Passing lane projects wrapping up for winter

·7 min read

Regina– With winter on the horizon, major projects for the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure are wrapping up. That includes a number of passing lane projects that have become Saskatchewan’s go-to method of improving highway capacity without twinning, and at a much lower cost.

Minister of Highways and Infrastructure Greg Ottenbreit spoke about the various projects by phone on Nov. 3.

Since the initial pilot project was done several years ago on Highway 10 between Balgonie and Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan has gone whole hog into passing lane development as a way to improve highway safety. Along the way, large portions of roadway have been repaved at the same time.

Some of the stretches between the new sets of passing lanes that weren’t repaved this year may be done in the future, if warranted, according to Ottenbreit. But other areas do not require repaving at this time. He noted some areas will see improvements to intersections, such as on Highway 9 next year, for instance.

“The sections that need it are definitely going to be redone,” he said of repaving.

The Highways 10 and 9 corridor running from Melville to Yorkton, then Canora, has wrapped up. Potzus Construction Ltd. of Yorkton was the contractor, and during the late summer, they were paving around the clock, literally, to get it done. “You’ll see, like the bigger cities, they’ll pave at night, because there’s less traffic and less hazards,” Ottenbreit said. “They took it upon themselves to do some paving at night to get the project finished on proper schedule.”

That stretch was a one-year project. But Highway 39 between Milestone and Estevan is not complete, and there’s a reason for that. It’s a multiyear project, Ottenbreit said, noting, “That isn't slated to be done until the end of next year.”

As of Oct. 26, there were still portions of that stretch that had substantial drop-offs on the side. “They'll make things as safe as they possibly can,” Ottenbreit said.

The entire project, which started in 2018, encompasses 11 sets of passing lanes from Regina to Estevan. Two of those sets were done on Highway 6 south of Regina and were completed in 2018.

He said the Highway 39 project has five sets of passing lanes between Estevan and Weyburn. “Two were opened, on 39, between Estevan and Weyburn. And those are already complete. The whole project is a $78 million safety project that includes five sets, or 10 lanes in total, between McTaggart and Milestone, and about 25 kilometres of paving.”

“Two of the four sets have opened north of Weyburn on Highway 39, and the contractors are working on both of those other projects during this week of the warm weather. And then, once construction does cease for the season, there shouldn’t be any reductions in speed. They might not have the project completed, but they’ll make sure it’s safe for the winter.”

During the latter years of the oil boom, before the province’s revenue crashed by a billion dollars per years as a result of substantially lower oil prices, the Ministry of Highways and Transport was well into the planning of twinning Highway 39 from Regina to Bienfait. Up until that point, the province had embarked on significant twinning projects on Highways 1, 16 and 11 in the previous two decades. The plan for Highway 39 was changed to passing lanes.

Ottenbreit said, “I know there was anticipation of possibly twinning that project. But when you look at the actual traffic flows, it doesn’t really warrant a full twining of that project. When that was talked about, the twinning, we really hadn’t done any passing lane projects yet, so when we started doing the first pilot project, between Fort Qu’Appelle and Regina, and then started rolling out some other ones, the safety was exemplary, and depending on the traffic flows, the passing lanes were more than adequate,” he said

Ottenbreit added some twinning was done near Regina.

The cost of passing lanes versus twinning is roughly 25 per cent, he noted. It is done within the normal roadway easement, so you don’t have the land acquisition problems or environmental impact.

To Alberta border

When it comes to Highway 7, the main route from Saskatoon to Calgary, he said there will be eight sets of new passing lanes. “By the time the Highway 7 project is done, they’ll connect us right over to the Alberta border.

Last year there were four sets from Rosetown to Fiske. This year, work was done near Kindersley. Next year will continue on to the Alberta border.

This is all part of a larger adoption of passing lanes throughout the province. Ottenbreit said, “When we look at the next construction season, partly because of stimulus funding, and partly because of projects we were pushing to get complete as well, right now we’re doing pre-construction work on 24 to 26 new sets of passing lanes.”

To Manitoba border

Just as Highway 7 is the major route from Saskatoon to Calgary, Highway 16 from Saskatoon, to Yorkton, then the Manitoba border is the next major route to be done. Ottenbreit said there will be 13 to 15 sets of passing lanes on that route, all the way from the twinned portion near Saskatoon to the Manitoba border.

“There’s three sets on Highway 14, from Saskatoon to Asquith that are going to be done, three sets on Highway 12 from Martensville to Highway 312, three sets from Prince Albert to Shellbrook, and two sets on Highway 2, north of Prince Albert to Highway 263. So we’ve got quite a few different projects on the books for next year,” he said.

Highway 5 east of Saskatoon

Highway 5, between Saskatoon and Highway 2, towards Humboldt, is seeing a multi-year project take place. On Nov. 3 the ministry said construction has ended for the season prior to completion due to the onset of cold weather, with temporary surfacing is in place for approximately three kilometres.

Ottenbreit said it’s a three-phase project. “Right now we're doing the centre section where (there are) some of the more hazardous areas, with narrow roadway and quite large elevation changes. So they're doing a pretty good job of increasing sight lines widening the road and passing lanes in that central section.”

That includes shaving down some of the hills and improving slopes away from the highway. That stretch had numerous small rises that make it difficult to see far enough to pass.

Ottenbreit said, “The next phase will be closer to Humboldt, as you get into Humboldt, to finish the passing lane section in there. And then the year after, the final phase will be the section from the centre section over to Saskatoon, which will include some twinning when you get closer to Saskatoon. So, I believe it's 2022, by the time that last section is done.”

He noted anybody who drove that highway realized it was a very busy highway and needed some work to be done. But while the Highway 5 project is underway, there can be delays 20 to 30-minute delays during construction. The Ministry has suggested alternative routes.

Infrastructure money

The Saskatchewan Party government had touted its $7.5 billion infrastructure plan during the election. Ottenbreit said the work on Highways 9, 10, 39 and 5, and some of the work on Highway 7 were part of the normal Highways capital budget. He noted, “This year we actually had the largest fall tender that the province has ever seen, about $468 million.”

The additional Highway 7 work, Highway 16, and the work around Prince Albert is all stimulus funds, he said. “Passing lanes are a big part of it, and also there’s a lot of thin membrane highways that we’re looking at doing as well, upgrading to improve the condition, as well as a handful of provincial parks.”

Brian Zinchuk, Local Journalism Initiative reporter, Estevan Mercury