The North Klondike Highway, a vital, winding, two-lane ribbon of road that connects Whitehorse to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory, follows a path used by prospectors during the 1898 Gold Rush and provides motorists with plenty of scenic viewpoints and wildlife-spotting opportunities along the route.
However, the paved thoroughfare has its share of problems, as the harsh weather and climate take a toll. The road needs repair. It is narrow with a poor foundation and has a lot of potholes and bumps.
The federal and territory governments have stepped in to upgrade a 100-kilometre section of the road, contributing $157 million over nine years towards a project that will make it able to handle increased truck traffic and be more resilient to the effects of a changing climate and thawing permafrost.
The venture, expected to start next summer, will be the largest single capital project spend in the Yukon’s history. It will also be one of the largest transportation infrastructure jobs ever in northern Canada.
“The project is needed because the original construction was not designed for today’s demand, which includes larger vehicles and higher levels of traffic,” explains Brian Crist, manager of highway and airport design and construction for the Yukon government. “As the road was not designed to modern standards, it is subject to spring weight restrictions, which limits large vehicle movements on the highway.”
The highway was never built to an industrial standard and is busier with larger vehicles and more traffic using it due to mining activities and the fact it connects to the Dempster Highway, which in turn provides access to the Northwest Territories and Arctic Ocean through the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway.
As a result, much of the road’s foundation is now ruined. With more rain and runoff, permafrost thaw, and significant frost heaves, work crews must repeatedly fix potholes and make repairs to the thoroughfare.
The road will be realigned and widened to meet today’s standards,
— Brian Crist
Reconstructing the road will improve its resistance to the climate and remove the need for load restrictions, says Crist. “The road reconstruction will provide these communities with a highway that is safe and reliable, and resilient to the impacts of climate change such as extreme weather and permafrost melt.”
The federal government recently signed an agreement to contribute $118 million to the project under the National Trade Corridors Fund which provides money for infrastructure projects. The Yukon government will provide $39 million.
The project involves reconstructing, rehabilitating, replacing and resurfacing critical portions of the highway from north of Carmacks to just south of Dawson. Three bridges — McCabe Creek, Crooked Creek and Moose Creek — will be repaired or replaced and the roadway will be widened in some sections.
Crews will also use gravel to raise the roadbed where possible so that it’s less affected by permafrost melt.
The North Klondike Highway is a key access route for more than 50 per cent of Yukoners who live outside of Whitehorse. The work will make the route safer and help grow the resource sector in the region, while reducing the costs of highway maintenance. The project is anticipated to be completed in 2027.
“The road will be realigned and widened to meet today’s standards,” says Crist. “Overall, road safety will also be improved by installing barriers as needed.”
The work will be done in seven sections. Highest priority sections will be done first. The existing road will be replaced or realigned as needed. New road will be built adjacent-to or on top of the existing road.
“We will be constructing a road embankment that will not experience frost heave, though the use of materials that allows water to drain freely from the road structure,” says Crist.
Drainage structures will also be designed with consideration to climate change factors, allowing the seasonal weight restrictions on trucks to be lifted, he notes.
“The design has a climate change contingency, which will mitigate future climate conditions. For example, drainage structures will have a 20 per cent design contingency added.”
Although the cold weather in northwestern Canada presents its own challenges, Crist says the biggest obstacle is the short construction season. Planners, contractors and crews strive to overcome that issue by doing as much work as possible during the off-season and tendering projects as early as they can.
With much of the work being carried out in remote locations with no service, experienced personnel must always be on site overseeing the work and contractors must set up camps close to the project site, explains Crist.
Ground and soil conditions also pose a challenge on the project, he notes, and to mitigate the effects of melting permafrost contractors use frost-resistant embankment designs.
The project itself is expected to create 800 jobs over the construction period and save the territory on maintenance costs.
Crist says the venture is a long-term infrastructure project that will provide construction opportunities to support the growth and maintenance of local contractors. The project will also employ First Nations citizens.
Yukon Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn says the territory’s highways bring people and communities together and the project will make the road safer for the many Yukoners who use it every day.
“It will also make it more resilient in the face of permafrost, reducing maintenance and remediation costs in the future.”