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Road proposed for 'forgotten border'

Athabasca Highway could link NWT with Saskatchewan

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services

Fort Smith (Aug 05/02) - A new highway is being proposed to connect the NWT and Saskatchewan.

The so-called Athabasca Highway would include a paved 375-kilometre link between Fort Smith and the northern Saskatchewan community of Stony Rapids.

A group of backers has already submitted the estimated $400-million idea to the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development for feedback.

One of those supporters is Glen Strong, the chairperson of the Athabasca Basin Transportation Planning Committee in Stony Rapids.

Strong lists numerous potential benefits from the highway, both for the NWT and Saskatchewan - increased tourism, shorter driving distances and lower cost of living from decreased shipping costs.

The highway is also being touted by its supporters in Saskatchewan as a way for that province to get a piece of the economic action in the NWT. Strong notes an estimated 17,000 truckloads of goods flow into the NWT from Alberta each year.

"We would hope to capture some of that volume."

The proposed highway would cut 300 to 350 kilometres from the distance to Yellowknife for truckers coming from the American Midwest and Eastern Canada, compared to going through Edmonton.

And it would help develop the economic potential of northern Saskatchewan and connect the now-isolated Fond-du-Lac and Uranium City through access roads off the highway.

Currently, there is a paved highway to La Ronge, 639 kilometres south of Stony Rapids. A gravel road goes north for 200 kilometres and the rest of the way to Stony Rapids is a seasonal road.

The road to Stony Rapids would also have to be upgraded as part of any Athabasca Highway.

Dream route

A spokesperson for DIAND Minister Robert Nault's office says preliminary meetings were held in early July between the highway promoters and department officials.

The proposal will be assessed by the department via the regular channels, the spokesperson adds. The highway could be the answer to Fort Smith's dream of another route south.

While noting the proposal is still in the very early stages, Richard Power, the town's economic development officer, says, "It would be very beneficial for Fort Smith and Hay River because it would create a loop effect for tourists and truckers."

In other words, travellers would be able to drive from Saskatchewan into the NWT and on to Alberta, or vice versa.

Power notes Fort Smith would also be 375 kilometres closer by road to Saskatoon than to Edmonton.

However, he says, Saskatchewan has a lot more to gain from such a highway.

Benefits to everyone

The benefits to Saskatchewan are emphasized by the originator of the proposal, Saskatoon businessman George McNevin, who notes the province is at the geographic centre of the NWT and Nunavut.

"We've forfeited all the benefits to Alberta by not providing a road," says the owner of McNevin Construction.

McNevin says the highway's impact would be so enormous on the NWT and Saskatchewan that he believes it is a necessity, and it should have been built long ago.

In fact, he would like to see the highway eventually be expanded east into Nunavut.

"Everyone would benefit," he says, noting the idea already has the support of some provincial and federal politicians in Saskatchewan.

However, he stresses the highway is not intended to take business and jobs away from Alberta, but just to get Saskatchewan a fair share of the growing economic pie in the NWT, especially in the oil and gas and mining industries.

As for the anticipated cost, McNevin says, "I say to the public this would only cost $400 million."

Strong, Power and McNevin are hoping to soon form a steering committee for the proposal. Even while Strong supports the highway idea, he admits it may be a long shot.

"What are the chances of pulling this off?" he asks. "I'm skeptical."

However, he says his hopes would increase if he sees some funding coming from DIAND to study the idea.