A Project Team Overcame Cold Realities To Deliver Canada's First Highway To The Artic Coast
Canada's Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highway opened in November.
PHOTO BY MELINDA TROCHU/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
BY TEGAN JONES
There's no shortcut for building a road to the top of the world.
A delicate permafrost ecosystem and shifting climate patterns stood in the way of completing Canada's first permanent highway to the Arctic Coast—a winding 137-kilometer (85-mile) path through tundra, lakes and streams.
The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk highway
PHOTO BY MELINDA TROCHU/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
But after more than four decades of dreaming and planning by Canada's government, it took less than four years to build the CA$299 million Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, which opened in November 2017. Now, trucks and other vehicles that previously were limited to using ice roads in only the coldest months have all-season access.
“The vision of an all-weather road in the Northwest Territories, connecting Canada's highways from the Pacific to the Atlantic and to the Arctic Oceans, was a strategic priority for the government of Canada since the 1960s,” says Dean Ahmet, senior program manager, major projects, department of infrastructure, Government of Northwest Territories, Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada.
That vision is now a reality—the result of a “nation-building exercise” that aims to connect northern communities, demonstrate Canada's sovereignty and open the Arctic for the development of natural resources, such as oil and gas, says Kevin McLeod, assistant deputy minister, asset management, department of infrastructure, Government of Northwest Territories, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada.
“When you have land access to get trucks and drilling rigs in, it makes the cost of developing that resource much more viable and more attractive for investors,” Mr. McLeod says.
But the project team had to manage watchful public stakeholders, ensure that the highway would deliver benefits—for now and the future—and overcome weather-related changes. For instance, temperatures as low as minus 57 degrees Celsius (minus 71 Fahrenheit) required construction teams to work around-the-clock, Mr. Ahmet says.
“All the equipment needed to remain operational and running 24 hours a day—because if you turn them off, you won't be able to get them going again,” he says.
Until last November, only ice roads connected the town of Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories to the neighboring city of Inuvik—and for just four frigid months each year. During the rest of the year, all supplies had to be shipped in via airplane, which was driving up the cost of living in the remote community.
The government began looking for ways to ease this financial burden in 1974 when it conducted the first land surveys that informed the road's route. But a variety of community, environmental and cost concerns delayed the project launch for decades. The Canadian government ultimately funded the project in 2009, inspired in part by new potential for opportunities in the oil and gas sector.
“All the equipment needed to remain running 24 hours a day—because if you turn them off, you won't be able to get them going again.”
—Dean Ahmet, Government of Northwest Territories, Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada
At that point, it was up to the project team to gain the permits and approvals needed to start construction without any further delays. That meant proving it was possible to build a road that would connect northern indigenous communities without destroying the natural landscape that is their cultural heritage.
The team had a lot of data in its corner: Piles of past feasibility studies offered expert perspectives to inform an ecologically sensitive project plan. But the government also tapped more informal channels to leverage local knowledge about the environment. For example, having tea with aboriginal experts and locals who knew the area helped them identify common places where bears hibernate and birds nest in the coldest months.
This knowledge helped the team create a highway route that would avoid wildlife migration paths. It also helped them determine the best place to locate quarry pits—to produce gravel for the highway's embankment—that would have the least impact on wildlife. The team even created nature-focused construction guidelines, including how far from a bear den a worker had to be to use explosives or drive a heavy truck.
“It was all about change management. Because of the temperature variability, we needed to compress our schedule to attain the efficiencies that we had planned.”
“We set up what we call the Inuvik-Tuk Corridor Working Group. We called it a corridor because it was more than just a thin ribbon of road; it was a whole corridor in terms of people, animals, air current and snow,” Mr. McLeod says.
This effort successfully shored up community support for the project, which received all necessary land and water permits on schedule in January 2014.
AN EARLY THAW
A whole host of unique engineering challenges meant project managers had to find creative scheduling solutions. Permafrost is easily damaged, and building a road on top of it can destroy its structural integrity. If built incorrectly, portions of road built on top of weakened permafrost would become a boggy mess each spring. To help reinforce the permafrost's natural strength—and limit the transference of heat from other construction materials—the team decided it would work only during the months when the ground above the permafrost was frozen.
