Yukonomist: If climate change was a pothole, we already would have fixed it

Paved roads are good, but I fear we have gone too far

I love the smell of fresh asphalt.

Its whiff reminds me of that old-fashioned word, progress.

Yukoners of a certain age will remember road trips in the family Suburban, as layers of fine Alaska Highway dust slowly settled on the kids and dog in the back seats.

If you weren’t struggling to hold onto your lunch on washboard gravel, you were peering into the dust for oncoming headlights as your dad bareknuckled a low-visibility pass around a lumbering Winnebago trailing a massive plume of airborne dirt.

It was always a relief to hit a paved part of the highway.

Asphalt is one of those major civilizational advances that doesn’t get the credit it deserves, like double entry book-keeping. Invented by Belgian-American genius Edward De Smedt in the 1870s, asphalt — or blacktop, tarmac or asphalt concrete depending on which part of the English-speaking world you live in — smothers all kinds of undriveable terrain with a lovely surface smooth enough to break the speed limit on.

One rainy day on an unpaved Yukon dirt road and you’ll know why road-building has a long and rich history here. Indeed, in the 1950s, the Department of Roads, Bridges and Public Works basically was the Yukon government.

If you remove the political logos and colours from the infrastructure page of Yukon election platforms, you can’t tell the difference between them. All are some variation on the theme, “We’ll pave more roads!”

Political leaders in history have aspired to epitaphs like “Conqueror of Gaul” or “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” If you saw a political epitaph in Grey Mountain cemetery, it would be more likely to say, “Resurfaced the Mayo Road near Fox Lake.”

Paved roads are good, but I fear we have gone too far.

We are told we face a climate change emergency and a housing emergency, yet the papers last week had news of three big paving projects. We’re going to spend $157 million on the North Klondike Highway. More millions will go to widening the Alaska Highway near the Airport Chalet to six lanes; two highway lanes both ways plus a two-lane frontage road. And the City of Whitehorse will also spend big bucks repaving Second Avenue.

If climate change was a pothole, we already would have fixed it.

But it’s not, and we haven’t built any major renewable power plants since Mayo B in 2011.

As for housing, we have another lot shortage. When 56 lots in Whistle Bend went on sale this spring, 103 people tried to buy them. And that’s with the government charging a whopping $120,000 to $200,000 for them.

Meanwhile, we continue to provide more toll-free paved roads.

Did policy analysts at the Yukon government sit down around the whiteboard and come up with the idea to make roads free and housing really expensive? Did they break for coffee, debate whether climate change was really happening, and then decide to put the bulk of the capital budget into paving and not into micro-hydro plants or windmills?

Was there a fact-packed Powerpoint slide that convinced everyone we needed six lanes at the Airport Chalet more than renewable power or housing?

Of course not. But that’s where we’ve ended up.

Some public policy experts recommend adopting rules to guide government decision making. For example, you can’t run a deficit bigger than the amount you are investing in long-term infrastructure. Or, for every new regulation introduced, you have to eliminate an old one.

The Yukon needs some version of rule to protect us from ourselves. We love pavement so much, but these days we have bigger problems than the 1967 Chevy losing an axle on the Mayo Road. Furthermore, we need some kind of institutional balance for the big, well-established and well-funded agencies we have set up with “Pave it!” built into their DNA.

Perhaps something like this: “For every 50 kilometres of highway you resurface, you need to build a micro-hydro facility. And for every block of four-lane avenue you pave, you need to sell two single-family lots for less than $50,000.”

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.