Dave Ramsay – Progress on Roads and Bridges in the Northwest Territories

Jun 19 2013

Keynote address to the Canadian Institute’s Arctic Logistics and Infrastructure Conference

(Check against delivery)

I would like to thank you all for the opportunity to speak to you today.

Thank you in particular to the Canadian Institute for putting on this very timely forum to discuss the logistical challenges – and opportunities – of operating in our northern setting.

Priorities

Our Government has a vision of a Territory where strong individuals, families, and communities share in the benefits and responsibilities of a unified, environmentally sustainable, and prosperous Northwest Territories. Today, we are closer to that vision than ever before, but we need continued progress on the development and maintenance of transportation infrastructure before our prosperity can be assured.

When the 17th Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories was first chosen, the Members met to establish our priorities for our four year term. Two of those priorities are particularly relevant for this setting.

The first of these is, in part, to “Build a strong and sustainable future for our Territory by strengthening our relationships with Aboriginal and other northern governments… working with our partners to ensure responsible stewardship through our land and resource management regime.”

The second is to “Strengthen and diversify our economy by

  • making strategic infrastructure investments such as the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highway, the Mackenzie Fiberoptic Link, and hydro initiatives;
  • supporting the Mackenzie Gas Pipeline project,
  • developing a socially responsible and environmentally sustainable economic development and mining strategy,
  • supporting the traditional economy, and
  • improving our regulatory processes.”

The Departments for which I am Minister – Transportation and Industry, Tourism and Investment – are fully committed to the realization of these and the other priorities of the 17th Assembly. These priorities also help guide the work of the Government of Northwest Territories. We are moving the yardsticks forward in these priority areas.  And our intention is to do so by being as effective as possible in the way we do business.

So what does the future hold for transportation infrastructure in the Northwest Territories?

Opportunity

This territory’s economy is driven by the mining and energy sector. 24% of our Gross Domestic Product comes from diamond mining. Mines and mineral development contribute more than $750 million in spending to the NWT economy. There are seven significant mineral projects in various stages of development, for rare earth metals, cobalt, silver, bismuth, nickel, zinc, gold, and, of course, diamonds. These projects are expected to double the territory’s GDP by 2020, adding 2,000 jobs to our economy.

It is estimated that the Northwest Territories has 35% of Canada’s remaining marketable resources of natural gas and 37% of remaining recoverable light crude oil. That represents a potential of 81 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and nearly seven billion barrels of oil. Those who offer innovative solutions to the challenges of sustainably accessing and transporting those resources will prosper – as will we all.

Challenges and Investments

Resource development is currently faced with the challenges of operating within a transportation system that’s underdeveloped and, in some instances, only seasonal. Ice and winter roads support oil, gas, and mineral exploration and development activity. They provide vital transportation links to many of our remote communities.

Nevertheless, our changing climate means we can no longer predict the duration of our ice road seasons. Variable weather is causing the roads to be more difficult and expensive to construct, even with improvements in technology and greater effort.  The resource development industries and our communities need the stability provided by all-weather roads.

Strategic investments in infrastructure, both public and private, are keys to the future prosperity of the residents of the Northwest Territories and of Canada as a whole. Opportunities for our residents will be realized only to the extent that those investments are made. Improvements to transportation connections affect the dependability, availability, and cost of transportation for both industry and communities.

Our government has invested over $120 million on incremental strategic infrastructure improvements toward the Mackenzie Valley Highway in the past decade. The Department of Transportation has constructed 35 permanent bridges on the Mackenzie Valley Winter Road – investments that have successfully extended and stabilized the operating season and increased the road’s capacity.

In addition, our Government is planning for future spending in infrastructure. Capital spending in the final two years of the 17th Assembly will greatly increase as we continue to build the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway.

Collaboration

Now, one word that is heard regularly when talking about operations in the North is the word “harsh”. Our northern climate is said to be “harsh”.  Operating conditions are equally “harsh”.

I suggest to you that it’s time to retire the word “harsh” when it comes to operations in the Northwest Territories. As governments and industry have gained more and more experience, we have learned the importance of collaboration in moving projects forward.

The Deh Cho Bridge, the largest infrastructure project in the history of the Government of the Northwest Territories, was built in both summer and winter conditions. By collaborating with the local community, the project drew on local contractors and employees for the skills, talents, and services necessary to operate in conditions that many would find challenging.

Our collaborative approach was recognized recently when the Deh Cho Bridge project was awarded the prestigious Gustav Lindenthal Medal for the innovation, aesthetics, harmony with the environment, and positive community participation demonstrated in that project.

The Deh Cho Bridge is a good example of what can happen when the community, businesses, industry, and government work together to achieve a common objective. The community of Fort Providence put forward the project, and Aboriginal governments within the community were key players in the planning and early construction phases.

