NO. 2 ROAD: Clearing the ice

Gravel road will soon serve Tuktoyaktuk, Canada

Bill Wilson / October 05, 2017
Top Road No. 2 2017
Top Road No. 2 2017

The small town of Tuktoyaktuk was probably founded on an ice road. It had to be, because no one would have been able to reach it any other way. The soil which supports the Canadian dot on the map is a blend of silt, clay and the type of permafrost that can drive any road builder to the brink. It’s basically an endless mud pit . . . more swamp than crust in the summer time.

Still, a real road was badly needed, and something officials in the area had lobbied for over the decades. When the mining is hot, Tuktoyaktuk is an epicenter for the oil and gas industry, and it also serves as the only access point to the Arctic Ocean. Merven Gruben, president and CEO of E. Gruben Transport, served as the mayor of Tuktoyaktuk for a few years in the early 2000s, and would talk to any high-ranking official with an ear about the need for an official route. He finally got ahold of Stephen Harper, who was then the prime minister of Canada.

“I finally got his attention and he came up to visit us, then he came up again,” Gruben told Roads & Bridges. “I had a one-on-one meeting with him and told him all the reasons why we needed a road.”

Gruben’s words stuck with the prime minister, who put the wheels in motion for the two-lane, 120-km gravel project that earned a No. 2 ranking in the 2017 Roads & Bridges Top 10 Roads list.

Due to the soft earth, E. Gruben Transport and partner Northwind Industries decided a geotextile was needed to support the length of the gravel road. After that was placed, crews came in with the material. However, gravel is in very short supply in Tuktoyaktuk, so trucks had to come from 84 km away to deliver what was needed. Embankment material, no less than 1 meter thick due to the permafrost, was then placed on top of the geotextile. Some spots had to be treated with extra embankment due to the soupy underground. The gravel surface layer is 6 in. thick. Hauling material, however, could only occur in the winter time.

Bridges were built first on this project, which required the creation of the ice roads, which had to be thick enough to handle an 80-ton crane and haul trucks.

“You know it is safe [to travel on ice roads] but there always is an ‘if’,” said Gruben. “You have 3 or 4 ft of ice and it could hold a lot of weight, but if you get a parallel crack...there you go.”

Two of the six bridges constructed were about 100 ft long. Those spans required pilings which were drilled 60 to 80 ft down into the permafrost. Concrete girders and concrete deck panels were then brought in and installed.

Tourists have already flocked to the road, which is set to open in November. One man dipped his front motorcycle tire into the Arctic Ocean en route to the southern tip of South America, where he will do the same.

Project: Inuvik-to-Tuktoyaktuk Highway

Location: Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada

Owner: Government of Northwest Territories

Designers: Northwind Industries and E. Gruben Transport

Contractors: Northwind Industries and E. Gruben Transport

Cost: $229 million

Length: 120 km

Completion Date: November 2017

About the Author

Wilson is editorial director of Roads & Bridges.

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