LAC LA BICHE - It might take Lac La Biche residents a little longer to get home, and visitors a little longer to get to the community, if a speed reduction request being rushed by Lac La Biche County council is approved.
Deputy Mayor Kevin Pare is calling for Alberta Transportation to reduce the 100 kilometre per hour speed limit to 70 on a two-kilometre stretch of Highway 55 west of the Lac La Biche hamlet.
Pare made the request at a Jan. 10 council meeting with only five elected officials — himself, Mayor Paul Reutov, Sterling Johnson, John Mondal and Colette Borgun — in attendance. Five is the minimum number of council members needed to create quorum — the ability to make official decisions. Any less, and decisions cannot be ratified.
"That's their decision not to be here — Let's do business"
- Deputy Mayor Kevin Pare on the absence of four council members
The reduced speed zone, Pare told the reduced council roster, would stretch for two kilometres from the Highway 663 intersection at Lac La Biche Transport to the existing speed reduction zones near the bypass road turnoff.
The two-kilometre stretch of highway runs past entrances to the municipal airport and three industrial and commercial service areas, including an intersection beside property owned by Mayor Reutov. That intersection was the source of a heated discussion among council members two weeks ago as the mayor was attempting to get approvals for a new gas station on the property.
At that time, with Reutov and councillor Mondal leaving the meeting due to a conflict of interest, municipal officials said that Alberta Transportation would not allow new development in the area since the existing intersection was not upgraded to a standard to handle increased traffic flow. Several other intersections in the municipality have reportedly reached "trigger points" where their age and increased traffic volumes have made them unsafe.
Alberta Transportation doesn't allow any new development within 400 metres of these intersections. The estimated cost to properly upgrade the intersection — using municipal dollars — was around $800,000.
It was suggested that developers building new projects in those areas would be required to pay a portion of those costs. At that same discussion, a consultant working for both the municipality and Reutov, said a speed reduction in the area is part of that overall plan to create safe intersections at other locations along the highway and elsewhere in the municipality.
Councillors at that meeting voted to have administration create an overall plan for future needs along the stretch of the highway. Councillors also voted to have a detailed breakdown of the process involved in Reutov's application for the new gas station.
Party of five
Fast-forward two weeks, and Pare was suggesting council had also made a decision at that earlier meeting to call for a speed limit reduction.
At the January 10 meeting, Pare demanded council write a formal letter to Alberta Transportation requesting the speed change.
When it was suggested by senior administration that the decision should wait until all councillors were able to vote, Pare didn't slow down.
"I'm prepared to make that motion. That's their decision not to be here — Let's do business," he said, fearing that more issues about roadways and intersections along busy municipal corridors will continue to stall future economic development in the area.
He said the adjusted speed limit is the first part of a needed intersection plan, and was "low hanging fruit" that should be acted on.
"What we have been discussing is low-hanging fruit and right here today, we are saying, lower the speed limit — that is the low-hanging fruit — and then develop a three to five-year plan to fix the intersections," he said.
Reutov remained in the January 10 discussion about the intersection plans, saying that despite some concerns, if he left, council would not have quorum.
"I think because I stepped out previously, I should perhaps do it again in this case .... and if I do, we won't have quorum."
Others around the table felt the mayor should be able to discuss general roadwork projects.
"We are voting on whether we are reducing speed on a highway, not voting on anythng to do with your business," councillor Johnson said to the mayor. "This has nothing to do with your business, this is all public lands."
Reutov agreed, saying the discussion "doesn't impact any of my businesses."
Mondal also remained at the table for the discussion.
The mayor went on to support the speed reduction on the stretch of highway, steering the discussion away from specific intersections.
"I think in general, this is getting a little bit muddy here," he said. "There's the one aspect of it — intersection approval, but in this case, it's a simple request for multiple reasons, meaning safety in general."
The mayor used other roadways in northern Alberta to draw comparisons.
"If you are driving into Westlock, the speed limit changes as you go around the Clyde corner and all along the highway for 10 kilometres its 80 or 70, so how did they justify that? You go to Fort Saskatchewan, and you got a twin highway, freeway, that's 60 kilometres in many areas ... as you come into Lac La Biche, as you come around that corner, coming into Lac La Biche, it's already an industrial area — we are requesting that the speed limit be looked at and reduced to 70."
Municipal administrators already have a planned meeting with Alberta Transportation on January 17. The municipal report on the status of intersections along Highway 55 is also expected to be ready for review at the same time.
Counillors voted 5-0 to present a formal letter requesting the Highway 55 speed reduction at that meeting.
Lac La Biche County spokesperson Jihad Moghrabi said council's request for the lower speed might reduce some overall costs to construct the needed upgrades to intersections, but said the approval from Alberta Transportation isn't likely going to be easy.
"A reduced speed, which can be difficult to meet provincial criteria for, would allow for fewer design standards for intersection improvements in the Highway 55 area," Moghrabi told Lakeland This Week. "This means a smaller — but still potentially significant — cost for developers.