Drivers face 90-minute detour as Smith Bridge in northern Alberta deteriorates

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Drivers face 90-minute detour as Smith Bridge in northern Alberta deteriorates
An old bridge in northern Alberta is in urgent need of major, expensive repairs. The reeve of Lesser Slave River says the Smith Bridge over the Athabasca River needs an emergency $1 million fix now just to last through the next few years. Dan Grummett reports. – Jan 12, 2023

An old bridge in northern Alberta is in urgent need of major — and costly — repairs. In fact, the local reeve says a complete replacement is needed — not only to keep the town alive, but also to provide a connection to tourism and oil and logging industries.

It’s estimated a replacement bridge would cost about $80 million, something the municipality cannot afford.

However, those who live in the Municipal District of Lesser Slave River No. 124 say Smith Bridge is critical. The 2021 census shows about 3,000 people live in this region.

“We definitely need this bridge,” resident Paula Bird said. “If I forget to gas up in town, without the bridge I’d have to have enough gas to go back to Slave Lake.

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“It’s not paved. It’s gravel,” she said of the road to Slave Lake. “It’s not the best road, especially when you’re meeting logging trucks.”

Bird said if the bridge is gone, she’d probably have to relocate.

“It wouldn’t be financially viable for me to live out here.”

The bridge was built in 1945 by the U.S. Army during the construction of the Alaska Highway. Traffic volume is low — just 280 vehicles per day, according to the Alberta Transportation Ministry — but it provides connection over the Athabasca River.

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Anyone driving from north of the river can use Smith Bridge to go south towards Edmonton. Without the bridge, residents and truck drivers would have to detour along Highway 2A, nicknamed “Old Smith Highway,” to the town of Slave Lake, Alta., and then travel south on Highway 2 — in total, about a 90-minute detour.

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“This bridge is sitting with a shaky foundation on the third pier,” said Murray Kerik, the reeve of Lesser Slave River. “If we don’t do this bridge right now, it’ll be too late.

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“There’s a pretty good chance this bridge is going to end up in the river.”

The reeve says the bridge needs emergency repairs now — estimated to cost about $1 million — just to last through the next few years. The long-term goal is a complete bridge replacement.

According to Kerik, the province has said the costs are the responsibility of the municipality.

Kerik said the province should step up, considering how much the region has contributed to the economy.

“Economically, the development that has gone out there in the oil field, in the logging industry. There’s calcium companies out here. There’s gravel pits. And they all pay royalties, they pay stumpage.

“Over the years, the Alberta government has taken billions of dollars of royalties and stumpage fees out of this region,” Kerik said. “Really, we’re just asking for a very small percentage of it back.”

A local community hall hosted a presentation Thursday to spread awareness and to try to garner support for provincial funding. There were representatives from the transportation ministry, but Minister Devin Dreeshen did not attend.

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Kerik said he was told by the province that the bridge has years left on its life. But a third-party engineering firm hired by the municipal district says the bridge requires emergency repairs this year, and that those must happen while there’s still ice on the river. The municipality is applying for a provincial funding grant to help pay for those million-dollar repairs.

In a statement emailed to Global News, Dreeshen said:

“In 2017, it was estimated that a bridge replacement was needed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a priority for the NDP government. In 2020, the Municipal District of Lesser Slave Lake took it upon itself to improve the condition of the bridge.

“On Nov. 30, 2022 the municipal district submitted a current application under the Strategic Transportation Infrastructure Program (STIP) within the Local Bridge Program for this project. Transportation and Economic Corridors is evaluating every (STIP) application and approved projects will be announced in the coming months.”

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The ministry said in 2017, it was estimated the bridge wouldn’t have to be replaced until 2023, but that was before the improvements were made in 2020.

Patrick McClanaghan owns Liquor and General Store in Lesser Slave River. He said the locals alone can’t support these small businesses and the bridge provides access to traffic from the other side of the river, which these businesses rely on especially in the busy summer months.

“This is small town,” he said. “It’s hard to survive as it is.”

Without the bridge, McClanaghan said the store would “absolutely not” survive.

“Everything would come to a standstill because you’d have to go all the way around Slave Lake and come back to go two miles, basically.

“The town’s survival it would probably dry up… the restaurant, service station, we all depend on summer tourists and the oil field.”

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