Inuvik to Tuk highway: building a road to prosperity

Inuvik to Tuk highway: building a road to prosperity
A grader smooths a top layer of gravel along the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk highway. At any given time, as many as 100 vehicles, from rock haulers to excavators to water trucks, are working away on the $299-million project.Photo: Courtesy of Northwind Industries.

Heading into its second season of construction, work on the 138-km highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk is already bringing economic benefits to the local communities, proponents say.

From now until spring, hundreds of surveyors, equipment operators and labourers – many of whom actually reside in the territory – will roll out to the highway from their nearby workcamps, stopping at local stores to buy coffee, breakfast, cigarettes and whatever else they might need to get them through the long day of working outdoors in harsh winter conditions.

“It’s going to be a good Christmas for everybody this year for sure,” said Merven Gruben, former mayor of Tuktoyaktuk and vice president of E. Gruben’s Transport, one of two construction companies working in conjunction on the $299-million project.

Gruben’s partners at Northwind Industries in Inuvik agree.

“People have been responding to the highway really positively; they wish we had even more jobs,” said Jordan Fedosoff, manager of long haul trucking with Northwind. “We were getting applications in daily – it’s huge for the local economy.”

Construction on the main section of the highway began in January 2014, employing 338 workers during the first season of toil on the year-round road, 78 per cent of whom were NWT residents. This year, according to Gruben, they hope to have anywhere from 400 to 600 workers between the two companies, with a minimum of 70 per cent from within the territory.

“This is the year that we want to make things happen, so we’re going to be doing a lot,” Gruben said. “I’m scared to say how much, but a majority of all the work is going to be happening this coming winter.”

According to a document released by the GNWT, the goal is to have 95 km of the road completed by the end of this season, though progress is contingent on weather conditions.

The Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk highway combines three different sections: the Tuktoyaktuk to Source 177 Access Road, the Navy Road in Inuvik and the 120-km section that connects the two. After completing a majority of work on the two community roads, Gruben’s and Northwinds are each picking up where they left off last year, working from opposite ends until they meet in the middle of the main highway. The project is planned to run for a total of three years, wrapping up in 2016.

The road is the first stretch of a proposed Mackenzie Valley Highway and is being touted by the GNWT as a first step towards prosperity in the region, allowing for cheaper transportation of goods, thereby reducing the cost of living and increasing business operation and resource development.

Constructed with care

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the employees work in shifts, spending two weeks on the job and two weeks off. At any given time between the two companies, there are almost a hundred pieces of equipment being operated on the road, excavating, laying down gravel, building bridges and creating culverts.

The majority of the work, aside from some smoothing of the top layer, has to be done in the winter to preserve the integrity of the tundra and its permafrost. A geotextile fabric is laid on the proposed building site before it is topped with at least a metre of gravel.

“That will insulate the permafrost from melting in the summertime,” Gruben said. “If you put the gravel down in the summertime it’ll disturb the surface layer of the tundra. You can’t operate out there in the summertime; the tundra covering the permafrost is just too fragile.”

Following this careful process, the gravel can be compacted, leveled and graded. So far, over a million cubic tonnes of gravel coming from Inuvik and Tuk have been developed into roads.

History in the making

It took 50 years of hemming, hawing, surveying and negotiations to get the highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk where it is today. The idea of an all-season road that would connect the country from “coast to coast to coast” first started floating around in the 1960s, but according to Gruben, wasn’t fully executed until Prime Minister Stephen Harper got involved.

“As a former mayor of Tuk, I was chasing down and meeting with anybody that I could influence on getting this road happening,” Gruben said. “I truly believe that if we didn’t get the PM onside we would still be lobbying and looking for ways to make this happen. There’s a lot of prime ministers that came here before and said they were going to do this but I’m looking at the picture on the wall of me with them and talking to these guys about building this road, nothing really happened until Mr. Harper got interested in the North and then I had a personal one-on-one talk with him and I really believe that made everything change.

“It’s a historical event,” he said.

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