RMWB council asking Alberta government to fully twin Highway 63 to Edmonton

Councillor Funky Banjoko, who proposed the motion, said last week’s evacuation shows the need for a fully twinned route to Edmonton.

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Council will ask the Alberta government to twin the remaining sections of Highway 63 and parts of Highway 28. If the province follows through with this demand, the route connecting Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo and Edmonton will be twinned entirely.

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The motion was approved at council’s Tuesday meeting. The motion was originally supposed to be heard at a May 14 meeting, but that meeting was postponed as a wildfire triggered an evacuation of four neighbourhoods. Councillor Funky Banjoko, who proposed the motion, said last week’s evacuation shows the need for a fully twinned route to Edmonton.

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“On May 3, 2016, I was in Fort McMurray and I witnessed the evacuation of over 80,000 people. Most of us travelled on Highway 63 to come out of the region. On May 14, 2024… I stood on the seventh floor of this building watching the traffic jam once again,” said Banjoko. “There is need and we need to address this need.”

Premier Danielle Smith has said the province is prioritizing Highway 686. This route, which is still being designed, would connect Fort McMurray to the Peace region. Smith said no decision has been made on fully twinning Highway 63 to Edmonton, but anticipates it will be a debate topic.

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“There hasn’t been a decision made on that, but I have no doubt that they’ll be a discussion about that,” said Smith at a May 15 press conference. “We have to make sure that our economic corridors are well resourced, so no doubt there’ll be a conversation about that as well as accelerating 686.”

Highway 63 is fully twinned from Fort McMurray to Atmore, a hamlet in Athabasca County. The highway goes back to a single-lane route for the remainder of the drive. The twinning was finished in late May 2016.

Council ended their support for the proposed East Clear Water Highway last July when it became clear the province had shifted its focus to Highway 686. This proposed secondary route was pitched after the 2016 Horse River Wildfire. It would have run parallel to Fort McMurray by connecting Anzac and Fort McKay.

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highway 63
People cross the Athabasca River on Highway 63 after the RMWB ordered the evacuation of the Fort McMurray neighbourhoods of Abasand, Beacon Hill, Grayling Terrace and Prairie Creek on May 14, 2024. Image from AMA Road Reports

Banjoko agreed the region needs a secondary route and had no criticisms of Highway 686. Councillor Keith McGrath said the municipality should work with Athabasca and Thorhild counties because Highway 63 cuts through them.

Mayor Sandy Bowman agreed with this point and said council is lobbying for Highway 63’s northern portion to be twinned to Syncrude and Fort McKay. Smith promised last year to twin an extra 12 kilometres of the highway north of Fort McMurray.

Bowman also pointed out that a permanent road is supposed to be built between La Loche, Sask. and Fort McMurray. The road was announced in 2005 as a project celebrating the centennials for both provinces.

Councillors Stu Wigle and Allan Grandison liked the idea, but had concerns it would take the province’s focus away from Highway 686. Wigle said twinning would be worthwhile because of large industrial cargo on the highway heading towards oilsands sites.

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“There’s only so much money the province has and if they say ‘we’re going to spend on a highway and we can make a second one or we can twin this one,’ I’ll vote for the second exit all the time,” said Grandison.

Councillor Kendrick Cardinal was the only councillor opposed to the motion. Councillor Loretta Waquan was absent from the meeting.

A roadside marker cross for Jason Lebedynski who died on December 31, 2011 while travelling on Highway 63, is seen about 92 kilometres south of Fort McMurray on September 7, 2013. Ryan Jackson/Postmedia Network

Support from Athabasca County’s council likely

Reeve Janine Paly of Thorhild County said she did not yet want to speak on the issue because twinning Highway 63 has not been discussed by council. Reeve Brian Hall of Athabasca County said he has raised the issue informally with other councillors and there is support for the idea.

Using numbers from Athabasca County’s fire chief, Hall said accidents on Highway 63 happen nearly three times more often than other highways in the county. Many of them are on the sections that haven’t been twinned.

The twinned sections no longer have head-on collisions, but people have died in accidents involving animals, alcohol, fatigue, speed or weather.

“Infrastructure projects are good for increasing the safety of the travelling public and the Highway 63 corridor is certainly a significant corridor for the province,” he said in an interview.

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