It begins every morning at around 5:30 a.m., a stream of pick up trucks, SUVs and chartered buses crawling their way over the Athabasca Bridge on their way out of Fort McMurray, Alta., on route to the oil sands.
“Traffic is bad,” said Samuel Alatorre, Director of Planning for the regional municipality of Wood Buffalo . “I didn’t believe it myself before I moved here.”
The northern Alberta town and its rapidly expanding population are linked to the oil sands by just one road: an overburdened stretch of Highway 63 that has become known for “Los Angeles-like traffic jams.”
But Mr. Alatorre, who was hired by the region last year from his home in Monterrey, Mexico, has big plans to change that – and to transform the truck-loving epicentre of the country’s energy sector into a model of sustainable transit.
As part of the region’s development master plan, he hopes to introduce an ambitious transportation strategy that would see the addition of dedicated bus lanes, light rail and municipal incentives for things like carpooling.
“Ever since I’ve arrived here, I’ve been told that Albertans love their trucks and they will never get on the bus,” said Mr. Alatorre. “That’s fine. They can continue to drive their trucks and love them. But at least we’re going to give you a choice. If you don’t feel like making that long drive, we’ll give you the option of comfortable, reliable and predictable mass transit.”
That the region needs to change is not up for debate. In 2010, more than 55,000 cars crossed the Athabasca Bridge along Highway 63 every day, up from just over 41,000 in 2004. The city’s population is growing exponentially and, already, a private fleet of more than 500 highway coaches shuttles workers to the sands each day, while some industry plants have parking for more than 5,000 private vehicles.
The Government of Alberta is providing some relief through the construction of a new bridge over the Athabasca, expected to be finished this year, and two new interchanges on Highway 63 that will be completed by the end of 2012.
Lloyd Snelgrove, Alberta’s Minister of Finance and Enterprise, admits that they were late to consider the community development that would be required by the oil sands.
At first, he said, they had thought about sustainability only as it pertained to the natural resource itself, but were quickly encouraged by energy companies to look at the community and its supporting infrastructure.
Now, he said, industry, provincial and municipal representatives are working together to quickly expand the area’s resources.
“It’s probably some of the most important base infrastructure that’s being built in Canada,” he said.
The importance of the region is reflected in the speed with which changes are being made.
The province has contributed more than $1.5-billion to Wood Buffalo infrastructure over the past three years, and have committed to a Comprehensive Regional Infrastructure Sustainability Plan for the area, which includes promises of transit infrastructure.
Private industries have gotten involved as well. Suncor Energy coughed up $55-million for a new interchange and handed it over to the province.
But Mr. Alatorre wants more changes, and fast.
To bolster his cause, he invited Sam Zimmerman, Senior Transit Consultant to the World Bank, to address the municipal development planning team earlier this year.
“You have a significant transportation problem,” Mr. Zimmerman told the crowd.
And although Mr. Alatorre only presented his plan to council in March, he wants designated bus lanes on Highway 63 by next month.
The municipality is introducing its own priority bus lanes on municipal roads this fall and will install 15 heated bus shelters by the time winter comes. They are expanding the frequency of existing bus service and ensuring that the planning and development of all new neighborhoods are transit-focused.
“I think we’re in alignment with the province, we just want to see it happening sooner,” he said. “I feel like we’re all on the same page, it’s just how do we accelerate the timing of things?”
Mayor Melissa Blake agreed that infrastructure improvements in Fort McMurray “really needed to be finished about five years ago,” but said she is confident the region can make drastic changes quickly.
“There’s too much traffic on the one road we do have,” she said. “Every single person in this community has to use that road to go one way or the other.”
Her priority is to add a designated bus lane on Highway 63 by this fall, which she hopes will encourage more people to leave their cars at home when they head for their jobs in the oil sands.
“We don’t want to impact the existing traffic, but if the bus lanes turn out to be a godsend for more expedient travel to and from the work site, we’re hoping it will encourage more people to ride buses.”
But it might not be as simple as she thinks.
An online survey performed by the municipality earlier this year asked participants how often they use transit. Of 811 respondents, 684 replied “never.”
When asked how to improve traffic, nearly 78 per cent said “building more roads and widening highways,” while only 22 per cent asked for “improved public transit.”
“Intellectually I understand we’re better off riding buses, but I haven’t given up my car either,” Ms. Blake said. “We’re just trying to do the right things for the right reasons, and then hopefully we can prove that people can live this way.”
For his part, Mr. Snelgrove believes Fort McMurray residents will embrace light rail transit and bussing, along with the improvements they will bring to parking, safety, and the smooth transition of shift changes.
“We’re still going to buy our four by fours with big tires and head out into the backcountry,” he said. “But when you put in a long day, I think many people up there would really love the opportunity to jump in a chair and have someone else drive them home.”