GNWT highway priorities remain tied to resources

GNWT highway priorities remain tied to resources
Much of the NWT’s highway network was built in the 1950s and ‘60s to access mineral resources. Today, the motivation to build roads is still driven by underground treasure.Photo courtesy of GNWT.

An infrastructure infusion from the federal government seems so likely the GNWT has been asked to submit even more projects for consideration.

Speaking via conference call from a mining gathering in Vancouver on Jan. 26, Premier Bob McLeod said the GNWT is still working on a wish list for a second submission.

Three major priorities were put in about 18 months ago; ongoing maintenance of the existing road network, extending the all-weather road network north into the Slave Geological Province (SGP) and building a permanent link between Highway 3 and Whati. The GNWT has also applied for funding to build the Mackenzie Valley highway from Wrigley to Norman Wells.

“We have it in writing that Prime Minister Trudeau and the federal government is committed to investing in infrastructure,” he said. “The Building Canada fund announced by the previous government provided for $28 million a year, or about $260 million over 10 years… and the (current) government of Canada has asked us to provide more projects because of the fact they’ve doubled the amount of money that’s available. We’re waiting for that process to be unveiled and we’re looking forward to these infrastructure projects going forward.”

Highways command the vast majority of the department of Transportation’s (DOT) attention. Of the $6.6 billion in infrastructure needs identified over the next 20 years, highways account for $5.5 billion. There are more than 2,200 kilometres of road and 100 bridges in the numbered highway system alone and vehicles logged 167.7 million kilometres on them in 2014. Ongoing maintenance of the existing road system is the most significant item in the DOT budget as much of it was built to minimum standards in the 1960s through the federal Roads to Resources program.

“The highway system has the greatest level of outstanding capital needs of all GNWT infrastructure categories,” the government’s 2015-2040 transportation strategy reads. “Highway Functional Assessments, completed in 2014, indicate that significant reconstruction efforts are required across the system.”

Another priority is linking more of the population to year-round road access. In 2014 only 12 communities, or just more than a third of those in the NWT, had such a connection and another six have seasonally interrupted access to the permanent highway system. About a third of the population is served only by winter roads.

The plan in the 1960s was to either build a road up the Mackenzie Valley  to serve the comunities, or alternativley build a road into the SGP that would angle northeast into Nunavut, terminating at a future port in Bathurst Inlet on the Arctic coast. Those two competing road plans continue to alternate places as the first priority today. The communities along the Mackenzie still want road access, and there is continued pressure from industry to convert the winter road north of Yellowknife to all-weather. Both are very costly.

McLeod met with Yukon cabinet ministers at the Vancouver conference who are looking at improving access through the Howard’s Pass Access Road, a private road running from Selwyn Chihong Mining Ltd.’s zinc mine to the Yukon border, then south through the Sahtu and Dehcho before connecting to the Nahanni Range Road back in the Yukon.

It was built in the late 1970s and Selwyn Chihong spent more than $13 million in 2014 to upgrade it to a one-lane all-season road. The company has applied to the Mackenzie Land and Water Board to upgrade it again to a two-lane all-season road.

“We’re looking at those potential infrastructure projects as well,” McLeod said.

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