COAST TO COAST TO COAST
Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway makes the Arctic Ocean accessible
by PETER KENTER
The Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk (Inuvik-Tuk) Highway is more than a 138-kilometre strip of road in Canada’s north. It’s an engineering achievement, and an economic artery that will significantly boost commerce and help to make goods more affordable for residents.
Much has been said about the Trans-Canada highway joining the country from coast to coast. The Inuvik-Tuk highway achieves something just as spectacular, allowing drivers to easily reach the country’s third coast, the Arctic Ocean, on a well-engineered gravel road.
While the highway is still just a little short of final completion — it’s set to open to traffic in 2017 — it achieved a major construction milestone in April 2016 as trucks dumped gravel into the final stretch of roadbed linking north and south project spreads.
The need for a road joining the two communities was identified in the 1960s. However, neither intentions nor feasibility studies build a highway. A 17-kilometre length of road out of Tuktoyaktuk and a six-kilometre, road out of Inuvik were built locally, but only ice roads following the Mackenzie River and Arctic Ocean provided a seasonal route between the communities.
The centre line would be marked with stakes and the project area would be cleared of surface snow using minimally invasive snowcats. A geotextile product 20 to 30 metres wide would then be placed on the ground.
“At the same time gravel and granular material would be produced for the road embankment in the local quarries,” says McLeod. “The trucks would then begin dumping the material onto that stretch of roadway in thicknesses of less than 300 mm. It would be compacted with sheepsfoot rollers and dozers as the surveyors controlled the spread of the material. That would be repeated until it was brought up to design grade and the process would be continued.” Summer work consisted of further grading and compacting of the embankment as the material thawed.
Even gravel pits were heavily monitored by regulators to ensure that damage to the permafrost and surrounding areas was minimal.
Supply chains saw all the new equipment and material moved in from Alberta and British Columbia, ultimately employing ice roads for the final approach. Camps of up to 100 people were built along the highway route to support 24/7 pit and hauling operations. Careful planning saw just enough additional dump trucks brought into the area beforehand to move exactly the amount of material required.
Subcontractors were also called in to build prefabricated concrete bridges, including eight major structures of up to 100 metres in length. Dedicated culvert crews installed under-road infrastructure.
The scientific community is also using the road and source materials as large laboratories to monitor the permafrost. Currently there are five major experiments being conducted with hundreds of sensors in the roadbed and surrounding area to provide huge quantities of data for study.
“However, the winter is hard on equipment and hard on personnel,” says McLeod. “The temperature got as cold as -55 C and safety crews monitored how long construction workers were exposed to the cold before they entered the warming shacks along the way. The sun was largely down during the construction period so we brought in lots of lights and had to be extremely mindful of safety issues.”
The construction project was heavily regulated. In addition to the main environmental concerns, the project tracked more than 230 conditions on a daily basis. At various times more than 40 wildlife monitors were used to report on bear dens, foxes, fish and other northern denizens.
Once the roadbeds are complete, a gravel surface will be spread across them, bound and solidified to provide a drivable road surface. The installation of guard rails, pullouts, viewing areas and signs will compete the project.
“When the two crews met in the middle and shook hands there was a historical achievement that some people compared to driving the last spike in the Canadian Pacific Railway,” says McLeod. “The ultimate impact of the project on the region will extend far beyond a photo opportunity, from connecting communities, families, people and resources to further establishing Arctic sovereignty.”
Work stopped for an hour, while crews introduced each other and posed for videographers and photographers. Then they got back to work with a vengeance.
“Northern people have a strong work ethic and they just like to get things done,” says McLeod. “They marked the historical moment and then were eager to carry on and get going. They had a road to finish.”
Russell Newmark, CEO,
E. Gruben’s Transport Ltd.
of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T.
