead,” remembers Ron Genereux, vice-president of productivity and construction, Suncor Major Projects.

“Back then it was only Syncrude and Suncor, and we shared responsibility for removing those obstacles. This is another initiative from industry that we are working collaboratively with Alberta Transportation to evaluate.”

The corridor allows loads up to nine metres high to travel without concern for overhead obstructions, such as power lines and overpasses. At intersections, traffic signals have rotatable bases to allow lights to be rotated to accommodate the movement of high loads. Alberta Transportation meets annually with industry stakeholders to discuss issues related to commercial vehicle weights and dimensions.

“Requests from industry to change weight and dimension limits are analyzed in the context of public safety and infrastructure preservation, before any regulatory changes are considered,” says Tina Stewart, spokeswoman with Alberta Transportation. “The number of permits issued and the maximum weight of some loads is increasing annually, along with the age of infrastructure. Alberta Transportation continues to work very closely with industry to ensure their needs are addressed without jeopardizing infrastructure and motorist safety.”

Proponents of the plan believe that the higher weight limit would have benefits above and beyond improving the capital effectiveness of oilsands projects. Fewer loads being shipped would lead to less traffic disruption and could contribute to a reduction in the frequency of accidents.

“We’ve demonstrated as an industry that we’ve been able to safely transport larger and heavier divisible and indivisible loads in the past, such as large vessels and electrical generators,” says Genereux, adding that organizations such as the Construction Owners Association, Alberta Chamber of Commerce, the Alberta Steel Manufacturers Association and the Oilsands Community Alliance agree that heavier loads make sense from a productivity and safety point of view.

PCL Industrial Constructors, Fluor Constructors and Mammoet Canada initially prepared a report recommending the change. Meetings with government uncovered concerns about bridges, so industry funded an independent study by a third party that assessed whether the bridge structures were adequate to support the heavier loads.

“We do not believe that there should be long-term negative impacts on the existing infrastructure. We think that we can further optimize the investment that the province and others have made in our existing infrastructure while making sure that we don’t damage it,” says Genereux.

Trigg adds that the study indicated there could be costs related to increasing the weight limit. “There may be some incremental costs going forward to increase bridge inspection and a need to put money aside for long-term maintenance of those structures over time,” he explains.

Who would pay those costs? Those using the corridor. Stewart says that further improvements and expansion to the high-load corridor are funded through fees for the movement of loads that exceed six metres in height. Trigg believes that the current permit fee should cover the incremental cost, but a more detailed analysis of the costs will be required to determine if it is adequate or if an additional assessment is required.

Industry is proposing a test run with the kind of wide trailer that would be needed to handle 500,000 pounds carrying a module at the current weight limit from Edmonton to the site location. The goal is to make sure there are no safety issues.

“We believe it is very safe. There are big loads that get moved with big trailers currently, and they are done safely,” says Trigg. “But safety is paramount.”

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