ATHABASCA – A petition to lobby the provincial government to get to work on Highway 55 after years of repeated delays, is maintaining its momentum with well over 1,000 signatures as the last day to sign draws near on March 31.
The stretch of road between Highway 827 and Highway 63 heading east out of Athabasca has been a topic of discussion among locals for years, but many are now tired of waiting. Each year, the cracks grow wider and the holes grow deeper, ruining suspensions and blowing tires. The logging trucks use the road to access Al-Pac, while other large trucks haul heavy duty equipment to Highway 63 on their way to Fort McMurray.
Athabasca County resident Karyn Harper started the petition less than two weeks ago, and it has blown up on social media, giving drivers a chance to vent their frustrations, and a look at some of the physical locations where the petition is available — 22 of them in Athabasca, Boyle, Grassland, Atmore and Wandering River — including Cheap Seats, Flowers by Christina and Hunter Motors; Boyle Home Hardware; the Atmore Store; and Grassland Trailer Sales, OK Tire and Green Leaf, to name just a few.
The Government of Alberta’s 2021 Provincial Construction Program for Highway and Water Management Projects includes 31 km of repaving from three kilometres east of Highway 827, out to Highway 63. The emblazoned caveat on the front notes “projects may move on or off the Construction Program based on emerging needs, changing construction schedules, or available funding.”
That caveat is a concern for not only residents, but Athabasca County councillors as well, who are now getting behind the grassroots movement to pressure MLAs and the provincial government to get to work on Highway 55, as rumblings that the paving project promised for years is now being deferred once again.
A meeting scheduled for last week with Transporation Minister Ric McIver was cancelled last Monday, but has been rescheduled for April 8 at 12:15 p.m. It is closed to the public.
However, county councillors weren’t holding back much at their last meeting March 25, as the prospect of having to wait even longer for something to be done about state of the well-used highway, and even came up with a few creative solutions to get their point across.
“There's going to be a pretty long list of names on there, and he should take a look at it from a very honourable point of view that these are people that are not grinding an axe. These are people concerned about it,” said reeve Larry Armfelt, who told council members about a conversation he had with Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken the previous night, to give him fair warning that the petition was headed his way.
“It is time that we put some pressure on our MLAs because we're not the only county or municipality in the province where ratepayers are after us because we're not doing enough for the ratepayers,” he said, adding van Dijken was unaware the meeting with McIver had been cancelled two days before.
“And I said, Mr. van Dijken, in a nutshell, that's part of your problem, not ours. It's your problem. If you and your minister don't know what's going on between the two of you. You have a problem.”
Coun. Dennis Willcott said he felt the government was chasing after urban votes with its focus on the cities, while the rural areas are dealing with crumbling infrastructure.
“We don't have the vote so we got to whine and cry and do every everything we can. We can't give up. But I know where the votes are, and that's what happens, we don't mean nothing,” he said with audible frustration in his voice.
But, Armfelt noted, this area is also one of the biggest economic contributors to the province.
Willcott went on: “Why don't we put a toll booth going to Fort McMurray, going through our county, let's put a toll booth, and then tell the government, ‘We don't need your help, we'll just take $1 from everybody that travels through there, and we take the money. We'll look out for our own stuff; we'll get lots of money from Edmonton.”
Coun. Penny Stewart didn’t think it was all that bad of an idea.
“(Highways) 63 and 55 are two main corridors to the oil sands and they beat up our infrastructure and now we are left holding the bag, so that is a concern to me and maybe we do need to look at ways to get our money back and maybe it is a toll booth. If we're not going to get help from the government, we need to help ourselves somehow,” she said.
“I don't think this is about funding anymore. This is about a safety issue and someone is going to get severely hurt, especially my cow in the back of a stock trailer … I think it's a safety issue and I think we need to start addressing it as such. It's not just about real repair anymore.”
Coun. Kevin Haines said the government has been aware of the work needed on 55 for at least a decade. He also added there are significant problems with the base of the highway which will need to be addressed.
“So, it's not just a simple overlay, fill the cracks and away we go — there's a lot bigger concerns out there, so I think that's part of the reason why it's been put back, but it's deteriorated to the point where there's really not going to be much left here pretty soon,” he said.
Willcott then put out the idea that the county dialogue with Al-Pac, which is a huge economic driver in the region, to see if the company would be willing to collaborate with the county to pressure the MLA, the minister and the rest of the government to stop delaying. Council was in full agreement, and passed a motion to direct administration to reach out to Al-Pac to discuss working together to the common goal.
Armfelt did say he would like to see what comes of the petition first, but said there is no harm in contacting Al-Pac too.
“I would like to really get the power back to the people in terms of that petition that they've got, so let's give them a little time on that maybe,” he said.
“We need to get our voices out there, loud and clear,” said Coun. Travais Johnson. “Sometimes, you don't want to bite the hand that feeds you, but you know, enough is enough already.”