Step off a plane and into the Fort McMurray Airport and you will enter a scene that tells the larger story of the area’s development challenges. Built to
accommodate 250,000 trips from its main terminal each year, the airport had already moved more than 810,000 passengers in the first six months of 2012.
Leading up to the recession, oil sands development in northeastern Alberta set a torrid pace that the development of local infrastructure could not match.
This has left the province and northern municipalities to play catch-up on transport, housing, health and safety. “I don’t think there was an appreciation
of the consequences of how fast the oil sands industry was growing,” says Ken Chapman, executive director of the Oil Sands Developers Group (OSDG). The
organization represents a growing cooperation among industry operators, local governments and communities on addressing regional issues.
As the oil sands expanded, workers and their families created a population explosion, while northbound trucks hauling oversized loads often clogged
provincial highways and local roads. In Fort McMurray, the province is spending $75 million to rebuild two bridges across the Athabasca River. While they
are closed, a brand-new five-lane, $127-million bridge accepts the 45,000 to 50,000 vehicles that flow through daily. These projects, plus two interchanges
under construction, will create a freeway corridor through Fort McMurray when completed in 2014, says Trent Bancarz, spokesperson for Alberta
Transportation. “It’ll separate highway traffic from local traffic, and that’ll increase traffic flow. It will also increase safety quite a bit, because
you’re not going to be mixing variable speed traffic together.”
Other projects are proceeding more slowly. Provincial Highway 63 had achieved notoriety for its travel times and its death toll when, in 2006, the province
committed to twinning this two-lane link between the oil sands and the junction with Highway 55 near Grassland. Since then, only 16 kilometres of 240 have
been twinned south of Fort McMurray – for reasons ranging from budgetary to logistical to environmental – and approximately 50 more people have died. A
recent report, drawing on comments from Alberta drivers, residents, and industries, recommends that the province pick up the pace.
Some members of the OSDG have offered to ease fiscal pressures on the province by paying for smaller road projects north of Fort McMurray, on the
understanding that compensation would eventually come in the form of a tax or royalty rebate. But Bancarz points out that on a remote road surrounded by
muskeg and heavy forest, limited by the seasons, work will take time regardless.