WESTLOCK – A roughly one-kilometre stretch of Highway 44 in front of the Westlock County Industrial Park will be upgraded in 2023 to include turning lanes and new lighting, plus a service road on the east side of the highway, as the municipality has signed off on a nearly 50-50 cost-share agreement with Alberta Transportation for the estimated $1.4 million project.
At their Nov. 22 governance and priorities meeting and then again at their Nov. 29 regular meeting, county councillors went behind closed doors to discuss “Westlock Industrial Park Middle Access Intersection” and then voted 7-0 to direct CAO Tony Kulbisky to sign the agreement with Alberta Transportation to commit a little over $700,000 in municipal funding to allow the province to tender the project.
“The temperature of all council was extremely supportive, and we look forward to getting this long-anticipated project started,” said reeve Christine Wiese following the meeting.
“It’s a good news story for sure. This is a very important project for us as it will improve access to the industrial park and we want to see growth happen there,” added Kulbisky in a follow-up interview.
At the Oct. 12, 2021, Westlock County council meeting, the final one before the Oct. 18 municipal election, then-councillors voted 6-0 to sign off on Alberta Transportation’s $900,000-plus plan to upgrade the stretch. According to the plans provided then, which Kulbisky confirmed will be used for the 2023 project, the northern and southern park exits on the west side of the highway will be closed, while the second entrance will remain open, and "street lighting to a highway standard" will be added. Exit and entrance lanes will also be added, while highway access to the cemetery, as well as many of the east-side exit points, will be shuttered and a service road will be added from the main entrance.
“Part of our whole strategy on our 2023 operational and capital budgets is to see non-residential assessment growth occur and really focus on the economic development that needs to happen. I’ve been here for four months, but in some ways it seems like a couple of years as we’ve been working really hard on getting things aligned quickly so that we can show some results,” said Kulbisky. “I think it’s going to be an exciting 2023. There’s a lot of moving parts, especially for this project, but we’ve been able to pull it all together.”
While the estimated project cost in 2021 was $925,000, with the county chipping in $444,000, roughly 48 per cent, via its general operating reserve, Kulbisky said Nov. 30 they’ve agreed to spend up to $716,040, although “if they (Transportation) tender early on they’re fairly certain it will drop to what’s been approved by past councils” and he expects the final figure to come in around $600,000 at the top end. Alberta Transportation has committed $688,526 to the project and Kulbisky said the county’s share is higher due to the installation of the lights and to pay for their portion of the engineering costs.
“So, if we have to find another $100,000, we already have the money in reserves to pull it out of, but we don’t have to worry about it until the project is completed in 2023 and then the province will confirm the final number,” he explained.
Current and future Highway 44 work
In October 2022 the majority of the dilapidated stretch of Highway 44 south from the Highway 18 intersection past the industrial park to just before Township Road 594 received a fresh asphalt overlay as part of “maintenance” work that was intended to tide the road over until a slew of major upgrades slated for 2026.
At the time Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken characterized the roughly three kilometres worth of work as “a maintenance job until the design work is done on the reconstruction phase” — throughout the spring and early summer, Emcon Services, which is contracted by the province to maintain area highways, patched numerous potholes on Highway 44 and also performed the recent “maintenance” overlay.
In June 2022, the provincial government committed to a bevy of work to Highways 18 and 44 within the Town of Westlock, including “major upgrades” to the intersection of the two by 2026 as the 2022 Provincial Construction Program includes repaving/reconstruction for Highway 44 (two kilometres south of Highway 18 and five kilometres north of Highway 18) and Highway 18, east and west of Highway 44.
Kulbisky said Transportation won’t say if the industrial park project will lead to the work in town being done sooner, while Town of Westlock CAO Simone Wiley confirmed Dec. 1 she’s “ … had no further communication from Transportation on the Highway 18-44 projects in town.”
“The good news is that at least Transportation acknowledges (the poor state) of the highways and we’re starting to see some work here finally,” said Kulbisky.
In the summer of 2018, the province spent $21.5 million repaving 38 kilometres of Highway 44 up to Township Road 594, while work to the stretch in front of the industrial park and throughout the town was shelved — then-county-CAO Leo Ludwig said at the time that design and property acquisition issues for the industrial park stretch were still being worked on.
van Dijken said in a June 15, 2022, interview that when it became evident work on Highway 44 was ending before the industrial park back in 2018, “work started on trying to understand why.”
Last fall Coun. Jared Stitsen also noted the issue was one of the first things they dealt with when he was first elected in 2017, but turnover at both the county and Transportation keep pushing it to the bottom of the to-do list.
“To be quite honest the ‘why’ was hinging on the county industrial park and trying to negotiate an agreement with the county on how to properly handle the entrances and the turning lanes and all of that,” van Dijken confirmed in the same June 15 interview. “Last fall we got to the point where Transportation and the county came to an agreement. As soon as we had that I knew that this would eventually go to the next level.”