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

Monday, March 11, 2013

Paying the Price on Highway 881

The 2013 budget has been announced by the provincial government, and we had been warned in advance that some things would change. Right here in this region we saw the impact of the budget in the announcement that the work planned to upgrade Highway 881 is being deferred, including the passing lanes and rest areas planned for development. I will admit I am disappointed by this change, but there seems to be some fundamental misunderstanding about what was originally promised way back in October 2012 in regards to the 881 so I’d like to address that  before moving on.
I received quite a vehement email from a reader about the provincial government breaking their commitment on Highway 881, but when I questioned my correspondent a bit more closely it was revealed that they were under the impression that twinning of the 881 as well as Highway 63 had been promised – and that was never the case. Yes, Highway 63 is due to be twinned by 2016 and that plan is still in place (no doubt partially due to recognizing the necessity as well as realizing that if they announced delays in that plan there would likely be full-scale revolt – and frankly I’d be right in the front of that pitchfork-and-burning-torches mob). There was never a commitment made or announced to twin Highway 881 despite some hysterics by the NDP about this commitment not being met (a commitment never promised cannot be broken and therefore this one is a total red herring, which I explained to my correspondent). But it is true that the proposed and planned improvements to Highway 881 are being deferred, and it is this I would like to speak to.
I suppose I have two issues with this. One is the concept that it is always best to under-promise and over-deliver as opposed to the reverse. It is never wise to make promises that one is unsure they can fulfill, and if the money to improve Highway 881 was not allocated then it would probably have been far wiser to make no promises at all as opposed to ones that were later “deferred”. There is no doubt we have issues with Highway 881, especially given that it has become the alternate route of choice for many, and the default route when collisions on Highway 63 necessitate closure. We need to find a way to improve Highway 881 because it has begun to claim more lives as this region grows, and we need to do it now before the true impact of growth hits us like a semi-trailer doing 120 clicks. The question that begs to be answered is: Where will the money come from?
Well, people, for me I have been thinking that maybe we need to have a conversation about toll roads. I realize this is contentious and could result in a revolt as well, but we need to be realistic here. If we want an improved highway that protects lives are we willing to pay a bit more to make it happen?
Toll roads are uncommon in this country but I am not exactly sure why the very idea outrages people in the way it seems to do. Yes, governments are there to pay for things like roads and schools and hospitals but as someone who has served on parent council for years I also know that even in schools funds are often raised by parent councils to provide the schools with certain items the government cannot afford. This is simply a reality of our educational system, and parent councils pay for everything from sports equipment to team uniforms to items for classrooms. So, why are we so hesitant to even consider the idea of a toll road to improve a highway that desperately needs improving?
Perhaps as a resident this idea outrages you, but in other places residents are exempted from tolls or charged a drastically reduced rate, thus targeting industrial or commercial traffic for tolls. This is a concept worthy of exploring as well so that we can determine if it makes sense in our situation, and if this would expedite the improvements to Highway 881 by providing the funding that has now disappeared.
Look, people, I don’t and won’t pretend to have all the answers on this one. What I do have is a lot of questions, including why the concept of toll roads seems so outlandish here when it is so effective in other places. I don’t think any ideas should be off-limits, ever, and so I think exploring this idea is worthwhile even if we reject it in the end. What I do have is a firm belief that the twinning of Highway 63 must continue and must be accomplished as quickly as possible to lessen deaths and collisions on it – and I believe we must also consider Highway 881 and ways to improve safety there, too. As always I believe much of the responsibility lies with us as drivers, and so we must acknowledge our own role in improving safety. However, if we truly want to see improvements made in a time of financial austerity then we may need to consider ideas that we have previously rejected, such as toll roads. Maybe it’s time to put our money where our mouth is, people. Let’s stop the hysterics and open the dialogue about the concept of toll roads – because I know a toll that meant fewer die on the highways leading into our community is one I would happily pay.

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