Investing in the province’s highways for a safer future

By Martin Charlton Communications

Safe, reliable transportation infrastructure is not just “nice to have” in Saskatchewan, but it’s how our province competes in the global market, ensuring the people of the province enjoy a high quality of life. 

That message was delivered by Highways Minister Jeremy Cockrill when he spoke at the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce’s Business Conference in May. 

His presentation, “Transportation: Sharing Saskatchewan’s Food, Fuel and Fertilizer with the World,” explained what was contained in the latest budget to develop that transportation infrastructure and how earlier commitments had been fulfilled. 

Saskatchewan’s transportation infrastructure allows it to meet the world’s needs by safely and efficiently shipping our commodities from agriculture, mining and forestry to the world at competitive rates. Saskatchewan ships to 165 countries around the world and in 2021, the province exported a record $37 billion in goods, Cockrill explained.

He said his government recognizes the need for shippers to have timely and predictable access to markets, and that most of what is produced here travels south to the U.S., east to Manitoba or west to B.C., making our relationships with other provinces vital. A memorandum of understanding between Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba was signed in April to strengthen economic corridors that support our supply chains. 

“Our cooperation makes Canada better,” said Cockrill. 

The MOU commits the provinces to investing in and joining solutions to improve highways and rail networks, he said. The three provinces will cooperate to encourage the federal government for infrastructure funding and national supply chain solutions and harmonize regulations to support businesses, industries and shippers.

Growth is his government’s “north star,” said Cockrill, and that growth benefits all in the province. He said his government has its books in order and was able to retire $1 billion in debt when other governments have not because of the bounty Saskatchewan is fortunate to enjoy. 

Cockrill also highlighted what the latest provincial budget contained for investment in Saskatchewan’s transportation network, saying it is about more than kilometres of highway. It’s about what that network means to the people, businesses and communities of the province. 

The transportation network includes Saskatchewan’s 26,000 kilometres of highways, but also bridges, culverts, ferries, ice roads, gravel roads and more. Then, there are the municipal networks operated by municipalities. The province’s transportation network is “an incredible asset” built by the people of the province, said Cockrill, including the men and women who work for the Ministry of Highways who are very proud of how they contribute to that network connecting people and goods. He said they work hard every day to make that network safe, efficient, reliable and sustainable. 

The $422 million his ministry is investing in capital projects this budget will support economic growth and that benefit flows to all in the province, Cockrill said. The overall capital budget is smaller than previous years because a two-year stimulus program that saw the province release $300 million in new highways projects ended in 2022. That stimulus program saw investments in hundreds of kilometers of thin-membrane surface highways, numerous highway passing lanes, community airports and more. 

Cockrill referenced Saskatchewan’s Growth Plan, saying his government is now in the fourth year of that plan, which committed the government to improving 10,000 kilometres of highways over a decade. After this year, it will be ahead of schedule, Cockrill said.

Major projects this budget invests in include beginning construction of twinning projects near Rowatt and Corinne on Highways 6 and 39 between Regina and Weyburn. There is the construction of passing lanes and widening of Highway 5 from Saskatoon to Highway 2 and planning for construction that will extend twinning on Highway 5 east of Saskatoon to support traffic going to BHP’s new facility. Upgrades are being made to Highway 15 east of Kenaston between Highways 11 and 2. Then, there is the planning for the third phase of the Saskatoon Freeway functional study. 

Safety is a major focus of work being done by the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure. Cockrill pointed out that it has been five years since a bus carrying members of the Humboldt Broncos hockey team was struck by a semi-trailer, killing 16 people and injuring 13. After that incident, an engineering review was completed, resulting in 13 recommendations to improve safety at the intersection of Highways 35 and 335, where the crash occurred. Work to implement all those recommendations will be completed this year.

Other intersections and road safety matters also got attention and investment at the conference. This year, the government will have fulfilled its commitment to spend $100 million over five years to work on turning lanes, streetlights, flashing warning lights, rumble strips, crosswalks and sightline improvements. This work often had a big impact on communities, Cockrill said. Other contributions to improving safety include spending millions on pavement marking, increasing the budget for signs and ditch mowing. 

