Paul Murchison, director of the Yukon government’s transportation engineering branch, talks to media about the cancellation of the Dawson City ice bridge project during a press conference in Whitehorse on Jan. 31. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

No bridge over troubled water: Yukon government pulls the plug on the Dawson ice bridge

Highways officials say they spent $150,000 of the $200,000 budget

It’s official — there will be no West Dawson ice bridge this year.

Staff with the Yukon Department of Highways and Public Works made the announcement at a press conference held early in the afternoon on Jan. 31.

A number of factors “beyond our control” were acknowledged prior to the start of project, including “river hydraulics, ice and air temperature,” said Paul Murchison, director of the transportation engineering branch. Further complications, including the Jan. 22 sinking of a snowcat working on the site, prompted the government’s decisions to cancel the project.

At present, $150,000 of the $200,000 originally budgeted to build the ice bridge has been spent, Murchison said.

If the government had continued, the project would require more money and probably going over budget, he said.

Given that the latest the ice bridge has historically gone in was Feb. 9 — and that putting it in any later than that might mean only having it serviceable for a few months anyways — the government decided to pull the plug.

“The reality is … you could spend a lot of money and (still) get nothing built at all,” he said.

While he acknowledged this would be inconvenient for people in West Dawson “who were anticipating ice bridge access this year” there was no obligation for the government to provide access that he was aware of, he said.

When asked if this meant a permanent bridge to West Dawson — an idea which has been tossed around on and off for years and always been nixed because of high estimated costs — would be considered, the answer was flatly no.

“A steel and concrete bridge is not something we are considering at this time,” Murchison said.

Responding to concerns that the work hadn’t been started early enough to be effective, Murchison said that “in an ideal world” it would have begun sooner, but that the booms, which were constructed in December, were still put in around the time the government had hoped for. Starting earlier, while the water is still open, is made complicated by the presence of boat traffic, he noted.

In regards to citizen-made projects — such as the foot bridge constructed this year using a chainsaw to cut a large hunk of shore ice loose, which was floated down river to cork the lede in the middle of the water with the intent that it freeze over — Murchison said such impromptu bridges aren’t known to be safe and carry a high risk. The river is unpredictable at this time, he noted; the area where the snowcat fell through on the government-sanctioned construction site was in a place where the ice had hitherto been believed to be safe, for example.

That snowcat has been located below the river water and, following an inspection by Environment Yukon, “does not appear to be leaking any fluids” he said.

Getting it out — which will likely involve cutting a hole in the ice, sending down a diver with a cable and winching the machine back up — is “more of a contractor problem” than a government one, he added.

At this time, the government isn’t sure how it’s going to proceed next year, he said, but will be keeping residents of West Dawson abreast of the situation when decisions have been made.

The recently constructed booms will remain in place, Murchison said, along with a camera on site to observe the behaviour of the river, which will help the government make decisions about the ice bridge in the future.

In some similar instances of consistent issues of access or danger to property, such problems caused by flood plains, governments sometimes offer to buy-out residents and/or help them relocate. That’s not something the Yukon government is considering at this time for West Dawson, Department of Highways and Public Works spokesperson Oshea Jephson said in a follow-up interview.

Contact Lori Fox at lori.fox@yukon-news.com

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