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The bridges of Athabasca County

Battle of wills between residents and administration over road closure
Sitting on the other side of the table, former Athabasca County councillor and reeve Doris Splane (grey and black jacket) and Ellwood Splane (green plaid shirt) along with 10 neighbours and family members met with the current council members to discuss the issues surrounding a road closure on Township Road 642. Listening to the presentation were (L-R) Coun. Natasha Kapitaniuk, Coun. Rob Minns, Coun. Camille Wallach, recording secretary Leah Blair, CAO Chris Parker, reeve Brian Hall, Coun. Tracy Holland, Coun. Ashtin Anderson, Coun. Joe Gerlach, Coun. Kelly Chamzuk, and Coun. Gary Cromwell.

ATHABASCA — The bridges of Athabasca County won’t be inspiring any love story anytime soon. 

A dozen people, neighbours and family to Doris Splane and brother-in-law Ellwood Splane, packed the gallery at the Jan. 10 regular council meeting to express their frustration with the road closure on Township Road 642, west of Range Road 200, north of Ellscott. 

“As a retired councillor, I've tried to distance myself so as not to be perceived as knowing it all, telling you, the new council, how it should or shouldn't be doing,” Doris said. “But as the former councillor for this area where this issue has arisen, I feel I need to share a small bit of history.” 

She said when she was first elected in 2001, the then-public works director told her the Flat Creek Bridge was scheduled for replacement, but to date it hasn't happened. 

“County forces have put, I’m calling them band-aids, such as internal struts with the bridge pipe,” she said. “Unfortunately, these struts create a perfect habitat for beavers and driftwood within the pipe creating even more problems.” 

When she retired from public office in October 2021, replaced by Coun. Ashtin Anderson, Doris said she was contacted by director of infrastructure Robert Dauphinee who advised her Alberta Transportation had determined both bridge pipes needed to be replaced. 

“As slated, public works did do work on this structure in the following season, but it was not the replacement I had expected,” Doris said. “No longer being with the (Athabasca) County (council), I did not question the wisdom of public works, thus accepting another band-aid solution that cost county ratepayers $53,000.” 

It was June 2022 when a small hole was identified on the north side of the culvert bridge, and it was determined water was starting to flow through the seams and piping outside the culvert and it was closed to traffic July 17. 

The road remained closed and at the Dec. 13 regular meeting, a request was made to allow CAO Chris Parker to maintain the closure until Nov. 30, 2023, while funding is pursued to replace the structure. 

“It is very disappointing, though, to have the very heart and I say heart because this particular bridge file is the heart of our operations going both ways,” said Doris. “It's been shut down for such an extended time with no previous communication. As a matter of fact, Fred and I were in Red Deer seeing our daughter, when I got the county alert that the road was closed. We didn't even know how we were going to get home at that point because that's the first that we knew about it.” 

Splanes and other farm families have land on both sides of the bridge in question, and it has caused issues in moving or feeding livestock and working with crops. 

Doris used neighbour Paul Cake, who later stood up and spoke, as an example of the hardship it’s causing. 

“(He) has his hay fields west of this infrastructure while living directly east where his cattle operation is,” she said. “So, he needs to use the road to haul his cattle feed home. Presently he is using a detour that adds extra fuel and 45 to 60 minutes of extra tractor travel time.” 

Cake confirmed he uses 60 litres of fuel on the extra mileage but it’s not just farmers facing issues. 

“Now the bus Is forced to detour through Ellscott going an extra three miles each way and extra time for the children on the bus,” Doris said. 

She added the blocked road impacts first responders as well. 

Ellwood then took over and said it was his parents who supplied the dirt and a neighbour who installed the culverts in the spring of 1954. 

“These culverts worked well until the beavers moved in, possibly in the early 1980s, using the culverts as a dam support,” he said. “Various times over the next 40 years the county cleaned in front of the culverts.” 

He noted in December 2021, Alberta Bridgeworks showed up, but instead of a full replacement, they worked on the section on the north end, taking out a 14-foot section and replacing it with a 12-foot section. 

“Replacing just the end was difficult as the new culvert was round, the old culvert was old and instead of using a joiner, an attempt was made to squeeze the new section over the old one. The crew said it would have been easier and quicker to replace the entire culvert.” 

“Now we forward to June 2022 because the culvert was two feet shorter than the original,” Ellwood said. “By June 14, we’d had some heavy rains (and) because the small culvert was still plugged and had a hole torn, the water took the easiest route up into the big culvert causing the new fill to wash out a hole on the north side of the roadway.” 

Athabasca County paid $53,000 to make a hole in the road, he said, and he offered several temporary solutions so traffic could keep using the road because the washout was not getting bigger. 

Ellwood also said he wasn't entirely pleased in his dealing with county administration either, citing an interaction he had with director of infrastructure services Robert Dauphinee over the phone.

For a while the county parked a truck blocking the road, then replaced it in July with large cement blocks which were moved by residents to allow traffic to flow and eventually the county removed the blocks entirely and replaced them with signs which constantly blew over, and the blocks were again placed Nov. 23. 

The county then installed rebar and guard rails across the road to prevent traffic access but they were cut down to move cattle. 

“They installed six four-inch heavy wall pipes into the roadbed and mounted guardrails on either side of the culverts,” said Ellwood. “This left the road totally blocked ... They had used rebar with nuts welded on them instead of threaded rod. On Dec. 4, the calves were weaned so the cows needed to move back. So, I got the nuts off the rebar, we moved the cows, put the guardrails and signs back and put a straw bale in the hole.” 

He was given a $243 fine for failing to obey a traffic control device. 

“The $243 ticket that I received is a direct result of the county not communicating and possibly the first ticket ever given in Alberta for moving cows on a county road,” said Ellwood, who also offered to pay a generous portion of the bill to fix the culvert bridge.

Cake noted the money spent trying to control people from using the road could have fixed the issue. 

“This is like someone's got a God complex about we're not going to use this road no matter what,’ he said. “This seems very confrontational.” 

Anderson made a motion to use $200,000 from unrestricted funds for preliminary engineering for both the Colinton Bridge, which has been closed since May 27, 2022, and the issues along Township Road 642.

Council also directed administration to determine the cost and feasibility of a temporary bridge structure near the Splane’s and Parker added the county would do better at communicating with the area residents.

Two other bridges identified for replacement, one east of Island Lake and the other north of Ellscott, just received Strategic Transportation Infrastructure Program (STIP) funding, which covers up to 75 per cent of the costs with Athabasca County paying the difference. Both projects are expected to be completed by Dec. 31. 

Heather Stocking

About the Author: Heather Stocking

Heather Stocking a reporter at the Athabasca Advocate, a weekly paper in Northern Alberta. Heather covers all aspects of the news in and around Athabasca and Boyle as well as other small communities.
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