Businesses and industry identified cost savings and efficiencies that would arise from an all-weather link to the North Slave Region from the rest of Canada. Commercial toll payments will provide an ongoing revenue stream.

The Government of Northwest Territories stepped up to manage the project, bringing it to a successful conclusion.

As a result of that cooperation, the NWT will continue to benefit from this project for generations to come.

Inuvik-to-Tuktoyaktuk Highway

We are applying a similar approach to the construction of the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk all-weather highway, the northernmost section of the Mackenzie Valley Highway project. ITH is more than a road to connect the community of Tuktoyaktuk to the rest of Canada year-round. It is an important demonstration of our nation’s commitment to the North and Canada’s sovereignty over the North. It is an invitation for resource development in the region. And it is an opportunity to deliver increased possibilities to the people of Tuktoyaktuk. That project is now underway after years of consideration and planning.

When completed, the Inuvik to Tuk Highway will replace the Deh Cho Bridge as the largest infrastructure project in the history of the GNWT. The federal government described it as ‘a project of national significance because it advances the country’s position on security, sovereignty, and economic development’.

We worked closely with Inuvialuit leaders and the communities of Inuvik and  Tuktoyaktuk. Inuvialuit leaders played an important role in securing public support for the project, standing with us through a very successful environmental assessment review.

The environmental assessment process is now complete, with formal approval achieved. The main part of the project is now moving forward through the regulatory process with the full support of the region’s leaders and beneficiaries. That support was earned by listening and responding to concerns that were raised about the impact of the road on the natural environment and on cultural values.

A collaborative approach assumes that those most affected by a project will benefit the most from it. For the Inuvik Tuk Highway project, we have encouraged local employment and business opportunities throughout the process. We have done so without sacrificing high standards of quality and productivity. This was made possible when local contractors decided to work co-operatively together, creating a Joint Venture with the expertise and experience required to tackle such a large project.

The Joint Venture is wrapping up the first winter construction season after a successful effort to upgrade the 19 kilometre access road south of Tuktoyaktuk to Canadian highway standards. They completed 90% of that upgrading within the very short winter construction season that was available to them.

That activity provided a needed boost to the local economy, with over a hundred people employed and numerous local companies working flat out. They worked round-the clock to blast, excavate, haul, dump, spread, and upgrade the access road while the cold was still in the ground.

The project employs an innovative highway construction technique to avoid disturbing the permafrost beneath the road. Geotextile fabric is being applied to the frozen ground, with granular material placed on top, creating a layer of insulation that protects the permafrost from degradation. These are best practices that can be applied anywhere that continuous permafrost is found.

The upgrade work employed almost 150 Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik residents, 14 northern contractors, and every available piece of heavy equipment in the region.

Mackenzie Valley Highway

The Mackenzie Valley Highway project, of which the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk highway will form a part, will form an all-weather corridor from the Northwest Territories borders with Alberta and British Columbia to the Arctic Coast.

The Highway, when constructed, will enable our territory to become stronger and more self-sustaining. It will improve connections between communities and significantly reduce the cost of operating – and living – in the region. It will complete a highway system that was started under Prime Minister Diefenbaker’s government’s final term, which began over 50 years ago.

The project will support economic activity for residents and communities, while facilitating tourism, mining, and energy exploration and development. Residents of the communities along the way will also benefit as the cost of transporting fuel and goods is reduced.

That is why we have begun the environmental assessment process to convert the existing winter road to Fort Good Hope to an all-weather road, and to extend that road to the Dempster. We believe it is timely and will prove to be of significant benefit for all Canadians.

We are again employing a co-operative approach to this project’s planning and management. We are partnering with stakeholders along the planned right-of-way to identify best practices for working in this pristine environment.

For example, using funding from the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, Project Description Reports for each leg of the Mackenzie Valley Highway were prepared by Aboriginal organizations representing each land claim area. The work they completed was thorough and of high quality. The project received full regional buy-in and the support of community residents. The partnerships allowed us to maximize local involvement, increase local input, and maintain local control of the planning process.

Recently, our approach involving Aboriginal organizations in planning and consultation work required for the Mackenzie Valley Highway Project received national recognition from the Institute of Public Administration of Canada. DOT received the silver IPAC/IBM Award for Innovative Management, an award which recognized the significant value unlocked by DOT’s approach as we tapped into the knowledge and experience of Aboriginal governments, organizations, and people along the right-of-way. The approach proved the value of engaging Aboriginal partners from the very beginning of a project, and it will facilitate the continued involvement of these important stakeholders as the project progresses.

