The road to Canada’s largest national park is a rocky one, but the relationship between Canada and the NWT over who is going to pay for it could become even rockier.
Sixty-four kilometres of the only road into and out of Fort Smith have sat unpaved since 1966 as Canada and the Northwest Territories argue over who is responsible for completing the stretch of road through Wood Buffalo National Park, which would cost an estimated $20 million.
To be the only road in the NWT not to get funding is disappointing and unfair.
While the majority of Highway 5 has been paved or chip-sealed, the hard-packed gravel section cutting through the north edge of the park sits pitted and potholed, no longer meeting standards for traffic speed and volume.
“I drove it last week twice, and it’s terrible – potholes and washboard,” said Thebacha MLA Michael Miltenberger.
Last week, the federal government announced up to $72 million in funding for highway improvement projects in the NWT over the next 10 years, with the territorial government contributing the remaining 25 per cent, or $24 million, to the project for a total of $96 million.
The roads to receive federal funding include the Mackenzie (Highway 1), Hay River (Highway 2), Yellowknife (Highway 3), Ingraham Trail (Highway 4), the Dempster (Highway 8), Fort Resolution (Highway 6), the Liard (Highway 7) and the Dettah Access Road.
That is, every major roadway except Highway 5 into Fort Smith.
Miltenberger, who had expected last week’s announcement would be the moment the federal government stepped in to fill the holes in the roadway, said he was extremely disappointed.
“The territorial government was there to play its part and the federal government refused to approve the project,” he said. “To be the only road in the NWT not to get funding is disappointing and unfair.”
While he understands Parks Canada has a $3-billion infrastructure deficit, Miltenberger said the agency still has to fulfill its commitment to the road.
“They know we don’t have a pot of money for it,” he said. “It’s an all-around unfortunate situation and the community of Fort Smith is suffering because of it.”
Officials with the NWT department of Transportation (DOT) say they are fully conscious of the omission. While they had asked that Highway 5 be included in the funding package, they were told the unpaved section of Highway 5 was ineligible under the Building Canada Plan’s Provincial-Territorial Infrastructure Component (PTIC) funding because it’s on federal land.
“During our submission to the Building Canada fund, the 64 kilometres of park road were disqualified by the government, because it’s federal infrastructure,” said NWT Transportation Minister Tom Beaulieu.
Instead, the GNWT was directed to apply for funding under the National Park Infrastructure Improvement program. They did so late last year, sending numerous letters and holding meetings with Leona Aglukkaq, minister responsible for Parks and the Northern Economic Development Agency, but have received no response.
“Suddenly now we’re in there with Banff, Jasper – some of the biggies – and obviously we have not had a response from the federal minister about that program,” said Pietro Debastiani, director of planning, policy and communications for DOT.
Further correspondence was also sent to federal Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel, but has yet to result in funding.
The federal government owns the land beneath 117 km of Highway 5. In the 2011-12 fiscal year, the GNWT took it upon itself to chip-seal 53 km of the road through the ‘Reducing the Cost of Living’ strategic funding initiative established in 2007.
Beaulieu said it’s “definitely a possibility” that similar funding could be designated for chip-sealing the remaining 64 km during the final session of the 17th Assembly this fall, but that it would have to be 100 per cent GNWT-funded.
At the same time, Debastiani said DOT recognizes chip-sealing is not a permanent solution.
“It’s one thing to put a surface on things, but it’s another thing to actually reconstruct a highway to full geometric standards and then pave it,” he said. “I do understand they would have chip-sealed a few sections of it, but the bulk of that highway requires a reconstruction effort. There’s no point putting a chip-sealed surface down on the road when it’s just not going to stay. You’re putting a band-aid on something.”
While Parks Canada has yet to pave any of Highway 5, it does pay the territorial government to maintain the entire 117 km. According to the GNWT, the cost for maintenance has been steadily increasing due to the deteriorating condition of the road, and is now over $1.3 million per year.
Limited funds for highways: DOT
With a limited capital budget, officials with the territorial government say they have been forced to pick and choose which roads they give priority. Over the life of the 17th Assembly, reconstruction work has been done on Highways 1, 3, 4, 7 and 8, some almost yearly.
Earlier this summer, the department carried out public engagement sessions throughout the NWT to get input on their 25-year Transportation Strategy, which was tabled in June.
A plan for finishing Highway 5 is not included in the strategy, which lists four other road projects as priority items: an all-weather Mackenzie Highway from Wrigley to Norman Wells; an all-weather road to the diamond mines; an all-weather road to Whati to support Fortune’s NICO mine; and improvements to Highway 7 “to support tourism” and Canadian Zinc’s Prairie Creek mine.
Debastiani said DOT uses every opportunity to secure federal funding to improve roadways in the NWT. In the event that Parks Canada does provide funding to finish Highway 5, he said DOT would be amenable to a cost-sharing scenario to get that work completed, but doesn’t have the money right now to pave it alone.
“We can’t always wait for the federal government, but we have to balance this with needs across the entire system, because we have a very important budget but it’s heavily strained from year to year to year,” Debastiani said.
Mayor ‘not surprised’
Fort Smith Mayor Brad Brake said he was not surprised to see a lack of monies put aside for the completion of Highway 5.
“When the DOT traveled through the NT communities earlier this year I attended their meeting. They had a ‘strategic plan’ developed for the NT highway system and the ‘strategic plan’ for Highway 5 was ‘Secure funding from Parks Canada’,” Brake told the Journal in an email.
“I offered my opinion that a five-word sentence was indicative of a complete lack of planning and ‘passing the buck’ because of a jurisdictional issue was doing a disservice to the citizens of Fort Smith.”
That concern was noted in the final Transportation Strategy.
“Many expressed concern that there was no obvious consistent plan for completion of projects that have been worked on for a number of years (ie. chip sealing Highway 5 toward Fort Smith, rebuilding and chip sealing Highway 1 toward Fort Simpson, Highway 6 to Fort Resolution etc.),” the report states. “The consensus was that the GNWT needs to get some of these finished and off the agenda.”
Brake also directed his concerns to Parks Canada. In a response from Wood Buffalo National Park, field unit superintendent David Britton said Parks continues to “work closely” with the GNWT on improving the highway.
“We recognize that this would be a project that would have substantial support in the community and are investigating options for an approach to it,” Britton wrote.
Bad for business: Chamber
The road issue has been raised repeatedly by Fort Smith residents and business owners as not only a safety hazard for locals, but a deterrent to tourism and business in the community.
Thebacha Chamber of Commerce president Janie Hobart said there have been numerous reports of tourists and athletes choosing not to make the trek to Fort Smith due to the condition of the unpaved section and its impact on vehicles.
“It impacts all of us,” she said. “It’s not just strictly the hospitality industry, it impacts all the retailers in the community here.”
While she believes DOT is doing the best it can to maintain the unpaved section, she said it’s time for the federal government to step in and complete the road, which would save money in maintenance costs in the long run.
“That section is in the park,” Hobart said. It’s Parks’ responsibility to create that infrastructure, and I understand that right now the federal government is balking at doing that road repair, which is unfortunate. It’s one of the mandates of the park, to encourage people to come to the park to see the magnificence of it. Their lack of providing proper infrastructure is creating some problems.”