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Cash-strapped Alberta rethinks approach to highways

Posted: May 2, 2016 by John G. Smith

BANFF, AB – A cash-strapped Alberta government is rethinking the way priorities are set for the province’s highway network and related maintenance – both for the short term and decades into the future.

Every proposed infrastructure project must now contribute to a “triple bottom line” that considers social, economic and environmental impacts, Alberta Transportation Assistant Deputy Minister Shaun Hammond said in a briefing during the Alberta Motor Transport Association’s annual convention. Decisions to twin a highway will be based on more than traffic counts alone. And “you will see more and more (environmental issues) in the next few months.”

The department is already reaching out to the association in the search for ways to reduce emissions around Red Deer, where particulates from diesel engines have played a role in creating the worst air quality in Canada. And Alberta Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Brian Mason pledged earlier in the day to begin research into fuel-saving wide-base single tires “as soon as possible”.

Research that suggests wide-base tires might be harsh on pavement has largely been based on laboratory conditions, Hammond said. “We know out there we’re not going to get perfectly inflated, aligned duals.” It’s why the department now plans a real-world pilot project, likely involving a fuel run out of Edmonton. “There’s a big environmental plus on the super singles,” he added, and the savings that come from burning less fuel will help fleets reinvest in operations.

The environmental focus may even be able to offset recent funding cuts to the long-running Partners in Compliance program, which gives fleets a way to identify safe practices so enforcement teams can focus on carriers that fall short of such benchmarks. Last year, 75 participating fleets accounted for more than 14,000 units. “When they came to us with our budget targets, we didn’t have a whole hell of a lot of room to cut,” Hammond said. But some funding could be restored by focusing on the environmentally friendly practices followed by PIC fleets. “You lost it from us, but I found it somewhere else.”

Yet another new research project is rethinking where to build commercial vehicle service rest areas. Specifically, future sites will need to be in communities that can provide related services, he said. Gone are the days of building them in the “middle of the back and beyond, with a concrete washroom”.

It isn’t the only way the province is setting new priorities along the highway network.

More funds are being allocated to capital rehabilitation projects – essentially rebuilding roads and bridges — but there is less money for general maintenance like cutting grass, repairing cracks, and chip sealing. “Maintenance contracts have been criticized because they’re just not cutting it,” he admitted. Today’s standards-based approach might focus on something like the number of times a day a road needs to be plowed, but the goal is to introduce “performance standards” that consider how useable a road is.

Then there is the question of which capital projects deserve the attention. A “significant number” of Alberta’s bridges are already at or near the end of their 50-to-60-year design lives, Hammond said. But rather than just building straight lines, there needs to be more attention on the “choke points” in the highway network, he stressed. “Stop looking back and say ‘What do we need to fix?’ The key point is, ‘What should the network in Alberta look like 10, 20, 30 years down the road?'”

“We have 31,000 kilometers of highway,” he added, suggesting there might need to be a greater focus on the 50% of highways used by 80% of the traffic.

Compounding matters, the province needs to rethink the way funds are collected for future work, and the challenges are not all traced to low oil costs. Toll roads are off the table, but the province needs to explore other “user pay” options to offset the lower gas taxes that come through improved fuel efficiency, or dropping registration dollars as people choose options other than owning their own car. The answer might involve something like a vehicle kilometer travel tax, he mused, referring to systems that charge motorists based on the distances they travel.

Emerging technology needs to be considered as well. Alberta is watching Ontario’s early foray into developing rules for semi-autonomous vehicles, but he also wants to consider issues such as the attitudes of average Alberta drivers, and how they will learn not to cut between platooning vehicles.

It all needs to be done in the context of what Alberta’s highway network should look like decades from now, and identifying key shortcomings like the need for a second border crossing open around the clock. The goal is to move goods through a series of hubs, and even spur the economy in smaller communities, he said. “This whole notion of corridors and hubs is where we’re looking.”

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