By Collin Gallant
Alta Newspaper Group – Medicine Hat
The head of the Highway 3 Twinning Association says his group is still considering the implications of a cost-sharing agreement announced last month that will see two northern Alberta counties help pay to twin a provincial highway near Grande Prairie.
That came before the release of the 2020-21 provincial budget that week that saw no movement in the 20-year-old effort to see the major route between Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and the Crowsnest Pass twinned.
In Grande Prairie, two counties will share the $120 million cost to separate Highway 40 and build a new major bridge in the area starting this year, though the terms or cost-split were not disclosed.
“We haven’t discussed it, but it’s not something that we would want to be a precedent,” said Bill Chapman, a councillor in Coaldale and head of the association that advocates for improving Highway 3 from Medicine Hat to the Crowsnest Pass.
That association of a dozen municipalities, including Medicine Hat, Cypress County, Bow Island, Forty Mile, Taber, Municipal District of Taber and Lethbridge has petitioned the government for two decades to double the capacity of the route.
They cite safety concerns and the potential of economic growth, particularly in agriculture sector, which is a key priority for the Alberta government as well.
But, said Chapman, southern municipalities may not be in the same position to help with costs of what been traditionally a provincial government responsibility to improve provincial roads and highways.
“It’s hard to say how they (the province and the counties of Grande Prairie and Greenview) arrived at the decision, but I don’t know if (our members) could be amenable to, because I don’t think there is the appetite,” he said.
A 2016 study by the Highway 3 association estimated construction costs at about $6 million per kilometre to acquire land, reroute sections, build interchanges as well as the roadway.
“We’d like to do it, but it’s a billion-dollar project,” said Medicine Hat city Councillor Jim Turner, the local rep on the association.”
“I don’t know if the government has a billion dollars for it.”
Brooks-Medicine Hat MLA Michaela Glasgo says that she sees the needs for upgrades and that it is “not unprecedented” to use cost-sharing as a way to ease capital projects towards construction.
“We are always open to creative ways to fund key projects if we want them to move forward quickly,” she wrote. “I would hope that all stakeholders keep an open mind.”
The Alberta government has stressed in two budgets that lower spending in general is required to battle deficits, with Finance Minister Travis Toews, stating in last week’s budget speech that capital spending is evaluated in terms of economic return.
The economic case for improvements on Highway 3 was made in the 2016 study by the Palliser Economic Partnership.
Since then a new agribusiness corridor between Taber and Lethbridge has taken hold, and observers and officials in Medicine Hat have also made the case that transportation lends to economic activity.
Last fall, provincial consultants completed final studies for two separate potential twinning projects; one east of Pincher Creek and another between Taber and Burdett, but there is no timeline for construction. Chapman says his group is asking at this point for stable funding in the $10 million per year range to do more advanced engineering so the project can gain momentum.
On Feb. 20, Transport Minister Ric McIver announced the twinning of 19 kilometres of Highway 40 near Grande Prairie would move from an “unfunded priority” in the capital plan to an active project this year.
A local study found the project could lead to a $500-million increase in business activity over 30 years.
Toews, who is the MLA for Grande Prairie-Wapiti, said in a release the counties showed “leadership” in helping move the project forward.
NDP Infrastructure critic Rod Loyola said it was another example of “downloading costs” of a provincial project to local governments.