Fort McMurray evacuation raises questions on twinning Highway 63, alternate routes

Premier Danielle Smith says the province is focusing on Highway 686, but anticipates talks about fully twinning Highway 63.

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The evacuation of four neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray forced councillors to defer their meeting. Ironically, one topic that was supposed to be debated was if council should lobby the province to fully twin Highway 63 down to Edmonton.

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Councillor Funky Banjoko, who proposed the motion, predicts it will be popular with her colleagues and the public after Tuesday’s evacuation. But the evacuation has also called into question why progress has been slow on getting a secondary route out of Fort McMurray.

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“This is the road everyone filed out of again on Tuesday. There are so many reasons why the highway should be fully twinned, but my main priority is safety,” said Banjoko in an interview.

When asked about the absence of a secondary route during a Wednesday morning press conference, Premier Danielle Smith said the province is prioritizing Highway 686. This route, which is still being designed, would connect Fort McMurray to the Peace region.

Smith said no decision has been made on fully twinning Highway 63 to Edmonton. Twinning most of Highway 63 was finished in 2016. The highway goes back to a single-lane south of Atmore, a hamlet in Athabasca County. Tuesday’s Traffic slowed once the twinned route ended.

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“There hasn’t been a decision made on that, but I have no doubt that they’ll be a discussion about that,” said Smith. “We have to make sure that our economic corridors are well resourced, so no doubt there’ll be a conversation about that as well as accelerating 686.”

Mayor Sandy Bowman said in a Wednesday email he praised Smith’s support for Highway 686, and is looking forward to those discussions about Highway 63.

“Completing the twinning of Highway 63 and much-needed improvements to Highway 881, and developing additional egress roads in Janvier and other rural communities are also priorities that would be worthwhile,” he said.

highway 63
Smoke from a wildfire southwest of Fort McMurray covers northbound traffic on Highway 63 on May 15, 2024. Vincent McDermott/Fort McMurray Today/Postmedia Network

Emergency access route ‘should have been a no-brainer’

The province is working on twinning 12 kilometres of Highway 63 north of Fort McMurray. South of Fort McMurray, the single-lane sections are in Athabasca and Thorhild counties.

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Reeve Janine Paly of Thorhild County said she did not yet want to speak on the issue because twinning Highway 63 has not been discussed by council. Reeve Brian Hall of Athabasca County said he has raised the issue informally with other councillors and there is support for the idea.

Using numbers from Athabasca County’s fire chief, Hall said accidents on Highway 63 happen nearly three times more often than other highways in the county. Many of them are on the sections that haven’t been twinned.

The twinned sections no longer have head-on collisions, but people have died in accidents involving animals, alcohol, fatigue, speed or weather.

“Infrastructure projects are good for increasing the safety of the travelling public and the Highway 63 corridor is certainly a significant corridor for the province,” he said in an interview.

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People on Highway 63 after the RMWB ordered the evacuation of the Fort McMurray neighbourhoods of Abasand, Beacon Hill, Grayling Terrace and Prairie Creek on May 14, 2024. Image from AMA Road Reports
People on Highway 63 after the RMWB ordered the evacuation of the Fort McMurray neighbourhoods of Abasand, Beacon Hill, Grayling Terrace and Prairie Creek on May 14, 2024. Image from AMA Road Reports

As parts of Fort McMurray were evacuated, watching the long traffic lines angered Mike Jones because there was no secondary route out of Fort McMurray for people in an emergency.

“The shovel should have been in the ground as soon as we got back from the evacuation in 2016. Instead it turned into an election promise from both parties and now it’s an empty promise. Nothing has come of it,” said Jones in a Tuesday interview. “Here we are in a situation where people’s lives are at stake.”

The proposed East Clearwater Highway, which would have ran parallel Fort McMurray by connecting Fort McKay and Anzac, was killed by council last July. The province lost interest in the project as attention focused on Highway 686.

“There’s lots of reasons why that highway should exist… but having this emergency access route should have been a no-brainer and I can’t believe it didn’t happen,” said Jones.

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