Driven to Distraction

July 31st, 2008
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My Open Range column from the July 2008 issue of Alberta Venture magazine:

By any comparison, our roads have become a national disgrace
It took three Roman legions barely six years to move 1.3 million cubic metres of rock and turf by hand and build Hadrian’s Wall, 80 Roman miles across the top of Britain. The United States Army punched the Alaska Highway through 2,237 kilometres of northern bush in less than seven months. The U.S. Interstate Highway System grew to 75,400 kilometres of four-or-more-lane, controlled-access freeways criss-crossing the nation, swooping over 3,300-metre passes, inspiring engineering marvels in bridging water bodies and boring through mountains.
These days in Canada, we take seven years to upgrade nine kilometres of a two-lane road hardly touched since the 1950s. And we congratulate ourselves.
The summer driving season lurches into motion this month. If your plans include the open road, you’ve probably already compiled a list of woes: record gasoline prices, ceaseless safety hectoring, blood-curdling accident reports, lumbering tour buses, swinging semi-trailers, land yachts captained by clueless, 90-year-old Floridians, endless construction zones in which the only observable activity is placement of the 50 km/h and “Speed Fines Double” signage. This stuff would be inconsequential if Canada’s highways themselves weren’t such a travesty.
Alert readers may have guessed my example above concerns the Kicking Horse Canyon section of the Trans-Canada Highway near Golden, B.C. It exacts a fearsome public toll in blood and treasure, bottlenecking motorists and the 2,400 heavy trucks that traverse it daily and help keep Alberta’s economy humming. About eight years ago, B.C. and the feds began work on the worst 27 kilometres. Last August, they unveiled, um, nine kilometres of finished work – and crowed about being 18 months early. At the rate they’re going, it’ll take 300 years to twin the road from Banff National Park, where four lanes diminish to two, to east of Kamloops, where they resume. If the lads who founded the CPR back in the 1800s had taken the same approach, right now they’d be laying track around Sault Ste. Marie and updating their website with news they hoped to arrive in Calgary around AD 4700.
The poorest American states have better roads than the richest Canadian province. In Europe, freeways are like asphalt carpets. Gliding along the German autobahn at 180 kilometres an hour, I always guffaw as I glimpse signs warning of upcoming Strassen Schäden (road damage) – knowing what’s in store is a transitory patch mimicking the best Canadian roads. Thanks to their beds of reinforced concrete, European freeways last forever despite enormous traffic. Here at home, even the freshest pavement is faded, wavy and cracked within three years.
Alberta is somewhat better off than its provincial cousins, but we’ve fallen way behind our population growth and burgeoning traffic. The Queen Elizabeth II Highway sees 30,000 to 60,000 vehicles per day, up by half in the last decade. Yet virtually the only thing that’s been changed since I was in junior high is its name, and this road is unworthy of a monarch. Highway 43 to the Peace Country is being twinned a decade later than it should have been. Highway 3 through the Crowsnest Pass remains a Ruritanian satire. That twinning Highway 63 north to the world’s largest engineering project – the oilsands – even required a debate speaks volumes about our politicians’ vision. As for Highway 4, a decade after the grandiose pro- clamation of the “Canamex Trade Corridor,” the last bit around Milk River is finally being upgraded. Is it any wonder that rubber-tire tourism from the U.S. has been in decline since long before their dollar went south?
Amid “record investment in infrastructure,” Alberta’s three-year highways plan is long on bridge rehabilitation and other band-aids, short on actual road-building. Our government wastes hundreds of millions widening medians and making bizarrely broad shoulders without adding passing lanes. Prodigious effort is reserved for long-term “analysis frameworks,” task-force terms of reference, interprovincial working groups and endless meetings (to which our bureaucrats and politicians no doubt travel by air). In our age, proclaiming one’s “commitment” matters more than action. The announcement’s the thing. Who cares if the roads themselves resemble the Balkans?
As for my wife and me, right now we’re cruising along some great roads. In Montana.
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