New road needed in Fort Mac rebuild (Sudbury Star – June 3, 2016)

Postmedia Network – There is a mountain of post-wildfire rebuilding ahead for Fort McMurray. But at least one change should be added: road access into and around this important northern city.

Fort McMurray’s geography has been part of the wildfire story since the May 3 evacuation. The reality of a city designed with one road in and out — Highway 63 — meant evacuees funnelled either south through the fire or north to the shelter of oilsands facilities. Going north meant residents were safe from the immediate danger of the fire, but they were also stranded.

Now is the time for the federal, provincial and local governments to hash out a real plan to correct the oversight and answer the long-standing community call for an additional road into, or at least around, Fort McMurray. One option is a project called the East Clearwater Multi-Use Access Road, a 30-kilometre ring road primarily aimed at keeping heavy trucks off Highway 63, which cuts through the heart of Fort McMurray.

A project like this would serve a city of nearly 90,000 and an industry that runs 24-7, 365 days a year. The estimated $1-billion price tag is the key thing that causes pause. But that should not be enough to keep it off the provincial and federal priority list.

No one should dismiss calls for a road project as a knee-jerk reaction to the wildfire. The terrifying emergency that evacuees lived through bolsters the case for alternative access routes. But given the volume of traffic to oilsands operations and the size of the equipment that has to be hauled in and out, it is astonishing that plans for such a project have languished.

The potential for earlier and bigger wildfires means northern Alberta communities big and small need to take steps to become more fire resilient. After seeing two northern Alberta communities forced to make fast exits from danger in a five-year span, it makes sense to take a hard look at exit routes.

It sometimes seems like it takes a disaster to get action on important infrastructure issues. It wasn’t until fires in the 1990s and early 2000s closed Highway 63 that there was finally action to make Highway 881 an alternative.Likewise, it took years of fatalities and injuries on Highway 63 to spur the twinning of a critical 250-kilometre stretch that was overdue by decades.

It is clear from the outpouring of support that Canadians care deeply about Fort McMurray and feel connected to the city. Let’s make sure that support is reflected in the basic infrastructure Fort McMurray needs now.

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