Can the challenges of our northern road infrastructure keep up with the opportunities for development?

WINNIPEG, Man. – The opportunity for developing Canada’s north has finally come, according to transportation industry experts speaking at Transport Institute’s Northern Exposure 2 conference here today.

This can provide many new opportunities for trucking companies looking to service these northern communities. But can the infrastructure keep up with the opportunities this presents and overcome the challenges it poses?

Aggressive mining and energy exploration and development combined with population growth and environmental uncertainties are the new realities for the country’s traditionally isolated northern communities. For example, there is $130 billion worth of mining investments projected over the next five years for Canada, most of it in the north.

“We have not seen this degree of growth since the 1950s. There is more exploration going on in Canada than in any other country in the world. The bottom line is that Canada is on everyone’s radar,” said Guy Ginter, who is currently working with the Moose Cree First Nation as the director of impact and benefit agreement (De Beers) and is also on the board of Kimesskannemenow Corp., the company responsible for building the James Bay Winter Road.

At the same time, the population of remote northern communities is growing at 4-5% while the rest of Canada is growing at about 2%.

Such potential for business combined with population growth will place increasing demand on building the north’s road infrastructure, traditionally comprised of winter roads and service by plane or ship. As Amar Chadha, director of the Manitoba Transportation Division with global engineering firm SNC-Lavalin pointed out,  “there is a very clear message from northern communities: They are seeking all-weather roads. “

Yet building all-winter roads to remote northern communities is fraught with challenges. Roads need to be built on firm ground consisting of granular material or bedrock. Yet much of the north includes predominantly organic deposits, wetlands, fens, peat plateaus and permafrost. In fact, about one sixth of the land is covered by lakes and rivers and building bridges is expensive work – amounting to about $12,000 per square metre, according to Chadha.

In many cases road construction involves dealing with pristine nature areas with sensitive ecosystems. Road work is often done in winter to minimize the impact on the environment which enjoys a very short growing season.

“These aspects of the environment have to be greatly respected in construction for the north,” Chadha said.

Such considerations plus lack of access and a shortage of a qualified workforce make new roads very expensive to construct and maintain in the north. Construction costs average about $1.3 million/km for a gravel road and maintenance costs are in the order of $5,000/km/year. That’s about double the cost it takes to build and maintain such roads in southern Canada.

And global warming is raising other concerns. Melting is causing the soil to move, affecting the stability of engineered structures.

“It’s a major engineering challenge. We have to take the long-term impact of global warming into account.” Chadha said.

The winter of 2011/2012 was Canada’s third warmest since we started keeping such records in 1948 and the northern part of the country is feeling the impact of global warming the most, according to Dr. Danny Blair, associate dean of science at the University of Winnipeg, and the conference’s luncheon speaker.  

Ginter gave examples of winter roads becoming unusable within a couple of days due to sudden spring warming.

Mike Sorobey,vice president of logistics, The North West Company, sees the impact of climate change as a huge hindrance to northern development and believes “a lot of money” will have to be spent just to maintain the existing infrastructure.

All these factors make for a long development process for building roads in northern communities – from the initial drafting of government policy to feasibility studies, environmental assessments and producing a detailed design.

“You could be looking anywhere from 10-15 years before building a road. You can understand the frustration from people wondering why the road is not being built,” Chadha acknowledged.

With so many challenges, building all-weather roads may not be the best option for the north. But John Spacek, assistant deputy minister, Manitoba Infrastructure & Transportation, challenged conference attendees to think of roads in a broader context. Roads, he said, provide mobility and access to the rest of Canada for remote communities. They are what is needed to bring more goods, better communications technologies and energy options.

“Transportation is key to socio-economic well being,” he emphasized.

Truck News is Canada's leading trucking newspaper - news and information for trucking companies, owner/operators, truck drivers and logistics professionals working in the Canadian trucking industry.

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