Saskatchewan’s transportation infrastructure allows it to meet the world’s needs by safely and efficiently shipping our commodities from agriculture, mining and forestry to the world at competitive rates. Saskatchewan ships to 165 countries around the world and in 2021, the province exported a record $37 billion in goods.

Almost $63 million will be spent to repair and rebuild bridges and replace over 100 culverts across Saskatchewan. Major bridge projects include replacing the Montreal River Bridge on Highway 2 in the La Ronge area as well as rebuilding the Highway 6 bridge over the Ring Road at the south end of Regina. 

Cockrill encouraged those present at the conference to learn from an example out of Moosomin for “how to get stuff done” in the province. Moosomin’s airport needed improving so the air ambulance could land on the runway, which was too short. So, patients were being transferred by ambulance to Virden, Man., where Saskatchewan’s air ambulance could land. 

Many residents from the Moosomin area worked together to stay in contact with the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure office to explain their situation. A partnership was formed in the area between various municipalities as well as a local employer, Nutrien, which the province joined to provide $1.3 million to extend the runway. 

Cockrill encouraged communities and regions who have a project to discuss with government to contact him about their concerns to make him aware of the opportunity to meet. He said this budget provided urban municipalities $6.6 million and rural municipalities $15 million to support their transportation needs. 

Cockrill spent some time explaining the investment being made in northern Saskatchewan and its significance. He said this budget invests $89.4 million to build, operate and maintain the transportation system in northern Saskatchewan, including gravel road improvements on Highway 924 northeast of Green Lake and continuing to work on Saskatchewan’s portion of the Garson Lake Road. A one-time investment of $6 million for gravel work and brush clearing supports the northern population and the province’s forestry industry, which Cockrill said is an important sector for the province that is poised to grow because of private investment. 

He said because the provincial highway network is the largest per capita in the country, the ministry must maximize how long those assets are in use. There is 230 kilometres of repaving to be done all over the province and other work is being done to more than 600 kilometres to extend the life of those highways, Cockrill said.

The growth Cockrill sees in the province is exciting and investing in infrastructure is an important factor in that growth. The economic prosperity has allowed the government to invest in twinning highways, safety improvements and northern roads while providing support for municipalities – all while paying down the provincial debt. The growth is attracting people to locate in Saskatchewan, Cockrill said, because of the province’s opportunities and affordability. 

Cockrill and Prabha Ramaswamy, the CEO of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, were asked questions by some in the crowd during the conference. Cockrill was asked what was being done with Saskatchewan’s transportation network to ensure the agriculture and mining sectors remain competitive. 

He emphasized the importance of safety improvements, including passing lanes that allow producers to move equipment while others commute between communities. The government is advocating for more prairie voices on the board for the Port of Vancouver because so much of what is produced in this province must be exported through that port, Cockrill said. He also pointed to his government receiving intervenor status after gateway improvement fees were introduced at the Port of Vancouver, saying those fees unfairly penalize bulk shippers in the province.

Finally, Cockrill was asked what the provincial government is doing to promote sustainable transportation. He again pointed to the investment in northern Saskatchewan, saying many northern communities have a single road to get in and out. Recent fires in that part of the province demonstrate the need for people to be able to get out when they must. Investing in flood mapping is another way the province helps prepare communities. 

As for electric vehicles, Cockrill pointed out that the gas tax is a source of revenue for the province to be able to maintain highways, although what is spent on highways exceeds what is collected. The government implemented a fee to ensure that as drivers transition to EVs, the revenue generated by the fuel tax was replaced. The private sector is stepping up to add charging stations along highways, he said.

Someone else asked about innovative construction materials for highways and roads. Cockrill described a surface treatment for gravel roads, but said for highways, there doesn’t appear to be a silver bullet. That being said, they continue to work with consulting engineers to ensure highways are built properly so they last longer.