RMWB council keeps $5 million allocated for East Clearwater Highway

Council struck the funding in July, but has now voted to keep $5 million set aside for pre-design costs of the project.

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Reports of the East Clearwater Highway’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, at least in the eyes of most municipal councillors who originally voted to kill the project.

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Council voted at their Tuesday meeting to reverse a July motion that killed the proposed East Clearwater Highway project. The municipality will keep $5 million set aside for pre-design costs of the project.

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Councillor Keith McGrath, who proposed taking a second look at the July motion, argued council made a mistake last summer. He argued the project would make it easier to reach oilsands operations and would encourage transient workers to live in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo.

“The money was sitting stale so we voted to take it out. The next morning I woke up and I thought ‘man, the East Clearwater Highway? It’s dead,’” he said. “We took all our skin out of the game. So if somebody don’t lead, it’ll never come to fruition… It’s a signal that we still have skin in the game.”

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The $5 million was budgeted by the mayor and council at the time in 2017. This money was never spent because it depended on other partners covering remaining pre-design costs. Then-premier Rachel Notley also committed $5 million for pre-design costs shortly after the 2016 Horse River wildfire.

The East Clearwater Highway was proposed as a secondary route between Anzac and Fort McKay that would run parallel to Highway 63. The project was pitched after the 2016 Horse River Wildfire. Emergency planners reviewing the evacuation of Fort McMurray noted the lack of a second highway out of the community was a serious safety risk.

Premier Danielle Smith has shown no interest in pursuing the project, which was mentioned by RMWB lawyer Chris Davis. The province signed an agreement in April to connect Fort McMurray and Peerless Lake with a 218 kilometre, two-lane gravel highway.

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Councillor Lance Bussieres reminded council that during his term on council from 2013 to 2017, the oilsands industry also had no interest in pursuing the East Clearwater Highway. The federal government also made no announcements on the issue. Bussieres also argued oilsands companies are not moving away from their transient workers.

Councillor Ken Ball had concerns about costs, but also feared Highway 686 was not an alternative route for dangerous goods travelling to oilsands operations north of Fort McMurray.

Councillor Allan Grandison said he liked the idea of the East Clearwater Highway and agreed with McGrath’s arguments that the province is slow to invest in Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo. But without commitments from other partners, Grandison was skeptical of McGrath’s motion.

“What I have trouble with is committing $5 million of taxpayers’ money to a project that right now doesn’t exist, in the hopes that it’s going to perhaps do something,” said Grandison.

Councillors Grandison and Shafiq Dogar voted to uphold council’s decision from July. Mayor Sandy Bowman and councillors Ball, Bussieres, McGrath, Funky Banjoko, Jane Stroud and Stu Wigle voted to keep the money allocated for the project.

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