Friday, June 29, 2012

Why twinning Hwy 63 is the wrong road for Alberta

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Twinning Highway 63 to Ft. McMurray is a popular idea. Governments like to adopt popular ideas, as evidenced by today's provincial report on the future of Highway 63.

It's mandate seems narrow - how do we improve safety on the highway by changing the highway? If the mandate had been simply, how do we improve safety on the highway?, the best answer could have come to light - getting private vehicles off the highway by offering passenger rail service to Fort Mac.

This is a clear-headed report drafted by two engineers in 2011 that takes the right view of transportation problems in the area.

The engineers favour a multimodal transport model that involves the use of heavy passenger rail and/or high-speed rail to get passenger vehicles off the road.

Most noted fatal collisions, from what I've observed, involve at least one passenger vehicle. These are impatient oilpatch workers either rushing to get to site or rushing home to see family. They're not professional drivers like those driving the semis on the highway. The stress of being in a rush on a long, two-lane highway causes road rage, which leads to risky passing and speeding - and deadly collisions.

The report shows the benefits, in terms of costs to citizens, to the government and reductions in emissions, of taking private vehicles off the road using buses, rail and airplanes.

A multimodal system could transport workers to Ft. Mac or near to site, with connections by public transit or employer-sponsored buses. There is already a rail line to Ft. McMurray, which raises the possibility of starting rail service in the near future. Upgrading that railway or building a new line to offer high-speed service could follow. A large community surrounded by large employers is ideal for offering quality transit service.

Imagine a tired oilsands worker coming off a couple weeks on site having the choice of a train ride to Edmonton, on which he or she could sleep or watch movies on wi-fi. No worrying about thousands of other frustrated, tired drivers, and no worries about weather conditions.

Twinning 63 may solve volume problems and help reduce risky driving behavior. But they come with big price tags, not just up front. Maintaining essentially two highway that takes that much heavy truck traffic is extremely costly over the long term. It costs millions, if not billions in extra gas for everyone to drive themselves to site. It also produces way more greenhouse gasses than necessary.

Embracing rail could not only fix the traffic problem on 63, but also be a public relations coup for industry and the province, a sign that we're taking climate change seriously. We could have all this while reducing the overall costs to government and workers.

I'd like to see a study that considers all the options, including rail, in improving safety for oilsands workers and Ft. Mac residents.

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