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The Globe and Mail

Alberta urged to crack down on dangerous drivers on deadly highway

Highway 63 to Fort McMurray, near Boyle Alberta, May 2, 2012.

jason franson/The Globe and Mail

At a rally in Fort McMurray last month, the message to the Alberta government couldn't have been any clearer: "Pray For Me, I Drive 63," hundreds of residents carrying signs pleaded as they pressed the province to fast-track twinning of the narrow, notorious highway that connects Edmonton to the lucrative oil sands.

It's a long-standing call, but one that gained greater urgency this spring after seven people were killed in April in a horrific head-on crash on Highway 63. And while a government-commissioned report released Friday recommended the province ramp up efforts to convert the 240-kilometre stretch to a twinned, four-lane route, the report stopped short of setting a deadline, frustrating rally organizers and the mayor of the booming oil-sands hub.

"The current schedule looks to be about 11 years and that's highly unacceptable," said Melissa Blake, mayor of the municipality that includes Fort McMurray. "In terms of saving lives, I can't emphasize enough how important [twinning the highway] is."

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Since the $1-billion road project began in 2006, only 16 kilometres have been twinned south of Fort McMurray. Another 36 kilometres is scheduled to be completed this year.

Several factors have hampered progress, including shifting muskeg terrain, weather, land acquisition, caribou calving season and a requirement the highway be built to withstand heavy loads of industrial equipment. In the meantime, more than 70 people have died as a result of crashes on the road in the past five years.

Ms. Blake wants the twinning project completed in the next five years. Alberta Transportation Minister Ric McIver isn't promising that, but pledged on Friday to shave three to four years off the 11-year construction schedule, perhaps even more.

"We are committed to working hard to shorten that time span further," Mr. McIver said.

How that will be achieved should become clearer later this summer, after the government reviews 22 recommendations aimed at improving safety on the highway. The proposals are part of a report crafted by rookie Conservative MLA Mike Allen, who represents Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo and was asked by the Premier to review Highway 63 safety after April's deadly crash.

Mr. Allen, who fielded input from thousands of Albertans through telephone town halls, meetings and social media, is calling on his government to crack down on dangerous drivers, use photo radar to deter speeders, create more passing lanes and establish a project management team to accelerate the highway's twinning.

Other enforcement proposals include creating a dedicated RCMP and sheriff force to patrol Highway 63, increasing maximum penalties for high-risk drivers, and seizing the vehicles of motorists caught driving 50 kilometres or more over the speed limit. Last month, two vehicles were clocked travelling more than 200 kilometres an hour on stretches of the highway.

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"Highway 63 connects the world to the oil-sands region, which is undoubtedly serving as Alberta's and Canada's economic engine," Mr. Allen said at the legislature in Edmonton. "It's very vital that this highway corridor is safe and that it can accommodate continuing growth and development."

Although Mr. McIver outright rejected the proposal for photo radar, the Transportation Minister signalled he's supportive of many of his Tory colleague's recommendations.

Highway 63 has long been a source of concern for those who travel it and live in surrounding communities. The rapid expansion of oil sands development has fuelled a significant increase in traffic on the narrow route in the past decade, as a constant stream of trucks haul goods north and many labourers shuttle from their homes in the province's south, where most Albertans live.

Mr. McIver said he would welcome financial support from the energy industry to aid Highway 63 construction, but added the government won't be applying pressure, noting the energy sector already pays taxes and royalties to the province.

The Oil Sands Developers Group, which wasn't available for comment Friday, has said in the past the industry would share the cost of twinning sections north of Fort McMurray, where 17 kilometres have already been completed. But as for the section south of Fort McMurray, the industry group maintains that 240-kilometre stretch is the province's responsibility.

Nicole Auser, who helped organize last month's Twin 63 Now rally, wants the Alberta government to commit to a firm deadline for twinning that heavily travelled stretch. After Friday's report, she's wondering whether it's time for another rally.

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"We expected something more solid from the government," Ms. Auser said. "If they're not going to give us a concrete deadline, there's no way for residents to be able to hold them accountable, and that's what they've been doing all along."

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