Former Tuktoyaktuk Mayor Darrel Nasogaluak at the entrance of the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway on opening day
PHOTO BY WERONIKA MURRAY
1974: Public Works Canada surveys a 140-kilometer (87-mile) route between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk
1999: Government of the Northwest Territories releases transportation strategy describing the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway as a major policy objective
2009: Canadian government grants CA$200 million in funding
2010: Project is referred to the Environmental Impact Review Board (EIRB); The Government of the Northwest Territories releases its economic analysis of the project
2012: EIRB holds public hearings on the project
2013: Project receives a water license, as well as land use and quarrying permits
2014: Project team authorized to start construction
2016: Road embankment completed
2017: Surfacing gravel, traffic signs and guardrails added
November 2017: Construction complete
Dean Ahmet, senior program manager, major projects, department of infrastructure, Government of the Northwest Territories
Location: Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada
Experience: 40 years
Other notable projects:
■ Northwest Anthony Henday Drive, a 21-kilometer (13-mile) ring road around the city of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, completed in 2011. Mr. Ahmet served as the technical and implementation manager.
■ South Light Rail Transit Extension, a 12-kilometer (7.5-mile) double track line in Edmonton that includes a sequential excavation method tunnel, completed in 2007. Mr. Ahmet served as the senior project manager.
Career lesson learned:
“The effective engagement of a project management team during the earliest stages of a project promotes understanding of the project and its critical issues.”
Project technicians Kayla Arey and Kelly Kamo-McHugh sample and monitor water quality along the highway during the construction phase.
PHOTO BY WERONIKA MURRAY
“We turned our construction season on its end,” Mr. McLeod says.
But even that approach had to be adjusted. With climate change heating the Arctic, the ground above permafrost wasn't staying cold enough long enough to build the road as planned. Early thaws and late freezes shortened the planned November-to-May construction season by two weeks—which meant the team had to find a way to cut eight weeks from the four-year project timeline.
“It was all about change management from my perspective,” Mr. Ahmet says. “Because of the temperature variability, we needed to compress our schedule to attain the efficiencies that we had planned.”
The original project plan called for construction teams on each end to build the road in tandem—one starting in Inuvik and the other on the Arctic Coast. To shorten the timeline, the project team increased the size of the work team on each end.
The team also picked up the pace by increasing the on-site equipment, such as trucks, graders and packers, by 25 percent. It also flew in some supplies that were supposed to be barged up the Mackenzie River during the spring. All of these changes increased construction costs—but the team had built in enough contingency to cover the difference.
“The scientists and the people who had been working during the exploratory phase of the project recognized the risks from all those variables, and we built those into our plans,” Mr. Ahmet says. “So the budget that we set had the contingencies to absorb those.”
The road opened on time and on budget in November, and the government will be measuring its benefits—and environmental impacts—for years to come.
“This project is one of the most heavily instrumented projects for monitoring and controlling the behavior of the tundra as we disturb it,” Mr. Ahmet says. “We will be monitoring the behavior of the road footprint so that we can better optimize and build highways and any other infrastructure in the Arctic Circle.”
The project team installed a system of sensors and cables that monitors the variability of the temperature along the road 24 hours a day. This data will help the department of infrastructure, in partnership with a team of academics across disciplines, understand the tundra's elasticity and how it moves. The data will make it easier to build roads that better withstand seasonal permafrost shifts.
“If you can anticipate the variability and the movement of the tundra and frost field cycles, you would be able to prevent any drop in the road level before it occurs,” Mr. Ahmet says.
The government also will be focused on measuring the project's ROI. Although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's administration put a five-year moratorium on offshore drilling leases in Arctic waters in December 2016, the territorial government still believes the road will deliver on all of the project's strategic goals: community connection, national sovereignty and resource access.
Construction crews join the highway's northern and southern segments in April 2016.
The highway will provide villages better access to materials and services.
PHOTO BY MELINDA TROCHU/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
In addition to saving the territorial government CA$560,000 each year by eliminating the cost of building and maintaining a winter road, the department of infrastructure estimates that the ability to bring food, fuel and other supplies north year-round via the new highway will decrease the total cost of living for all residents in Tuktoyaktuk by about CA$1.5 million each year. The department also predicts the highway will provide better, less expensive access to healthcare and education. And for northern communities, the success of the project is a point of local pride.
“This is a northern project, developed for the north, designed in the north and executed in the north,” Mr. McLeod says. “So, they're very proud that they did it on their own and it had quite a northern stamp on it.” PM
“This is a northern project, developed for the north, designed in the north and executed in the north.”
—Kevin McLeod, Government of Northwest Territories, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada