The long road

The twinning of Highway 63 kicks into high gear this summer

It's a road where 130 kilometres per hour 
sometimes seems like the speed limit and vehicles have been known to clock in at 230 kilometres per hour. People are used to everything moving a little more quickly on Highway 63.

For many years, the exception has been construction. Twinning the 240 kilometres of highway between Atmore, Alta., and Fort McMurray is no small undertaking, and work has been ongoing since 2006. But despite the delays and drawn-out schedules, there has always been a sense of urgency behind the billion-
dollar plan to make the perilous passage to the oilsands safer for drivers.

In 2005, then-minister of infrastructure and transportation Lyle Oberg went before a Calgary crowd to warn of the pressing need to expand the so-called oilsands highway. "Let's not wait for the 10,000-12,000 vehicles that will be needed there," he said in the Daily Oil Bulletin. "Let's help the oil companies. Let's make that transportation route viable."

Of course, traffic on the highway back then was a little lighter than it is now. For an example, just look at any point along Alberta Transportation's network of automated traffic recorders, such as the one found seven kilometres south of the Highway 69 junction, not far from Fort McMurray. In 2005, that spot saw a daily average of 5,240 vehicles. Today, the number is 8,950-slowly creeping up on Oberg's 10,000-vehicle warning.

Further south-at Mariana Lake, Alta., the midway point on the highway-traffic dwindles to a more modest daily average of 4,330. Still, even this is a considerable number of cars and trucks to be breezing past a tiny rural outpost on a two-lane highway, and the future will almost certainly not bring relief. Since 2009, traffic in the area has grown a minimum of seven per cent annually.

Figures like that were likely a factor in Premier Alison Redford's 2012 decision to accelerate twinning in order to reach a fall 2016 deadline. Over the next three years, $442 million will be spent on the highway. The total cost of the project is estimated at $1 billion, which includes twinning Highway 63 and improving the road less travelled, otherwise known as Highway 881. (The latter project has been put on hold following the Alberta government's belt-tightening 2013-14 budget.)

Much of that activity will take place this summer. Over 400 workers and 250 pieces of equipment will dot the side of the highway in the coming months. Bridges will be built and trees will be cleared. Utilities need to be moved and roads paved and graded.

All told, 60 kilometres of Highway 63 will be graded this year at a cost of $93 million. In addition, 55 kilometres of road between House River and Mariana Lake will be prepared for construction in the near future. And tenders are already being prepared for another 60 kilometres of work that are scheduled to be completed by 2015.

Crucial connectors in Fort McMurray itself will also be expanded as part of the project. Interchanges at Confederation Way and Thickwood Boulevard have been opened with temporary ramps, with construction wrapping up by the fall. Three bridges crossing the Athabasca River-Steinhauer, Franklin and Grant MacEwan-will be completed by 2014. In 2015, access to the Parsons Creek development west of the highway should be open.

"We are working hard to ensure a safe and productive construction season on Highway 63-and the amount of activity drivers will see this year will make Highway 63 twinning very real for them," says Jeanna Friedly, a spokeswoman for Alberta Transportation.

With construction delays expected during the summer, she urges drivers to use common sense and take some extra time when heading out on the highway this year. It's sound advice, and very fitting for the long-running project. After all, it has already taken seven years to get this far. An extra half hour here or there doesn't sound so bad by comparison.


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