Kurt Wainman, CEO,
Northwind Industries Ltd.,
“We’ve been part of a group in Tuk that have been aggressively and actively lobbying for this highway for 30 years. After years of lip service about moving forward on this project, we became optimistic about contracting for it when the government of Canada announced it would dedicate money to it. We were initially interested in bidding only the Tuk portion, but then we approached Northwind in Inuvik, who we’ve worked with before, so we could bid the entire road ourselves. Together with the engineering groups we put together a proposal that was accepted and we were off.
“The biggest construction challenge is that the region is deltaic and the majority of deposits are silt laden with high moisture content. It was a tremendous challenge to identify and access gravel sources that were marginal at best and using them to create an acceptable road construction material in a very remote, cold region.
“We were doing four or five kilometres per week and both crews decided at a certain time that we would make a mad dash of about three kilometres toward one another. That meeting was quite a historic occasion for us.
“It truly is a great project. You’re building a permanent all-weather highway in this region of a scope that has never been built before. It has the national significance of connecting the country from coast to coast to coast and local benefits, the effect of which will be felt many years into the future.”
“Northwind and Gruben’s do a lot of the same work from smaller roadbuilding projects to ice roads to lease pads supporting oilfield work. We were a natural fit.
“We wanted to use as much local labour as we could, so when we exhausted the local supply of skilled labour we did a lot of in-house training using government training programs and simulators to build skills for operating excavators and rock trucks. We next looked at a pool of workers from the Yukon — we wanted to keep it northern.
“Our biggest challenge was weather. The first year it was nice and cold, but the second year it was warmer and this year it was very mild. That made it harder to build ice roads so we could get to the gravel sources. This year we started a month late and got shut down a month early.
“We split the job not by number of kilometres but by how much material we had to haul to build the road. We wound up having a few more kilometres more coming south because the other crew had to place more material in some of the dips and valleys.
“There was a lot of excitement the day that the two ends of the roads connected. It also gave us access to some of the better construction material on the other side. I was right there when the crews connected, working alongside them. I’ve built roads all my life and I wouldn’t miss a moment like this — that’s why I hire people to run the office. I was working on the project every day until the last guy drilled out the last of the gravel sources.”
The $299-million project to build 120 kilometres of new road was financed two-thirds by the federal government and one-third by the Government of the Northwest Territories. The contract was undertaken by a joint venture company, EGT-Northwind Ltd., made up of E. Gruben’s Transport Ltd. of Tuktoyaktuk in the north and Northwind Industries Ltd. of Inuvik in the south. The contractors split the project in two, with each project team heading out from its own base with the aim to meet in the middle.
“You have to maintain engineering principles in terms of vertical and horizontal road alignment to give a driver a calm and enjoyable drive. But there are some unique features incorporated in the design in terms of allowing tourists to reach areas where they can view very special sites such as the Arctic pingos (mounds of earth-covered ice). Protecting the very special area of the Husky Lakes region was extremely important to the land owners and the elders in the region so we had to engineer around them. Many stakeholders helped to marry the route with the geography and history.”
Other key objectives of the project were to provide training opportunities and work experience, increase the region’s roadbuilding capacity and provide local companies with significant economic opportunities.
The joint venture featuring two local companies working to a common goal not only shared the opportunity between both communities, it also made logistical sense. At the project’s peak more than 530 workers were employed on the site so the two-pronged approach ensured construction crews weren’t crowded into one area and that supply lines could be built out of each community. Almost 70 per cent of workers used on the project were local residents.
Protecting and maintaining the permafrost in the area was a crucial construction consideration and environmental precondition. It’s a unique, complex and integral feature of the natural northern environment.
“A lot of time and effort was spent on the design and construction methodology,” says McLeod. “There was an extremely detailed environmental approval process to ensure that the road would not negatively impact either wildlife or the landscape. Our method was to place frozen earth on top of frozen permafrost. That’s why we constructed gently and only in the wintertime. We could not cut into the existing permafrost.”
Work was authorized to begin in January 2014. Crews would survey the road construction area, arriving in low-impact vehicles and often proceeding on foot.
Photos: Courtesy of the government of the Northwest Territories
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