The Tłı̨chǫ Highway, connecting Highway 3 to Whatì, will open on November 30 at 10am, the territorial government announced on Wednesday.
The road, also called Highway 9, is a 97-km, two-lane gravel road that makes Whatì accessible year-round. Previously, the community of around 500 people was only accessible by winter road or aircraft.
Construction cost $185 million and an agreement to maintain the road until at least 2047 will cost a further $226.8 million, the territorial government said.
The highway begins at kilometre 196 of Highway 3, just under 50 kilometres south of Behchokǫ̀. The road will increase the length of time winter roads to neighbouring communities Gamètì and Wekweètì are open, the territory says.
Highway 9 is heralded as a development that will open Whatì to new economic opportunities and tourism. However, there are concerns that year-round road access also has the ability to introduce more crime.
How the highway will be kept safe is not fully clear. The NWT’s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs declined to release an action plan it has drawn up with community governments regarding ambulance service for the highway.
In regulatory filings, the GNWT said “local capacity challenges … currently exist in the communities of Behchokǫ̀ and Whatı̀.”
Jay Boast, a spokesperson for Maca, said RCMP would be immediately notified in the event of any incident on the highway, after which 9-1-1 dispatchers will “engage the closest community who has response capability with respect to the details of the situation.”
Boast added by email: “Communities vary in their capacity and ability to deliver these services. Emergency response to areas like the Tłı̨chǫ Highway may require a combination of services or communities.”
Jeremy Bird, a spokesperson for the territorial Department of Health and Social Services, said the department and local governments would monitor the road’s impact on residents’ health and wellbeing, including mood and anxiety disorders as well as alcohol and drug disorders.
“The objective is to identify potential impacts to the community of Whatì that may be influenced by the all-season road,” Bird explained in an email. “Work on preparing and implementing this framework is nearing completion, and is expected to be finalized when the road opens.”
The territorial government has committed to spending at least 10 years identifying any issues associated with the highway and devising appropriate responses or interventions.
Acting Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief Sonny Zoe said the highway was an “excellent example” of governments and industry working together “to provide a very important piece of infrastructure for our communities.”
Zoe said the highway “will continue to provide long-term jobs to Tłı̨chǫ people throughout the 25-year maintenance period, and I am pleased that our Tłı̨chǫ partnership North Star Infrastructure completed this job on time and on budget.”
He concluded: “This project has been a vision of the Tłı̨chǫ people for over 40 years, and we are proud of what we have all accomplished for the present and future generations.”
A ribbon-cutting ceremony and celebration in Whatì has been postponed due to Covid-19. Behchokǫ̀ remains in containment with 21 active cases, though Whatì is currently free of Covid-19, having at one point registered 33 active cases.
Emily Blake and Ollie Williams contributed reporting.