BANFF, Alta. –The challenging economy may have put a damper on many businesses’ expansion plans, but for the Alberta government it’s full steam ahead for Transportation’s 2010 schedule.
Such is the word from Gary Boddez, the province’s Deputy Minister of Transportation. Speaking at the Alberta Motor Transport Association’s 2010 Management Conference in Banff on April 30, he said the government’s much ballyhooed budget busting hasn’t affected his department very much.
“Alberta Transportation is investing about $1.5 billion into the provincial highway network this year,” Boddez said, noting it’s about the same amount the department spent in 2009 and is “quite a feat if you look at the rather sudden decline in provincial revenues this province has experienced over the last 12 to 18 months.”
The decline of which he speaks was a projected $8 billion surplus that did a quick 180 and became a projected deficit of $7 billion.
“If that happened to any of your companies or households,” Boddez noted, “you would make some very drastic changes in your spending habits.”
Governments apparently don’t have to live by the same rules as the rest of us, however, and Boddez credited the unchecked cash flow at the transport department to the fact current Premier Ed Stelmach used to be Transportation Minister.
“Back then, he said if (such a cash crunch) ever happened again and he was in a position to do something about it he would,” Boddez said. “He’s been good to his word.”
The upshot, Boddez said, is that the department will fund about 1,300 kilometres of paving this year. “Roads are the backbone of the economy,” he said, “and that’s why we’re continuing to invest in our roads and bridges.”
Highlights of the province’s paving programs include:
Edmonton: work continues on the 21-km northwest leg of the Anthony Henday ring road. Boddez said that section of the highway, as well as the major interchanges at Stoney Plain, Collingwood and Lessard Roads, are scheduled for completion by the fall of 2011 and that the recently announced project at the Cameron Heights intersection, which he said is the last signaled intersection on the west Henday, should go to tender shortly.
Calgary: Boddez expects the contractor for the southeast leg of the Stoney Trail ring road will be mobilizing on the site soon and once that leg is open to traffic (Autumn 2013), about 70% of the ring road will be completed, allowing a free flow of traffic “From Claresholm to Edmonton” with no traffic lights.
Northern Alberta: Boddez said the twinning of Highway 63 to Fort McMurray continues, including the construction of a five-lane bridge over the Athabasca River and two interchanges in the city itself.
A number of older highways are also being brought up to modern standards, Boddez said, including Highway 9 between Calgary and Drumheller and Highway 58 between High Level and Rainbow Lake, which includes adding full shoulders as well as some tweaks to reduce the severity of curves and grades.
Alberta Transport is also upping the rest area ante.
“Safety is very important,” Boddez said, “and that’s why Alberta Transport will be building a significant number of new safety rest areas that will benefit truckers and other motorists and help ensure the safe long distance movement of people and goods.”
Boddez said the plan is to spend an estimated $100 million on another 100 rest areas. This construction season should see new rest areas built on Highway 16 west of Entwistle, Highway 33 north of Swan hills, Highway 58 west of High Level, with a pair going in on Highway 63 -one south of Boyle and one north of Wandering River.
The province will also be building a new vehicle inspection station on Highway 63, east of Grassland. Boddez said it will include a shed that allows enforcement officers to conduct inspections 24 hours a day in all kinds of weather and will be able to monitor both north and southbound traffic. The project is still in the design phase, but “should be completed over the next three years in conjunctions with the twinning of Highway 63.”
Boddez also touched on issues such as fatigue management and new ways of doing business on Alberta highways.
“It might seem like a long drawn out process,” he said of the slow-moving North American Fatigue Management Program, but a request for proposal will be issued “soon” for a contractor to develop the learning tools for an online fatigue management program. “This would enable all interested carriers to participate,” he said.
The Deputy Minister also expressed hope that carriers would look into installing electronic onboard recorders (EOBRs) in their vehicles and reported that, while some industry representatives would apparently like to see them made mandatory, “the minister does not support mandatory use by all carriers.”
