A coastal link by land
John Curran and Dez Loreen
"It's certainly about resources, the pipeline and taking advantage of the opportunities it would present," said deputy transport minister Russell Neudorf.
The proposal calls for $700 million in federal loan guarantees to have traffic rolling along the all-weather route by 2010.
"That date of 2010 might be a little ambitious," said Neudorf, given the time required for environmental assessments and permitting.
The government is claiming several advantages for the highway, including Northern sovereignty, tapping into the Territories' hydro-electric potential, attracting more mineral and petroleum exploration, lowering the cost of living in remote communities and making the transport grid more resistant to climate change.
The plan outlines a financing option that Neudorf said is based on the model used for the Deh Cho Bridge.
The cost of building the route would be financed over 35 years with debt payments of $35 million a year. That means the true cost of paying for the extension would be $1.225 billion.
No matter what the price, the people who live in the Sahtu and Beaufort-Delta regions are happy with the news.
"This is definitely a good thing for people in the Sahtu," said Bern Will Brown, who has lived in Colville Lake for the past 43 years. "It had to come sooner or later."
For Fort Good Hope resident Karen Mercer, talk of the highway is exciting.
"Especially this time of year, the river is frozen but there's no winter road yet. The only way in or out is by plane so you really get that feeling of isolation," she said.
"This would mean lower prices and greater access to other amenities."
Philip Cull, principal of the Chief T'Selehye school in Fort Good Hope, said drastic improvements are needed.
"That winter road is usually in very bad condition," said Cull.
Cull said that although improving the ice road is a good step towards overall improvement, an all-weather road would be ideal. A permanent road would really help the community."
Another project called for improvements to the Liard highway, the only road into Fort Liard.
Brenda Berreault of Fort Liard, said that although the current highway is being maintained regularly, there still is work to be done. "I wish they could just pave the highway," said Berreault. "It gets really rough to drive on in the summertime."
If the mega-project goes ahead, it would usher in a new age of Northern transportation. The government estimates the highway would divert some 2,000 truckloads of cargo from the barges now plying the Mackenzie River.
That would be a big hit to barging giant NTCL, a 50-50 Inuvialuit- and Inuit-owned company based in Hay River.
"That would certainly make it much more difficult for us to operate," said NTCL manager of communications Sunny Munroe. "Would we shutdown? That would be something our owners would have to look at."
She said NTCL isn't opposed to building the highway and remains committed to re-supplying communities not on the route, such as Sachs Harbour, Holman, Paulatuk and the Kitikmeot region of Nunavut.
Part of the proposal says a $500 toll would be charged on the estimated 10,000 commercial trucks rolling North through the valley each year.
"Last year, oil and gas companies contributed $5 million to the construction of the winter road," said Neudorf. "Based on 10,000 trucks a year, $500 seemed like a nice round number."
Munroe said there wouldn't be a cost savings on goods and fuel trucked North.
"You can use the road all year," she said. "I don't think it will cost any less (compared to barging) - it's only a matter of convenience."