Too many roadblocks for northern roads? – by Lou Smyrlis (Canadian Transportation and Logistics Blog – March 13, 2013)

With more than 15 years of experience reporting on transportation issues, Lou Smyrlis is one of the more recognizable personalities in the industry. An award-winning writer well known for his insightful writing and meticulous market analysis, he is a leading authority on industry trends and statistics.

Attending the Transport Institute’s Northern Exposure 2 conference in Winnipeg recently proved an illuminating foray into the challenges of serving Canada’s northern communities – admittedly the kind of stuff those of us who live and work in more forgiving climates, terrains and transportation networks don’t think much about, but should.

Why should we? Because our once isolated northern communities will become increasingly more economically important and demanding of better freight transport services.

Mining and energy exploration and development combined with population growth 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.

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%. And these growing communities will be in need of goods just like the rest of us.

This presents great opportunities for project cargo and regular transport work for motor carriers willing to handle the unique challenges of northern roads and sophisticated enough to treat the fragile northern ecosystems with the respect they deserve.

If these communities are to enjoy the efficiency and cost effectiveness of truck transport, they will require an upgrade of the existing road infrastructure. That infrastructure has traditionally been comprised of winter roads yet global warming is already making for a shorter ice season. 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. “

Unfortunately, as was stressed at the conference, building all-weather roads into northern communities is an expensive undertaking .

Construction costs average about $1.3 million/km for a gravel road and maintenance costs are in the order of $5,000/km/year for northern roads. That’s about double the cost to build and maintain such roads in southern Canada. One sixth of the land is covered by lakes and rivers and building bridges is even more expensive – amounting to about $12,000 per square metre.

Can we as a nation rise to the challenge?

A few weeks prior to the Northern Exposure conference I was in Winnipeg visiting with Bob Dolyniuk, head of the Manitoba Trucking Association. We spoke at length about infrastructure issues and Dolyniuk’s reality-flavored comments still echo in my mind.

Manitoba has greatly expanded its infrastructure spending, committing to spending $4 billion over 10 years. But, like most Canadian provinces, it had neglected its infrastructure for decades and Dolyniuk believes the new spending, welcomed as it may be, is likely too little too late. He figures the province would need to spend double what it’s spending to have a serious impact in rehabilitating the province’s infrastructure and he doubts the province has those kinds of resources available.

If we are having problems just keeping our existing infrastructure functioning properly, what’s the likelihood we will be able to afford new roads to serve northern communities? I sure hope we can find some way to rise to the challenge but considering the apparent road blocks, I can’t say I’m overly optimistic.

For the original version of this column, please go to the Canadian Transportation and Logistics Blog website: