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Infrastructure: It's The Tie That Binds

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It’s our roads, public buildings, housing, airport – all those public services and systems necessary for economic activity.

But those ties that bind are also the cause of much conversation in a region where it has frequently proved challenging to have infrastructure keep up with the pace of economic and population growth thanks to oil sands development. With continued investment in the oil sands which will continue for several more decades, the demand for infrastructure is not going away.

To meet this ongoing challenge, the member companies of the Oil Sands Community Alliance (OSCA) are in ongoing discussion with the Government of Alberta and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo to address infrastructure issues across the region.

“The boom of 2007 served to highlight the pressure oil sands growth had placed on the existing infrastructure in the region,” explains Stephanie Sterling, vice-president of Commercial Strategy and Business Development, Heavy Oil, Shell Canada, and the OSCA’s infrastructure focus area committee chair.

“In order to support the quality of life in the communities where we operate, and our industry growth, our member companies are working hard with the provincial and municipal government through the Oil Sands Community Alliance to find innovative solutions for planning and building the infrastructure we need.

“We know that this region is unique because of the resource, the pace of growth, and the need for infrastructure. We require unique solutions to get the job done,” she adds.

A recent example of that kind of out-of-the-box thinking is the recent Highways for Land Transfer. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) signed an agreement with the Government of Alberta on January 30 that would see the RMWB provide transportation infrastructure at a cost of approximately $126 million and ongoing maintenance of Highway 69 valued at $5.8 million. Government, in turn, will transfer 453 acres of land to the RMWB for re-sale and reimbursement of the RMWB’s expenses.

That Highways for Land Transfer not only supports the Fort McMurray Airport, adds Henry Hunter, executive director of public infrastructure and planning for the RMWB, but also supports the development of Saline Creek. The future residential area covering approximately 862 hectares north from Highway 69 and Airport Road will accommodate an estimated population of 20,000 people in 6,800 dwelling units.

“Absolutely vitally important” is how Hunter describes the collaboration between industry, government and community when it comes to addressing shared development issues.

Collaboration is key when it comes to the RMWB’s transportation group – a multi-stakeholder body that brings government, industry and busing representatives to the table. It was this group that drove the dedicated bus lanes in town. This was also one of the drivers in the creation of almost 300 heated bus shelters around town used by both city transit and industry buses.

The group has also encouraged the provincial government to look at the legislation for bus-only shoulder lanes on Highway 63 “so that we can dedicate bus routes to reduce the backlogs we have on the highway.”

Hunter stresses that collaboration is actually happening and “we are already reaping the benefits.” He points out the RMWB helped expedite the 2013 opening of the Grant MacEwan Bridge by diverting some contractors from municipal projects to help finish the bridge. “We’ve worked hand in hand on a number of issues.”

Lee Funke, the OSCA’s interim executive director, adds: “Industry is extremely supportive of initiatives that provide the RMWB and regional stakeholders with increased certainty and efficiency with respect to long range planning and investment in provincial and municipal infrastructure. Our members continue to look for opportunities to collaborate with the all levels of government to ensure the oil sands region has the infrastructure we need. ”

To address the ongoing growth challenges in the region, the OSCA has a number of committees focused entirely on infrastructure issues. It is actively engaged in initiatives to ensure the region has appropriate infrastructure in place to improve public safety, increase productivity, promote sustainability and ensure the competitiveness of Alberta’s oil sands industry. These include efforts to prioritize and bring about the timely completion of key transportation infrastructure projects, identify “quick wins” for reducing congestion and enhancing safety, and ensure that the burgeoning aviation sector develops in an efficient and coordinated manner.

Industry has a long history of helping solve infrastructure challenges in the region and two of the most enduring symbols of are the Grant MacEwan and the Ralph Steinhauer Bridges.

To make it easier for people and goods to cross the Athabasca River, Suncor Energy – at that time called Great Canadian Oil Sands Company – built the Grant MacEwan Bridge in 1964-65. Once built and open, the provincial government assumed it. About a decade later, Syncrude Canada began construction of the adjacent Ralph Steinhauer Bridge to further improve traffic flow. The roadway portion of the bridge was opened to traffic in November 1975. That same month, Syncrude transferred ownership, management and control of the bridge to the province.

The third bridge in the network, the Athabasca Bridge, was opened to traffic in 2011 and was the result of continuing advocacy from industry. It has the largest bridge deck area in Alberta with five lanes, the span of five football fields and 12.5 times more weight capacity than a normal bridge (that’s 1.1 million kilograms – the weight of about four Boeing 747s). These giant specifications are necessary to accommodate the oversized loads that use Highway 63 to get to oil sands sites.

Industry has been a strong advocate, for example of the twinning of Highway 63 and improvements to Highway 881. And constantly advocating safe driving, it was industry members committed to raising awareness of dangerous driving habits and to changing those behaviours.that came together in 2010 to create the Coalition for a Safer 63 & 881. The OSCA and many of its member companies have representatives who sit on coalition committees. Check out

Projects like twinning Highway 63 are important projects under the Comprehensive Regional Infrastructure Sustainability Plan (CRISP) for the Athabasca Oil Sands Area (AOSA).

The CRISP is a guiding blueprint to accommodate growth and infrastructure in the rapidly-growing AOSA. It provides a technical assessment of expected population levels at certain production levels, and infrastructure recommendations to support those populations.

This long-term strategy also identifies the need and location for such infrastructure as schools, health facilities, and correctional facilities and urban expansion, particularly land release for residential and commercial development.

To support the development of transportation infrastructure identified in the CRISP, the provincial government created the Athabasca Transportation Coordinating Committee (TCC). Comprised of municipal, industry and provincial representatives, the TCC makes recommendations to the Alberta government on the current and future transportation needs of the AOSA. The committee’s discussions take into account the region’s unique economic and infrastructure needs and the importance of the oil sands to the province’s economy.

“It has been challenging,” admits Heather Kennedy, Suncor’s vice-president for government relations and chair of the TCC, “but I am pleased with the work done to date. We have reviewed east and west bypasses around Fort McMurray and believe the east should be top priority, and have recommended that.”

“The committee has been very collaborative as we work together and I believe it’s because all parties genuinely want to get on with what’s next up in Wood Buffalo and, if there’s a path that removes barriers, people are pleased to be part of it. There is no doubt the costs are high to get the next tranche of roads and air built, but we believe the rewards exceed that.”

In fact, she adds, the TCC is planning its next project: looking at the costs and benefits of building road infrastructure in the AOSA.

Oil sands companies have also turned skywards, choosing to fly-in/fly-out workers which helps alleviate infrastructure pressures on ground transportation, roads, housing and services.

The Fort McMurray Airport stands as a testament to the impacts of the oil sands booming growth.

“We were at capacity of that terminal in 2002,” recalls Scott Clements, airport president and CEO. “In the subsequent 11 years, we have gone from 220,000 passengers to 1.2 million going through the same terminal.”

The first really steep growth was 2006 to 2008 with 20 per cent growth in each of those years, the height of the boom.

“Air transportation is absolutely vital to the success of what’s being done in this region,” states Clements.

The OSCA supports the work of the Fort McMurray Airport Authority (FMAA) by appointing two members to its board.

“The growth we are experiencing is remarkable and we know the pressure that is being placed on our current terminal building by this crush of passenger traffic. We are eagerly anticipating the opening of the new terminal,” he adds. After undergoing $200 million in expansion, the new terminal is slated to open June 14 this year.

“The new airport terminal along with the new carriers and routes that the FMAA have been able to attract are key to the work of our industry. We will be better connected with the rest of North America allowing us to bring labour to and from the area, but residents now have better and more convenient flight options for personal travel,” adds Funke.

Infrastructure will continue to be a significant challenge in the region, however, it is a challenge that our region has successfully addressed in the past. Local oil sands companies in collaboration with the RMWB and the Government of Alberta, will continue to find innovative solutions and help build the infrastructure we need for a prosperous future. After all, infrastructure is the ties that bind our economy and our quality of life.


Pillars wait in the frozen Athabasca River for the Grant MacEwan Bridge to be constructed circa 1964. Nearly 50 years later, that same bridge is undergoing a major overhaul as a triple-bridge network is created to accommodate traffic and wide loads heading to the oil sands. (Photos: Fort McMurray Historical Society/Alberta Transportation)

Equipment waits on the side of Highway 63 to continue work to twin Highway 63. (Photo: OSCA)