Alberta’s road to prosperity paved with asphalt

The province is finally playing its part to put Albertans back on the road but rural communities are being short-changed

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RED DEER, Alta. /Nov. 17, 2015/ Troy Media – Alberta may finally be ready to get off its merry-go-round of crumbling roads.

An aggressive plan of transportation expansion and repair has been launched, at both the provincial and municipal levels. The work is long overdue — and it’s essential to set the province up for the next inevitable phase of growth and prosperity.

Alberta Transportation’s 2014-15 annual report states that only 56.4 per cent of the province’s roads are in good condition (from 58.4 per cent in 2010-11); 27.5 per cent of the roads are considered fair and 16.1 per cent are considered poor.

Three years ago, the CEO of the Alberta Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association told Alberta Venture magazine that the situation was dire. It has only worsened since then. “The average road, without maintenance, has about a 12-to-15-year lifespan,” Gene Syvenky said then. “If you don’t do any maintenance in those 12 years, in the next five years the cost of repairing that road increases six-fold.”

It is no simple task to repair and upgrade when the road infrastructure deficits are so significant and widespread — and Alberta has more than 226,000 km of public roads. According to the province, that represents about 22 per cent of the total national network; only Saskatchewan has more road infrastructure.

The previous Progressive Conservative government in Alberta stopped providing funding for bridge replacements a few years ago, dumping the cost on municipalities.

Lacombe County, for example, has 151 bridges and bridge-sized culverts that must be maintained and regularly inspected. For 2015, $144,000 was allocated by county council just for bridge maintenance, after $3.4 million was set aside in November 2014 to repair five bridges and begin design work on six others.

That’s a lot for one small municipality to swallow.

Some projects that have been provincial government priorities have still proceeded at a painful pace. Hwy 63, the corridor to Fort McMurray, has long needed to be twinned. It is a deadly, clogged road — in fact, its reputation is so ghastly that it is known as Death Highway.

The twinning project is scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2016. Yet Alberta Transportation’s annual report for 2014-15 shows that the work was only 22 per cent complete when the most recent audit was done.

The new government plans to spend $4.6 billion on projects in the next fiscal year, according to the first NDP budget presented in October. That includes ring road work in Edmonton and Calgary, safety upgrades, highway expansion and repairs, and construction to roads and bridges in rural regions. Alberta Transportation has a 10-year, $9.1-billion capital plan.

However, only a small part of the package — $100 million, budgeted to be spent over two fiscal years, 2017-18 and 2018-19 — is for smaller and rural communities like Lacombe County. That’s not nearly enough.

Roads are critical to move goods and people. They are essential to our economy and our way of life. This province is larger in size than many countries, and its communities are spread out. To reach stores and schools, to ship to international markets, Albertans need quality roads. And with 3.4 million road vehicles registered (almost four times as many as in Saskatchewan), we need the pavement.

To handle the economic expansion that will inevitably follow today’s oil price slump, we need to build and maintain infrastructure now.

And we need to continue to provide a safer transportation environment. Alberta Transportation’s latest audit puts the 2014-15 fatal and major injury collision numbers at 66.6 per 100,000 population (it was as high as 75.3 four years ago and has been on steady decline).

Funding needs to be stable and guaranteed, year after year. Ours is not any easy climate in which to build and maintain roads. The costs are high and the work needs to be revisited again and again.

The province is finally playing its part to put Albertans back on the road. But the burden should be shared. Municipal leaders have been advocating for years to have an indexed portion of the federal fuel tax put toward road construction and repair. It is an idea that should gain traction with a new federal government.

It’s just a matter of committing to paving a direct road the prosperity, and getting Alberta off the merry-go-round.

Troy Media columnist John Stewart is a journalist based in Red Deer. John is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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