Highway 1A in Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation on Tuesday (March 14). Jungmin Ham/Rocky Mountain Outlook

The province plans to widen a notoriously narrow section of Highway 1A through Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation at a multi-year cost of $54 million, but experts working for the Nation say it can’t happen soon enough.

Nakoda Emergency Services (NES) director Reg Fountain said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the province’s focus on the project in the 2023 budget. It hasn’t budged much since it was earmarked in 2019, and the 29-kilometre section of road – about 6.7 metres wide with no shoulder on either side – has been a public safety issue for decades.

“The 1A is a very important road to the Nation, not only for the wherewithal of how we get to and from east or west, but also to get through to other portions of the Nation,” Fountain said.

“The safer we can make it for Nation members, the better. And the sooner that can happen, the better it will be for those that live here and for the travelling public.”

Fountain said NES protective services, including fire, regularly respond to collisions on the highway. It is an artery for Nation members and a commonly used alternative route over the Trans-Canada Highway to travel between Cochrane, Calgary and communities in the Bow Valley.

According to Alberta Transportation, an average of 3,891 vehicles drove the section of Highway 1A daily in 2022. The highway typically sees the most traffic volume from June to September, with an average daily summer traffic count of 4,805 in 2022.

The increasing number of vehicles using the road, paired with its width, position with the setting and rising sun, and surrounding wildlife and domestic animals are just some of the highway’s hazards. Pedestrians and cyclists also use it, at their own risk.

Last year, in addition to collisions resulting in minor injuries, there were two motorcyclists killed in separate crashes near Mînî Thnî (Morley). On June 21, a 29-year-old Calgary man heading east was killed in a collision involving an SUV near Branch Road and a 53-year-old woman from Fort Saskatchewan heading east was struck and killed by an impaired driver of an SUV near Morley Road on Aug. 19.

In 2021, five people died on the narrow section of road in motor vehicle collisions. One person was killed in a single car rollover, two people died in a collision between a semi, cube van and car, and two others died in a head-on motorcycle crash.

There were 207 fatal collisions in 2020, according to the province’s latest available traffic collision statistics, published in January 2023. Rural collisions made up for about 71 per cent, or 147 fatalities. There were 9,092 non-fatal injury collisions.

Highway 1A is known for its bendy s-curves and landscape, which can be big draws for motorcyclists or those looking to take an alternative route than the much busier and faster-paced Trans-Canada Highway. But Fountain, who also rides a motorcycle, said its narrowness can be unforgiving, leaving little room to correct or avoid a driving error or hazard before a vehicle is ditch-bound.

“Should you lose control or should there be a slippery patch, you could easily wind up going in the ditch in certain areas as the road comes toward the Nation from either direction. The shoulders actually disappear and you basically have no shoulder – just the road,” he said.

The province, working with the three Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation bands of Chiniki, Goodstoney, and Bearspaw, plan to widen the highway to 13m – nearly double its current size.

According to the provincial budget, $54 million in funding is expected to be doled out over the next three years. Most of the project funding is allocated for 2025-26, with $15 million each in 2023-24 and 2024-25.

Alberta Transportation press secretary Jesse Furber said in an email the agreement “will allow Alberta Transportation and Economic Corridors to improve travel efficiency and road safety on Highway 1A, and ensure the road meets current engineering standards.

“Budget 2023 includes funding for the project, with engineering, design and necessary regulatory approvals ongoing,” he added.

Furber said the Nation and province are finalizing a land exchange needed to continue with the project, which will take three or more years to complete once construction begins.

But currently there is no established timeline for construction to begin “as it is dependent upon the timelines for transfer of the required lands from the Stoney Nakoda and Canada to the province,” Furber said.

Chiniki CEO Brian Evans said part of the agreement they’ve negotiated with the province means the Îyârhe Nakoda Nation will be supplying its own gravel via Goodstoney Gravel Pit, and qualified Nation members will be first to benefit from employment opportunities on the project.

Evans said it’s a move that puts some of the power of driving the project forward back into the hands of the Nation, in hopes of finishing it sooner.

The upgrades, he noted, will also improve overall safety at a number of intersections along the highway.

“The intersection on Mînî Thnî Road coming out of Morley can be difficult, there’s a lot of traffic coming in both directions – so that is going to be improved,” he said.

The plan is not to add a passing lane, but to at least have a shoulder on both sides of the road so vehicles are able to veer away from traffic if needed without “just rolling into the ditch.”

With a provincial election in May, Fountain and Evans said it’s difficult to say whether the project will be complete in the desired timeline of the budget, and neither are holding their breath given past budget pledge haven’t moved the needle much.

Upgrades for Highway 1A were earmarked in November 2019 at an estimated total cost of $76.5 million. Construction was expected to begin in the spring of 2020, and to last two to three years, but was halted around the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is a different kind of uncertainty looming over the project this time with a provincial election, but widening the highway needs to be a priority no matter what, Fountain said.

“We don’t know which way things will go and what that might mean for the project. But it is a requirement to do something with the 1A, the widening and perhaps straightening of some of the more dangerous sections, to alleviate some of the risks involved along that road.”

By Jessica Lee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Apr 09, 2023

This item reprinted with permission from   Rocky Mountain Outlook   Canmore, Alberta

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