Two Northwest Territories MLAs have renewed their appeal for the territory to begin a key stage of work on Inuvik’s airport runway, saying the alternative is a year-long delay.
The first phase of a $150-million project to lengthen the runway by 3,000 ft, being paid for by the Department of National Defence but managed in part by the territorial government, is currently on hold.
According to Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler, work has been paused while the parties involved try to account for a detailed engineering budget that came in “approximately $40 million higher than the government’s initial costing.”
Late last week, Semmler and Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby, a former NWT infrastructure minister, returned to the issue in the territory’s legislature.
Nokleby, elaborating on Semmler’s initial explanation of the $40-million gap, said this represented “the additional amount of money required to meet the material specifications that the GNWT is asking for – specifications that may not align with conventional construction methods on permafrost.”
Construction of an expanded runway must ensure the permafrost beneath is protected.
“The design calls for layers, or lifts, of granular material to be directly placed on top of the frozen ground. The layer then acts as a buffer, keeping the ground under the construction permanently frozen,” Nokleby, an engineer before becoming an MLA, told colleagues.
“This eliminates drainage issues and the ground heave that normally occurs with the freeze-thaw cycle of the active layer and provides a stable, frozen platform on which to execute new construction.
“If material is not placed this winter, under frozen conditions, the project will be delayed a year.”
Nokleby said the approach to the runway project – seen as an important commitment to Canada’s Arctic sovereignty, as a longer, 9,000-ft runway expands the range of military aircraft that can use Inuvik as a base – had been “backwards.”
“Rather than starting with a functioning design and developing a subsequent realistic budget, the GNWT has instead taken the $150 million offered by the federal government and is now trying to force the design to meet the budget,” she said.
“I’ve often spoken about the need for 100-percent federal dollars and that the Department of National Defence investment in infrastructure is a way for us to achieve this. Now I worry that, given how this project is shaping up, the federal eye will wander to the east and west of us and, yet again, the NWT will be the losing territory while the other two benefit.”
No more money
The first phase of the project must be carried out in colder temperatures. Semmler said the cost of that “time-sensitive” work was estimated at $8 million.
“This money needs to be allocated now so the project can continue,” Semmler told NWT infrastructure minister Diane Archie.
“The over-budget costing of the project is not, from what I understand, due to the contractors but due to the specs that have been designed and given to the contractors, which was done after money was announced by the federal government. These specs were designed by the GNWT and are what is driving up the costs.”
Semmler said releasing the initial $8-million sum would put local contractors to work, “providing security and desperately needed jobs to the Inuvik and surrounding communities.”
Archie, who also represents Inuvik as MLA for the town’s Boot Lake district, stressed that she, too, wanted the project to get going.
“It is a benefit to the community that I represent,” Archie told Semmler.
“I also said that the project needs to be done right, on time and on budget. Rushing major work without appropriate site preparation, or plans, or due diligence being applied is a recipe for disaster.
“I also want to make it clear that the GNWT does not have the funding to pay for any cost overruns. So we need to make sure that we do this right, first time.”
‘People counting on this’
Archie rejected Nokleby’s suggestion that there had been breakdowns in the scheduling of meetings regarding the runway and in ensuring the right people were present to develop solutions.
“We’ve been meeting. There have been discussions happening at different phases since February, since before then,” the minister said.
Nokleby countered: “I guess I’m still confused at all of the delays and discussion around what essentially is putting down dirt onto the ground – something that we do very well as a territory, something the contractor does very well and has done for several years in that area.
“Can the minister please commit to whether or not she is going to have that lift done this year, so we are not delayed by one year? It doesn’t matter that there are five years on this project. It is a stage. There are phases that need to be completed for anything else to run. People are counting on this money and the minister is not holding her department to task.”
Archie replied: “Until I know what this means, I’m not going to commit to doing this. We still have work to do.”