Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Special Advisor, A Date, and The Rubber Hitting the Road - Highway 63

June 29. It's a Friday, about 6 weeks from today. It's an important day for a few reasons, really. It's the first day of summer freedom for students in the local schools, the last day of school being the day before. It's the first day of the Canada Rocks Music Festival at MacDonald Island Park, a 3-day event that has become the sign that the summer season in Fort Mac has begun. This year, though, the 29th of June has taken on new significance. It's the date that MLA Mike Allen, newly appointed Special Advisor on Highway 63, is due to submit his recommendations to Ric McIver, new Minister of Transportation for the provincial government - recommendations meant to determine what happens to Highway 63, the highway that has become a focal point for this region in the past month.

I don't know if I've ever seen an issue quite like this in Fort McMurray. The concern over Highway 63, particularly after the horrific last accident, has cut across every demographic in the city. Age. Culture. Economic status. And as I learned personally the concern went far, far beyond our city borders. When I wrote my open letter to our Premier I heard from people across the country. It took me two days to answer all the emails - and I still get them on occasion, even almost a month later. That accident unleashed sorrow and anger and pain and grief. It launched a movement, one that coalesced into a protest rally with an astonishing attendance given it's lack of precedence in this community. I think it opened a dialogue on the 63 that was desperately needed, one that was long overdue, a dialogue about responsibility and safe driving and police presence - and progress.

It is the lack of progress on twinning the highway that I think has been driving people crazy. It has been the sense that nothing has been done, that there has been a lot of talk and little action. For me it has been the lack of accountability - the lack of a timeline for completion, and of a open, transparent, and well communicated plan of action. That troubled me so deeply, here in a region where industry works on timelines, where accountability is inextricably linked to completion dates. And yet here was our highway, our lifeline to the world, being twinned but at an inexplicably slow pace, and without any sort of timeline or completion date in sight. And people, yesterday, at the RMWB building just outside of council chambers, the vision on that got a bit clearer. Yesterday, right here in Fort Mac, the rubber began to hit the road.

Premier Alison Redford came to the community yesterday. I was actually a bit nervous to see her again, imagining she might be less than fond of a presumptuous blogger who wrote an open letter viewed by thousands of people, an open letter essentially challenging her to action. When I was sitting in my local coffee shop - a place I refer to as "my office" as I don't actually have one of those and choose instead to work in a loud little coffee shop where I can observe my city - in walked a security person - and the Premier. I spoke to her briefly, and it was clear she knew exactly who I was - and I should not have been concerned as she was her usual gracious self, the person I had interviewed at the start of the recent election campaign.

The Premier didn't come for coffee, though. She came to make an announcement with Mayor Melissa Blake, and with newly elected MLA Mike Allen. And the announcement is, in my opinion, a promising one, not just because of what she announced but the language in the accompanying press release. You see, she announced that she had appointed Mike Allen as a special advisor on Highway 63, tasked with devising a set of recommendations regarding changes needed to make our highway safer. And those recommendations will be delivered to Ric McIver, who will then deliver them to her.

There are those who will cry this isn't enough, and that they should simply start laying down pavement already. The thing is that pavement is being laid down as I write, but we need to find ways to both expedite that and to come up with other solutions in the meantime - because twinning won't happen over night. We need to ensure that we improve safety while the twinning is in progress. We need to do this the right way, with a long term plan in place (twinning) and a short term plan in action (increased police presence, for instance). And that is what Mike Allen, special advisor, has been asked to do. He has been asked to consult with community stakeholders and devise those plans and actions. And as a local person with a long history in the community, and one who has driven that highway on a regular basis, he is the ideal person to do exactly that.

When I read the press release yesterday one sentence leapt out at me. It is the one I keep going back to, because it is, in my mind, the one with the most meaning in all that transpired yesterday. It is this: "actions will include a timeline for completing the twinning of Highway 63".

Timeline. Completion. Accountability. It is exactly what I wanted to see. It is a hopeful sign, an initial step in the right direction towards a transparent, open, clearly communicated accountable plan of action. And it is to be devised by our own MLA, one who understands the community, the issue, and can make recommendations that will serve the needs of his constituents.

We have a special advisor on Highway 63 now. The real work, the true work, lies ahead of him now. I have faith he can get it done, and present a series of recommendations to the government that will serve us well. We have a plan to get those recommendations, and we have a date - June 29th. The rubber has hit the road in Fort McMurray, people. The wheels are in motion. As a region we watch, and we wait. And I think what we have done, what I am proudest of, because of people like Nicole Auser and Ashley St. Croix, Twin 63 Now organizers, and because of concerned citizens in the community, is we have put the government on notice that we will not forget. We will not go away. We will be looking for results, and we have some expectations. We have a special advisor, we have a date, and we have rubber on the road. Now we look to see it gain some traction - and find some twinned pavement.

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