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Making inroads in Canada

Highways - Road construction in the Canadian province of Alberta is booming on the back of a new economic boom. Adrian Greeman reports.

The big truck slowly spreading a load of Canadian 'dirt' through its belly dump doors is large enough for comparisons with dinosaurs.

It certainly dwarfs the houses alongside the alignment for the new Calgary ring road where it is working.

'Actually it is not really so large compared to the big mining trucks up on the oil sands, ' says Alan Dixon, urban construction engineer from the Alberta Province Infrastructure & Transportation department, which is client for the project.

'But it is pretty big for construction work.' The job in question is the rst stage of a new ring highway for the city, famous for its summer 'Stampede', a legacy of cattle ranching times, and in modern times for its oil industry.

The 'Houston of the North' is booming again these days as the oil price rises, especially because the oil bearing sand deposits in the north of the province have suddenly become a lot more viable than in the past (NCEI September).

Infrastructure throughout Alberta is getting a boost with a number of major highway projects underway, including a new ring road for the provincial capital Edmonton, upgrades to the highway into the oil sands areas further north and the new peripheral highway around Calgary.

'We need the expansion up there, ' says Dixon, 'because we have had some massive pieces of equipment going up there and it is only a single lane each way.' The Calgary road has been in planning for a much longer period as a relief route for the city. Currently trucks on the long continental journey along the Trans-Canadian highway have to pass through the city. It causes congestion, says Dixon, particularly because the highway within the city is 'really only a wider city street with numerous traffic lights and junctions'.

The road has been split into four quadrants, with the first section on the north west currently under construction, the northeast ready to go ahead and the southern sections still in planning. The three later sections will probably be built using what the Canadians refer to as P3s, or public private partnership schemes, but the first 30km or so is being done conventionally.

'In fact we have split the work down into a number of fairly small packages, ' says Dixon, adding that this is to keep the contracts tight in timescale, allowing contractors to come in and do a fairly fast job and then leave again.

'That shorter timescale is important at the moment because we have a severe shortage in labour and materials, ' he explains. 'Smaller contracts give the contractors the exibility to move onto other work. They don't have to lock up resources.' The whole of western Canada has been feeling the impact of the oil sands expansion.

Exceptionally high wages are drawing in skilled and unskilled labour alike and it is often difficult to find people for basic trades and labour. It makes the job of the ordinary contractor that much harder.

One spinoff has been the high proportion of women now finding work in construction.

On the Calgary project 20% of truck drivers and operators are women.

As well as keeping contracts small the various elements of the work have also been separated out by the client with earth moving, structures and paving all let as separate contracts. Values are in the range of C$20MC$50M (ú18M to ú44.6M).

Bridge and interchange design is being handled by Edmonton consultant Stantec. But like the contracting, design has also been split and the earthworks and paving are being designed and supervised by consultant UMA, part of the AECOM group.

Design is not exceptionally complex. 'We try to keep the bridges relatively simple. We have a lot of space out here on the prairies and land take is not an exceptionally difficult constraint. It is more cost effective to shift an alignment rather than build expensive bridges and crossings.' Biggest of the bridges therefore is only 170m total length with three spans to cross a single track railway.

But though this is prairie it does not have the dead at landscape of the central provinces. Calgary is close to the Rocky Mountains and undulations persist which have to be evened out for the road line.

Two muck shifting contracts are underway, creating the major activity on the project as several dozen large scale trucks, bulldozers and excavators roar up and down. First of the jobs on the western end was for some 5Mm 3 of muck shift, which is about 90% nished. The other for around 3.5Mm¦ is about 50% complete.

Paving will begin next year under a single contract along the whole 22km length. Road construction is fairly simple with a 450mm base layer of 20mm compacted aggregate underlying a 150mm thick asphaltic concrete layer.

The state traditionally use a two pass system with a second 110mm thick layer added two years after initial completion.

'It allows time to see if there are any aws or settlement, ' explains Dixon.

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