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Province announces “major upgrades” for highways 44 and 18

Mayor hopes for work this year to Highway 44, while Transportation and MLA non-committal
WES - Highway 44 IMG-9678
Town of Westlock officials are hopeful for work on Highway 44 this year with mayor Ralph Leriger calling the stretch “abysmal.”

WESTLOCK – While the provincial government has committed to a slew of work to highways 18 and 44 within the Town of Westlock, including “major upgrades” to the intersection of the two by 2026, a definitive scope and price tag remains unknown.

And while the mayor hopes to see paving crews in town this year to work on the dilapidated stretch and points to a recent letter from the former Alberta Transportation minister that promises “repaving/reconstruction” to seven kilometres of Highway 44 as part of the 2022 provincial program, a ministry spokesman and the MLA were non-committal regarding any work this year and are hopeful for 2023.

Via its Facebook page June 14, the Town of Westlock published a June 10 letter from then-transportation minister Rajan Sawhney stating that following a meeting with mayor Ralph Leriger and town CAO Simone Wiley April 26 to discuss the “timing of capital projects” for the two highways, as well as the “safety of the intersection of Highways 44 and 18” she was “pleased” to share that 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. Sawhney resigned her cabinet post June 13 to seek the leadership of the UCP and was replaced by Prasad Panda the following day.

While Alberta Transportation press secretary Rob Williams did say in a June 17 e-mail that planning has started, he could not confirm if some work, like a much-needed asphalt overlay for seven kilometres of Highway 44 in town, will happen this year, clarifying that the 2022 provincial program is actually spread over three years.

Williams did not provide a rough cost estimate for the projects, noting work on “major upgrades” to the intersection of Highways 18 and 44 will take place “over the next three years, with consultations involving Alberta Transportation, the Town of Westlock and stakeholders.”

Construction for that part of the announcement is expected for 2026.

In a June 15 interview, Leriger said it’s his understanding, as per Sawhney’s letter and discussions with her and Transportation officials, the road will see fresh asphalt this year as “it won’t last four years … it won’t last until the end of summer” and repeatedly called the current state of the stretch “abysmal.” Leriger and Wiley also met with Sawhney in person June 7 where they showed her pictures and video of the road and presented a raft of documentation.

Throughout the spring and early summer, Emcon Services, which is contracted by the province to maintain area highways, has patched numerous potholes on Highway 44, while the solid yellow centre line and white, dotted lane lines on the stretch in both the town and county are all-but non-existent. Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken also noted the ministry is committed to “keeping the road safe” and will do what it can on the stretch.

“The discussions we’ve had with the minister and staff was that clearly the highway will not last that long. The overlay that’s going to happen, as per the letter, is going to bridge the gap between today and final construction,” said Leriger.

And while 44 desperately needs a fresh overlay this year, Leriger admits he’s looking forward to the “permanent solution” and working with the province.

“I think people need to understand what this is and what it isn’t. The reconstruction of the highway will take just more than a milling and overlay to get it back into good condition. It’s a larger project than that,” he said. “You don’t need to use GDP to quantify the Alberta economy. If you want to see whether the economy is on the upswing, count the number of trucks on Highway 44. It’s important to us as a community.”

In a June 15 interview, van Dijken said he’s pleased to see the entire project going forward, but cautioned, “I can’t tell you that they’re going to be working on it by the fall” and said he’s hopeful that portion will go forward in early 2023. Meanwhile, the Transportation website currently lists the seven kilometres of repaving for Highway 44 in the “design” phase, which Williams said normally takes three to six months.

What about 44 in front of the industrial park?

Missing from Sawhney’s letter, although included in the 2022 construction program, is work on Highway 44 in front of the Westlock County Industrial Park.

At the Oct. 12, 2021, Westlock County council meeting, the final one before the Oct. 18 municipal election, councillors voted 6-0 to sign off on Alberta Transportation’s $900,000-plus plan to upgrade roughly one kilometre of Highway 44 in front of the industrial park to include turning lanes and a traffic light, plus a service road on the east side of highway.

According to the plans provided to council then, the northern and southern park exits on the west side of the highway would be closed, while the second entrance would remain open and a traffic light would be added. Exit and entrance lanes would also be added, while highway access to the cemetery, as well as many of the east-side exit points would be shuttered and a service road added from the main entrance.

The estimated project cost at that time was $925,000, with the county chipping in $444,000, roughly 48 per cent, via its general operating reserve.

van Dijken followed up with Transportation officials following the announcement for the town as it was easy to miss in the program as it's listed as “intersection improvement.”

In the summer of 2018, the province spent $21.5 million repaving 38 kilometres of Highway 44 south of Westlock, 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 June 15 that when it became evident work on Highway 44 was ending before the industrial park, “work started on trying to understand why.” Last fall Coun. Jared Stitsen 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. “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.”

George Blais,

George Blais

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