On the other hand, Boddez said the Ministry “will be prepared to deploy this technology with persistent hours-of-service violators as a condition attached to a safety fitness certificate.”
As for the province’s Transportation Routing and Vehicle Information System (TRAVIS) permitting system, Boddez said the next step in the project is to include the municipal permissions required to complement the provincial ones.
“One document will be generated with all the approvals to reflect the different permit conditions,” he said, calling it “a one window approach.” Boddez promised that TRAVIS will be a fast, 24-hour permitting service integrating all routes and conditions into a single transaction and document.
But not just yet. Alberta Transportation is running a TRAVIS pilot project in the Grande Prairie area currently and, Boddez said, “we anticipate making it province-wide hopefully by the end of this calendar year,” though he also admitted it may also take a year or so to bring all the interested municipalities and counties on board.
Alberta, Boddez reported, amended its Dangerous Goods Transportation and Handling Act recently to ensure the provincial legislation is in step with the feds. The change, he said, will allow his department to introduce an administrative penalty option for offences.
“The Department will also implement a progressive disciplinary model consistent with the approach used by other jurisdictions,” he said. “This will allow us to effectively deal with carriers who continue to operate in non-compliance with dangerous goods regulations.”
And there are some new tech wrinkles coming to Alberta’s inspection regimens. Boddez said that, since defective brakes are the leading cause of commercial vehicle fatalities and injuries, the department has introduced Performance Brake Testers in conjunction with CVSA on-road inspections, which he said makes brake testing “more accurate, more direct and less subjective than current practices.”
Boddez also informed the audience that the department’s enforcement staff is now using thermal imaging units to pre-screen commercial vehicles during inspections. Thermal imaging reveals the presence or absence of heat, allowing an inspector to read a vehicle’s heat signature. Boddez claimed this helps inspectors locate mechanical problems -such as faulty brakes, underinflated tires, overheated wheel bearings, overweight loads, and poorly secured cargo -more efficiently.
“When a mechanical problem is identified, the truck is pulled over for closer inspection,” Boddez said. “And serious safety defects must be repaired before it is allowed back on the road.” The deputy noted that, since the new equipment is mobile, testing can be conducted in many locations. “It’s an extremely valuable and cost-effective piece of equipment,” he said.
Alberta Transportation is also planning to go digital, with a process of “e-inspections”. Boddez said these electronic CVSA inspections will replace the current paper document. “This will facilitate accuracy, availability, and timeliness of inspections,” he said.
These e-inspections won’t lengthen the intervals between inspection
s or affect current safety procedures, Boddez said, but they will let inspectors document results on a laptop computer and forward the data for approval electronically. Once it’s approved, the data can be deposited in the carrier’s profile database.
“The inspections will be viewable and printable at any time by accessing it over the Internet,” Boddez said, stressing that carriers will benefit from “all levels of inspection being recorded through this expedited inspection system.”
E-inspections should be up and running later this year, he said.
The Deputy Minister then turned his focus to the Partners in Compliance program, calling it an excellent example of industry and government working together to develop safety programs.
“It was the first program in North America to recognize excellence in safety practices by motor carriers,” Boddez noted, adding that the revised program introduced in 2007 includes full bypass privileges for PIC partners through transponder reader systems at a number of vehicle inspection stations. “Alberta Transportation has now implemented incentives such as the designation of ‘Excellent’ as a National Safety Code rating and non-fee driver abstracts,” he said. “And eventually, when the new driver abstract system is complete, we’ll develop it as non-fee right from the start for those involved in the PIC program.”
Boddez wrapped up his remarks by praising the AMTA and its members.
“Alberta transportation values the close working relationship we have,” he said. “Carriers play an important role in the lives of Albertans in transporting the goods we use daily and our Minister really does value your input.”
He also recognized the AMTA’s role in helping shape policy and improve Alberta’s transportation system. “We want to make sure that our processes are more efficient for everyone who drives for a living, and as a key stakeholder and partner you play an important role in helping to develop a safe and productive industry.”