Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall says that the provincial government is now looking at twinning, as opposed to passing lanes, as the solution for the traffic and safety issues on Highways 39 and 6 from Regina to east of Estevan.
Wall made the revelation during a visit to Estevan on August 29. He called the traffic numbers and the safety challenges on the two highways “a very, very compelling issue” after meeting members of City Council, the City of Estevan's management team and Estevan MLA Doreen Eagles.
"Doreen has been making the case for the need for safety improvements in a general sense, and the highways, 39 and 6, were certainly a part of the government's plan for twinning and passing lanes," said Wall.
But those plans have changed, and now the focus is on twinning.
Wall said that SGI recently presented some 10-year historical numbers, and five-year and 10-year projections for the two highways. They show staggering increases on Highway 39 from east of Estevan to the junction with Highway 6, and increases on Highway 6 south of Regina and Highway 39 near North Portal.
"I think it just shows that the very compelling need for twinning 39 and 6 means that we must place a higher priority on it as a government," said Wall. "And we're going to do that.
"I'm going to be asking the Highways minister, the Energy and the Economy minister, and the SGI minister to sit down and work together on how we can move up the project, how we can move towards improving safety, and how we can move towards twinning these highways in a much more timely way."
Since 2002, traffic has gone up by 67 per cent between Estevan and Weyburn to an average of more than 3,800 vehicles per day; heavy truck traffic on the 84-kilometre portion of road has soared by 84 per cent to 830 per day.
And while overall traffic numbers between Weyburn and the junction with Highway 6 have increased by only 46 per cent to 3,680 per day, heavy truck traffic has gone up by 94 per cent to 950 per day.
Highway 39 from Estevan to the junction with Highway 18, meanwhile, has seen daily regular traffic increase 55 per cent to 7,480, and truck traffic jump 67 per cent to 1,200 vehicles. The government announced earlier this year that it would twin the eight-kilometre portion of highway.
The Premier conceded that the safety issue has been front-and-centre lately in the province due to safety issues and the “tragic” loss of life on highways. He noted that Highway 7 from Saskatoon to the Alberta border is another route that will need a solution with passing lanes or twinning.
"What you have here, though, is a lot of truck traffic. It's agriculture, it's oil, it's industrial," said Wall. "Again, I saw it first-hand coming down here, and so that has to inform what government is going to do."
The Highway 11 twinning project between Saskatoon and Prince Albert is wrapping up, and Wall said the government is looking at its next twinning project. Everything's on the table, but Highway 39 has to be a priority, he said.
Passing lanes aren't an inexpensive option, either, he said.
“If it's $1.2 million per kilometre for a new road, it's somewhere around that for a passing lane,” said Wall.
Should twinning proceed, it would likely be from Regina to the junction with Highways 39 and 18, and it would take several years to complete. It's unlikely that there would be double lanes all the way to the U.S. border at North Portal.
The federal government will have to be involved in the project, Wall said, since it's an area of the province that has strong international connections. Saskatchewan and North Dakota share the Bakken oil play. North Portal is Saskatchewan's busiest border crossing. And Highway 39 is a national highway.
“Think about the international story that's happening in Estevan and area,” said Wall. “It's the Bakken formation that's happening in oil and gas. It's the largest and most successful storage of CO2 happening in Weyburn in the region, and now in Estevan – we'll go live with it next year – the largest clean coal generating facility on the planet.”
Without federal support, Wall said the twinning of Highway 11 from Saskatoon to Prince Albert likely wouldn't have been completed for another two years.
Wall's announcement came just days after Bienfait resident Jackie Fitzsimmons' “Heaven's Flowered Highway” campaign, in which she encouraged people to place crosses and flowers along the ditches of Highways 39 and 6. There were about 80 such tributes, which Fitzsimmons viewed as a strong message that local people want to see the highways twinned.
And a group of local residents, the Time to Twin committee, has been lobbying the provincial government for several years to convert the highways from North Portal to Regina into a four-lane corridor. They hosted meetings, circulated surveys and petitions, and lobbied the government to convey their opinions.
Time to Twin co-chair Marge Young said the committee was encouraged that the government sees the need to make twinning happen. A lot of people have contacted the premier and the different ministers of Highways and Infrastructure to voice their opinions.
"We're just happy that it's moving in the right direction," said Young.
The one downside, she said, is that the twinning project might not extend all the way to North Portal.
"We certainly will continue to lobby to have that piece included," said Young. "They might not have the traffic counts that they have east or west of Estevan, but they still have a large enough number of semis, so I think that the people who have to travel it need to have it twinned."
Young said the Time to Twin committee has a project in mind that they would like to complete, and they would like to meet with Fitzsimmons to discuss a joint venture.
They don't yet know they're next step, but they still have a petition on the change.org website. As of September 4, it had generated 2,480 signatures.
Three days after Wall was in Estevan, an Estevan resident was killed in a head-on collision involving an SUV and a semi-truck on Highway 6 north of Corrine. Young said that she and Time to Twin co-chair Lauralei Ireland knew the victim.
Committee members are always sad to hear whenever anyone dies on Highways 39 and 6, Young said, or any other highway in the province, or when they hear of a collision that could leave someone with a life-altering injury.