A multi-million dollar overpass in Fort McMurray that was designed to make the morning commute easier for drivers is instead causing traffic troubles and drawing criticism.

Drivers say the problem is a new restriction on who can use Confederation Way during rush hour.

The $90 million Confederation Way overpass was designed to cut down congestion and has been open since November, but some say it’s not helping.

“It’s a little congested,” said driver Donny Synard. “I’m hoping eventually this gets straightened up… but this has been going for a couple of years. I’m trying to be patient.”

"Everybody was really looking forward to it opening up and as soon as it did, nothing improved," said Randy Crane. "The traffic is still backed up."

Most drivers are upset with a newly-designated bus route, an idea that comes from Alberta Transportation and the municipality, after officials found traffic wasn’t flowing off the overpass properly.

From 5:45 a.m. to 7:45 a.m. on weekdays, only buses are allowed to use the overpass.

Fort McMurray resident Angie Fougere says the bus route is hindering traffic flow.

“It doesn’t make much sense,” she said. “There are just too many people here and it’s going to get worse.”

Drivers flow into two lanes to the right and end up at a set of lights, where they turn north onto Highway 63, the same route as before the interchange was constructed.

“Lots of times there are no buses, the lane is empty, yet we have to go down and take the lights,” said commuter Dwight Decker.

“It makes for a frustrating commute lots of times in the morning.”

Outside those two hours in the morning, drivers can use the overpass, but it’s the restricted morning rush hour times that are causing frustrations for some.

Melissa Blake, Mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, says it’s still a good step to improving traffic in the area.

'It's the best that they can do with what they've got'

“The difference is that you’ve got two lanes for regular traffic, which is an up side on either scenario, and you’ve got the lane that takes the buses out from that 5:45 a.m. to 7:45 a.m. time,” Blake said.

"It's the best that they can do with what they've got. The ultimate objective is to change the interchange itself to something that is more appropriate for the population.”

Blake adds the municipality is trying to work with industry and individuals to see if more people can be using the buses themselves.

“If they’re all going north it’s because they all have jobs in the north at those hours in the morning. So if companies say contractors can’t ride buses, that is not in the least bit helpful,” she said.

“We’re working with the industry to say, you’ve got to get more people on the buses… it’s also going to have reduction on emissions, hopefully less need for multiple-lanes of traffic going through.”

Investing in road infrastructure

Don Scott, MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin, admits it’s been challenging, but assures steps are being taken to improve traffic in the area.

“Everybody recognizes the importance of making sure that this region has the proper investment in road infrastructure,” Scott said.

“We’ve seen that with Highway 63, we’ve seen that with some of the measures towards safety. I really see that happening on the ground. There are lots of reasons to be very optimistic that things are going to improve as we go forward.”

Scott says the province is taking feedback from commuters seriously.

“There’s going to be a better traffic-flow system to get people to their work sites. I believe that more adjustments will be happening as we go forward and get more feedback but the ultimate goal is to make sure people get to their work place safely and on time,” he said.

“We’re always adjusting depending on the feedback we’re getting.”

Population growth

Population growth in and around Fort Mac isn’t helping with the traffic problems.

The latest census suggests a seven per cent increase in population over the last year, bringing the total population count to119,000 people.

That number includes the City of Fort McMurray, nine surrounding hamlets and people staying in work camps.

“We achieve a coverage of 94.5 per cent, which is extremely high for a municipal census,” said Samuel Alatorre, with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

“We're pretty certain that the methodology that we use provides us with sound data for us to keep planning ahead."

The multi-billion dollar project also includes widening the current four-lane highway to six lanes.

Construction is expected to be completed by the fall, but until the right roads are in place, traffic troubles will likely continue to test drivers’ patience.

“There’s definitely a problem,” Decker said.

With files from Veronica Jubinville