Winter Road

Preparatory work for the Mackenzie Valley Highway Project has been underway for a number of years. MVH will require an extension of the existing Mackenzie Valley Winter Road system north 335 kilometres, running from Fort Good Hope to the Dempster Highway, and we are preparing for that extension.

In addition, our government has been investing in incremental improvements along the existing Mackenzie Valley Winter Road alignment–an intentional, planned, strategic move which capitalizes on the advantage of the all-weather highway having the same corridor as the winter road.

Over time, the Mackenzie Valley Highway will replace a winter road system that is reaching the limits of its capacity. The demand for access to newly emerging exploration areas in the Sahtu region may well exceed that capacity in the coming years.

Again, we need a collaborative approach. Last year, more than $1 million was contributed by companies to help ensure the winter road could be adequately maintained despite a significant increase in industry activity. The support of industry has allowed the Department of Transportation to maintain and extend winter road access to the region to better accommodate industry’s needs.

As we face increasing challenges from a warming environment in the Mackenzie Valley, we will continue to pursue opportunities to meet the needs of both residents and industry. Nevertheless, an all-weather highway extending north from Wrigley to Tuktoyaktuk is the only long-term solution, and we are pursuing that vigorously.

Other Collaborations

Examples of our collaborative approach continue to grow. We are partnering with the Det’on Cho Corporation, owned by the Yellowknives Dene, to build a realigned road on Highway 4 to bypass the Giant Mine site. In large part through the capacity that they developed with previous DOT contracts, Deton’Cho has been recognized as one of Canada’s fastest growing companies.

We are partnering with the Tłı̨chǫ government on improving transportation routes within the region to support both communities and industry. Tłı̨chǫ government representatives have been engaged in the planning process every step of the way and, I expect, the result will be a better, more effective project.

Establishing collaborations, working in partnerships with leaders in Aboriginal organizations, communities, businesses, and industry, is what we aim to do every day. It is the way we do business. It is in our DNA.  And it is how to get things done in the North.

Corridors for Canada III

The Department of Transportation recently released Corridors for Canada III – Building for Prosperity, our investment plan for $600 million over ten years to improve our territory’s winter roads, highways, bridges, marine, and airport infrastructure.

We are proposing that the Government of Canada partner with us through two separate components of the new Building Canada Fund. We propose to spend $415 million over ten years under the Provincial-Territorial Infrastructure Fund for reconstruction, grade, and safety improvements on all of our eight public highways and the Dettah Access Road. This money would also be used for bridge rehabilitation and replacement work, a new air terminal building in Inuvik, and upgrades to our ferry landings.

We propose a further investment of $185 million under the National Infrastructure Fund, a merit-based investment program that targets projects of national significance. This investment would over the next ten years allow us to advance the Mackenzie Valley Highway project by completing the highway’s environmental assessment, constructing bridges, and developing the new segment of winter road linking Fort Good Hope to the Dempster Highway. It will also help us to mitigate the effects of climate change on our transportation system.

Most parts of our system were built to minimum standards that are challenged to meet demands. Through this proposal, we propose to continue tackling the challenges of a highway system that requires significant investment to support increased economic activity. With the support we have requested, we will in the next ten years make the strategic investments that support a strong economy and achieve vibrant, prosperous communities.

Continued Progress

I assure you that we will continue to make progress, ensuring growth in both our economy and our opportunities.

As we continue moving toward our goal of a prosperous and self-sustaining North, we are considering ways to better access the resources in the Slave Geologic Province. The Department of Transportation is assessing the feasibility of constructing a seasonal overland road to replace 156 kilometres of ice road and extend the normal winter road season by up to 30 days.

In addition, we will assess ways to improve our marine and airport systems to ensure continuous improvement in their safety, reliability, and effectiveness.

We will continue to employ best practices to identify the roads, bridge structures, and marine equipment in greatest need of rehabilitation or replacement.

We continue to improve our methods for building reliable winter and ice roads and crossings to allow those relying on those networks greater certainty for length of season and the timing of seasonal shut-downs.

We will use research to anticipate – and mitigate – the effects of climate change on our roads, bridges, and airports. We simply cannot continue to redirect infrastructure dollars to address the effects of climate change if it is possible to deal with those effects before they lead to structural failure in our system.

We will make it a priority to prepare our young people for the employment opportunities that will abound in the Northwest Territories. This focus will help us retain our youth, allowing us to leave in their hands the responsibilities of leadership and the administration of an increasingly robust and effective infrastructure system.

This is a matter that is of some importance to me. As with most parents, I hope I will leave to my children a better place for them to thrive and prosper. I want them to have economic opportunities which allow them to pursue whatever they choose. I want them to realize their dreams, and to dream big.

And I want the same for every child who lives in the Northwest Territories.

That is the challenge that is before us. Let us be innovative, energetic, and courageous as we pursue that challenge.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me.