The NWT department of Transportation (DOT) is working to pave its way into the future, but first it has to take one last look in the rear-view mirror to make sure no ongoing projects are left behind.
For the first time since DOT was formed 25 years ago, the territorial government is outlining a long-term transportation strategy to extend over the next quarter century. From late April to early May, DOT representatives are conducting meetings to consult with the public and on Apr. 28, they landed in Fort Smith after stopping the day before in Fort Simpson.
“The next five or 10 years are going to be pretty critical as we move on from here,” said Pietro de Bastiani, assistant director of planning, policy and communications for DOT who is conducting the meetings along with regional representatives. “Right now we have an opportunity. People are just beginning to really know about the North, and tourism is really an area that can actually bring benefits to every region of the Territories. I think people are also interested in the mobility, they’re interested in safely being able to take their kids to a tournament and to go visit family.”
Last year, DOT met with GNWT members, stakeholder groups, industry associations, indigenous leaders and the NWT MP to gauge what needs should be highlighted looking into the future. DOT also conducted online surveys with the public at that time, with just over 500 responses. This round of consultation is now intended to be a confirmation of previous public meetings, to ensure DOT has its bases covered before jumping into a long-term plan.
Three main objectives were identified in the first round of consultation. Number one is to maintain and improve existing transportation systems. Next is to expand the transportation system to better connect communities. Finally, DOT is looking to embrace innovation to modernize transportation, create better communication with the public to promote safety and environmental stewardship, and to increase tourism by improving roads.
DOT controls the territory’s road systems, including winter roads, bridges and ferries. It also maintains the 27 community airports. The government of Canada maintains air, marine and – in Hay River – railway systems, though it does support some territorial projects like the highway from Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik.
Project completion a priority: citizens
“I think what we really heard was an element of frustration about how long it takes to deliver things, to deliver improvements and that’s reflected across the Territories. People really want to see their system developed like it is in southern Canada,” de Bastiani said of the consultations so far. “Our department has worked as hard as we can to deliver the essential services and to improve the system where opportunity arose and where funding limitations allowed us.”
At the Fort Smith meeting, an intimate group of citizens reflected this frustration in their demands.
It came as no surprise to de Bastiani that the top priority for the South Slave community is finishing off the paving of Highway 5, the only all-season road into town. Not only is the route riddled with potholes, but a 64-kilometre stretch passing through Wood Buffalo National Park has been left covered in gravel unlike the rest of the paved road, a huge turn-off to tourists and the economic benefits they bring.
“They started chip-sealing that highway back prior to ‘87 and if you guys had any foresight and proper planning, you could have had that total highway paved by now,” former Thebacha MLA Jeannie Marie-Jewell told the panel. “You’re really impeding and deterring tourists from coming to Fort Smith. Who wants to drive a recreational vehicle over our highway? I’m not saying our highway is not good, it’s a very good base, however it’s not chip-sealed. Plain and simple.”
The road technically falls under the responsibility of the federal government under the National Park Infrastructure Fund. DOT recently submitted a business case to get the road construction completed, but has not had a response yet.
Marie-Jewell expressed her disappointment when she was told there was no capital funding from the GNWT allotted for the project this year.
“For you to use the excuse of Parks Canada, that’s such a feeble excuse,” she said. “You guys have a fundamental responsibility to us in Fort Smith to provide us with good highway systems.”
Residents also inquired about the possibility of establishing an additional route out of town, as an escape route in case of extreme wildfires like those that surrounded communities in the NWT last year.
Other key initiatives for DOT in the future will be completing year-round roads into the Tlicho communities, improving all South Slave highways and ensuring runways at several main airports – including Hay River, Yellowknife and Inuvik – are smoothed out and maintained. To accomplish these projects, DOT will be seeking more funding from the Community Access Program.
“What we’re hearing in the regions is yes, we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a big job to be done and there’s some priorities in each region,” de Bastiani said.
After the Fort Smith meeting, de Bastiani and crew headed to Hay River on Apr. 29. Public meetings will continue into the late spring, with discussions in Norman Wells on May 6, Inuvik on May 7 and proposed meetings in Behchoko on May 12 and Yellowknife May 13.