Industrial park expected to pave way for Highway 40 twinning

A new industrial park in northwest Alberta could spur provincial funding for the twinning of Highway 40 south of Grande Prairie, say members of a tri-municipal partnership.

Highway funding a 'partnership obligation' for province in industrial park agreement

Highway 40, south of Grande Prairie, is a main corridor for lumber and energy companies in the region. (Kevin Bowie)

A heavy-industrial park meant to attract new business to the Peace region could spur improvements to Highway 40, including twinning and a new bridge along a busy stretch of the road south of Grande Prairie, Alta.

The park will cover 335 square kilometres in the Municipal District of Greenview, roughly 40 kilometres south of Grande Prairie.

Highway 40 cuts through the centre of the site, linking plots of land approved for development to the nearby city of more than 63,000.

The province reinforced its commitment to the industrial park at the annual two-day Growing the North conference in Grande Prairie.

Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous announced Wednesday a project charter will be finalized by the end of February. 

"We know that industry moves very, very quickly and that their decisions on where they're going to invest are based on a number of factors," Bilous told reporters at the conference.

"What this shows is a commitment to working together, the province with the municipalities, in order to make it as easy as possible for business to invest."

The province last year dedicated $210,000 to planning the site, through the Community and Regional Economy Support (CARES) program.

Costs include contractors, environmental reviews and a market analysis.

The provincial grant matched a joint investment by the three municipalities involved in the park, to cover the first phase of planning.

The County and City of Grande Prairie split 50 per cent of the cost, while the Municipal District of Greenview paid for the other half.

Planning is expected to conclude within two years.

Dale Gervais, reeve for the Municipal District of Greenview, says twinning Highway 40 is crucial to the project's success.

"The province says they're a partner in this — well, that's going to be part of their partnership obligation," Gervais said Wednesday, after Bilous' announcement.

"There has been some interest expressed by national and international companies into moving into this area that's going to create all kinds of jobs and investment here."

Early planning for the industrial park, paid for by the province and three municipalities, will save investors up to two years' worth of paperwork and bureaucratic processes, Gervais said.

As a result, companies that opt to build in the park will see a faster return on their investments, he said.

But Highway 40 remains a constraint on development and could deter new industry from settling in the region, Gervais added.

The reeves of the Municipal District of Greenview (left) and the County of Grande Prairie (right) say Highway 40 is crucial to the success of a new industrial park. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Leanne Beaupre, reeve for the County of Grande Prairie, drives the two-lane highway almost every day for work.

The stretch of road immediately south of Grande Praire, near the area's single bridge over the Wapiti River, is often clogged with traffic as a result of accidents or poor driving conditions, she said. 

"The amount of traffic that happens... into Grande Prairie and back out that way, succeeds the amount of investment that has been put into roads in that area," Beaupre told CBC News.

Highway 40 is a main corridor for trucks and semis contracted by lumber and energy companies in the region, she added.

More than 12,100 drivers with over-dimensional vehicle permits passed through Grande Prairie last year — up by 53 per cent from 2016 — according to data tracked by the city. 

The highway connects Grande Prairie and its surrounding municipalities to industry such as natural gas operations in the Montney Formation. 

Beaupre said she hopes the new industrial park will spur provincial funding for a second bridge across the Wapiti River, as well as highway twinning for at least 50 kilometres south of Grande Prairie.

"It's been a real concern, not only from the municipalities but from the people that have loved ones that are on that road every day," she said.

Safety first, business stakeholders say

Improving the reputation of Highway 40 could ultimately attract more investors to the Peace, said Cris Seppola-Podsada, board chair for the Grande Prairie and District Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber has advocated on behalf of businesses in the region for years, she said, calling for improvements to the locally notorious highway.

"Traffic's just going to get heavier and heavier," Seppola-Podsada said.

"If we are able to meet that problem head-on and know the kind of climate that we're in, it's really going to helps us be safer in the long run, which of course helps our economy in the long run."

Grande Prairie RCMP responded to 150 collisions on Highway 40 last year. The number does not reflect all accidents along the highway, between Grande Prairie and Grande Cache.

"It's heartbreaking to see all of the issues that happen on that road," Seppola-Podsada said. "You hear about accidents all the time.

"We don't want that road to be known as something that's dangerous, we want people to be safe going to and from their jobs."

The Grande Prairie and District Chamber of Commerce is advocating on behalf of businesses for a section of Highway 40 south of the city to be twinned, said board chair Cris Seppola-Podsada. (Zoe Todd/CBC)
Companies with worksites south of Grande Prairie have a stake in highway safety, said Cindy Park, the director of community engagement with Seven Generations Energy. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Seven Generations Energy is one of the companies with work sites along Highway 40 and employs thousands of service workers and contractors who travel the route every day.

"Certainly, our land base that we work with is south of town and Highway 40 is a huge part of our access," said Cindy Park, Seven Generations' director of community engagement.

"The economic drive of this area and the economic impact of the oil and gas industry is incredible and we're all very fortunate to be here, but it's a balance."

Energy minister weighs in

Energy Minister McCuaig-Boyd said explosive economic development in the Peace region has raised the profile of Highway 40.

She spoke publicly about the importance of infrastructure around industry hotspots, including Grande Prairie, at the conference on Thursday.

"Back when Highway 40 was built and paved, nobody anticipated the growth in the energy sector so they're very aware that we need to do something on this highway," McCuaig-Boyd told CBC News after her speech.

Energy Minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd says the province is aware of the economic benefits of upgrading Highway 40. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

McCuaig-Boyd, who is from Grande Prairie, said she has raised the topic of Highway 40 with Transportation Minister Brian Mason.

"I hope we can push it up the priority list but there's lots of priorities in Alberta right now," she said. "This is going to be the next big area to grow in Alberta so we need to be ready for it.

"I can't promise it right now but I'm certainly going to advocate for some more work on that highway."

Twinning, bridge on unfunded project list

Alberta Transportation last year dedicated $200-million to 18 projects along Highway 40.

For instance, the province is designing improved intersections and 28 kilometres of passing lanes along a 55-kilometre stretch between the Kakwa River and Canfor. 

Twinning Highway 40 south of Grande Prairie, between the city and the Norbord Plant, is on the province's unfunded Capital Project List.

An engineering consultant retained by Alberta Transpotation is designing the project, which will include a second bridge over the Wapiti River.

Detailed consultation will begin this spring, an Alberta Transportation spokesperson said in an email statement to CBC News.


About the Author

Zoe Todd

Video Journalist

Zoe Todd is a CBC video journalist based in Alberta, filing videos and stories for web, radio and TV.