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Highways need safety updates, say MLAs

It is unacceptable that there is no cellular coverage on Highway 5 in this day and age, said Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos in the legislative assembly on Monday. GNWT image

The GNWT should make its highways safer, MLAs argued in the House Monday.

Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos pointed to Highway 5 that stretches between Fort Smith and Hay River and its lack of cellular service.

“(It) needs to be built in order to increase the level of safety for all travellers who use Highway No. 5. In the event of an emergency, unless travellers have a satellite phone, they are obliged to depend on other (motorists) along the highway to get any rescue assistance. Again, this is a 273-kilometre highway,” she said.

“This is not okay and is not acceptable. In this day and age, I think we have reached a point where this is considered critical infrastructure, and building it ought to be a no-brainer. It's a busy highway, and it is the only highway in and out of Fort Smith.”

Martselos added that the introduction of cellular service would enhance tourism prospects in the South Slave as that highway leads to Wood Buffalo National Park.

NWT highways lag other provinces: Wawzonek

Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek concurred that cellular coverage on highways would bolster safety on the roads, and acknowledged that the NWT lags behind the provinces in its provision of cellular service on highways.

However, she said the problem doesn't have an easy solution because there is no private market for such an endeavour that would require significant government support.

While she couldn't commit to installing cellular service on Highway 5 in the life of the current assembly, she said there is an expression of interest underway to see what options exists for expanding cellular coverage on highways.

She said the GNWT would start with the Behchoko-Yellowknife corridor.

"Once we have that in hand, we can start to look at other stretches of highway in the NWT,” she said.

Monfwi MLA Jackson Lafferty then addressed safety on Highway 3 between Yellowknife and Behchoko, where Kelly Washie was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer on New Year's Eve of 2020.

“Would it have made a difference or saved a life if this transport truck was going under the speed limit or slowed right down for a parked vehicle with flashing lights? We'll never know the answer, but we must strive to make changes that could save lives on Highway 3,” Lafferty said.

Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road

He also spoke on the same day that the Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road opened for truck traffic. Around 6,000 loads are expected between now and the end of March, according to the Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road Joint Venture.

Lafferty asked Infrastructure Minister Diane Archie if she could provide the assembly with a 10-year breakdown of collisions between Yellowknife, Behchoko and Fort Providence that involved tractor-trailers.

Archie said she didn't have specific numbers at the time and knows there are many accidents on the highway. But she said crashes on the road between Yellowknife and Behchoko have decreased 76 per cent between 1999 and 2019. And that's “despite a 225-per cent increase in traffic.”

Lafferty asked if the GNWT could lower the speed limit for tractor-trailers down to at least 70 km per hour. He said now they drive at 90 km per hour and still don't obey that limit.

He also asked if Archie could look at the possibility of installing cameras at Behchoko and Yellowknife to monitor speed limits.

The infrastructure minister didn't directly address installing cameras, but agreed on the need for increasing highway safety and enforcement of rules.

“Like all jurisdictions in Canada, we are in the process of developing and implementing a mandatory entry-level training program for new Class-1 truck drivers," Archie said. "So we expect to have this work done and a program up and running by this December."

She said Infrastructure has discussed finding funding for more patrol officers in the North Slave.