Six months after her 21-year-old son died on Hwy. 628, Kirsten MacNeil is joining Parkland Country residents in their call for safety improvements to a commonly used passageway west of Edmonton.
If you travel down Whitemud Drive west out of Edmonton, it turns into Hwy. 628, intersecting with Highway 60 and connecting the city to Spruce Grove and Stony Plain.
But Kirsten doesn’t travel down that road anymore, at least since since her son died on it in July.
“It was the most horrific moment of my entire life,” she said, recalling how RCMP officers came to her door on a sunny July evening to tell her about her son’s death.
Luke MacNeil was the youngest of three siblings, a football player who was going to school to become a plumber.
“He was amazing. He was so loved. And he was funny and smart and caring and protective.”
Luke was driving from Edmonton to his mom’s home outside Spruce Grove when his SUV suddenly left the road and rolled, hitting a fence, a horse and a tree. The impact broke his neck and back, causing internal bleeding and he died.
“He had his whole life ahead of him. There were 800 people at his funeral. That’s how many lives he touched,” Kirsten said.
She believes the dust, soft shoulders and narrowness on Hwy. 628 contributed to Luke’s death.
“I want to see that road paved, widened, safe. It’s a major commuting secondary road,” she said. “If I can prevent one family from going through what I’m going through, I’ll do it.”
On Friday, Kirsten was wearing Luke’s football ring, a necklace with his fingerprint and a bracelet with his initials.
Other than going to visit Luke’s roadside cross, Kirsten avoids using the highway.
Other fatal collisions on Highway 628
Luke isn’t the only one to have died on Hwy. 628. In November 2015, three other people died a little further west when their truck collided with a gravel truck.
Global News also saw another cross, for a man named Mark, just east of the scene of Luke’s crash.
Residents that live along Hwy. 628 have been pushing for improvements since January.
“We’re really fighting to get it cold-packed again, so we can have shoulders, so we can have that width, so people don’t drive off the side. Right now it’s just loose gravel,” said Michelle Kleijnen.
She has lived in the area her whole life, and said the road was better when it was paved — as recently as a year ago.
“There’s nine residents that live within a quarter of a mile on this road. That’s why we had it paved. We know how dangerous it is, we’ve seen how dangerous it is, and we paid, originally, to get it paved. Now for the government to just come and rip it up, without any consult. I’m sure everybody would have even paid to get a little bit of a shoulder put on, if that was the problem.”
Kleijnen also thinks the road contributed to Luke’s crash.
“I have no question that he could not see where the end of that road was because it was so dusty,” she said. “I’ve been here for 47 years and this is the worst this road has ever been. Ever.”
Kleijnen’s neighbour, Christina Mowbray, was first on scene at Luke’s collision. His SUV landed in her yard.
“It’s not easy, because it could have been one of my family members, or my kids,” she said, with tears welling up in her eyes.
The horse that was maimed in the collision was hers: a bronco named Tonka. She had to put him down.
“It’s hard because they still have not fixed the washboard that was there, the potholes that were there. They’re not doing anything and my children and I are on this daily.”
The neighbours say they’ve spoken to their mayor and MLAs but feel they aren’t being heard.
Calls to upgrade highway and provincial response
Mowbray started a petition to get the transportation minister’s attention.
So far, it has nearly 2,100 signatures.
Alberta Transportation issued a statement which reads: “Alberta Transportation is aware of citizen concerns related to certain sections of Highway 628. We are working on improvements in the area, including repaving between Golden Spike Road and Highway 779. We expect work on that project to begin in 2018. You can see this project on our three-year Provincial Construction Program.
“As for the section between Edmonton and Golden Spike Road, we are aware that the road needs some work. Small segments of this section of Highway 628 have been treated in the past with a mixture of gravel and asphalt, but it became too difficult to maintain so gravel was applied to match the entire section of road. We are in the process of hiring a consultant for future design work and to identify the need for utility relocation and land acquisition. Completing that consulting work will allow the project to proceed directly to the construction phase as funding becomes available and is allocated.
“As for future funding, there are a number of factors we consider in setting priorities for roadway construction including enhancing public safety, whether the road is a major trade corridor and to relieve congestion. We can’t provide a timeline for construction of the segment of Highway 628 between Edmonton and Golden Spike road at this time.”
That doesn’t sit well with these moms. They say action is needed now.
“We want them to save lives. We’re not asking them to spend money that’s not necessary,” Mowbray said.
The RCMP did not return Global News calls for information on the cause of the fatal crashes.
Kirsten isn’t sure if guardrails, a wider road or pavement would have saved her son, but she hopes they might have.
“I know four people that have died on that road. How many more? What are we going to do?,” she said.
“Any family could be sitting where I am now. And if you think it’s bad, it’s a million times worse.”