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.


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Yukon government is making changes to the medical travel system, including doubling the per diem and making destinations for medical services more flexible. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Subsidy for medical travel doubled with more supports coming

The change was recommended in the Putting People First report endorsed by the government

Chloe Sergerie, who was fined $500 under the <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> on Jan. 12, says she made the safest choice available to her when she entered the territory. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Woman fined $500 under CEMA says she made ‘safest decision’ available

Filling out a declaration at the airport was contrary to self-isolation, says accused

The Yukon Department of Education building in Whitehorse on Dec. 22, 2020. Advocates are calling on the Department of Education to reverse their redefinition of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that led to 138 students losing the program this year. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
Advocates call redefinition of IEPs “hugely concerning,” call for reversal

At least 138 students were moved off the learning plans this year

Medical lab technologist Angela Jantz receives her first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Whitehorse hospital on Jan. 13. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Online booking system for Moderna vaccine opens as mobile teams prepare to visit communities

“The goal is to protect everyone and stop the spread of COVID-19”

Yukoner Shirley Chua-Tan is taking on the role of vice-chair of the social inclusion working group with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences’ oversight panel and working groups for the autism assessment. (Submitted)
Canadian Academy of Health Sciences names Yukoner to panel

Shirley Chua-Tan is well-known for a number of roles she plays in… Continue reading

The Fish Lake area viewed from the top of Haeckel Hill on Sept. 11, 2018. The Yukon government and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced they are in the beginning stages of a local area planning process for the area. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Local area planning for Fish Lake announced

The Government of Yukon and Kwanlin Dün First Nation (KDFN) announced in… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Fire damage, photographed on Jan. 11, to a downtown apartment building which occurred late in the evening on Jan. 8. Zander Firth, 20, from Inuvik, was charged with the arson and is facing several other charges following his Jan. 12 court appearance. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
More charges for arson suspect

The Inuvik man charged in relation to the fire at Ryder Apartments… Continue reading

The grace period for the new Yukon lobbyist registry has come to an end and those who seek to influence politicians will now need to report their efforts to a public database. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Grace period for new lobbyist registry ends

So far nine lobbyists have registered their activities with politicians in the territory

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21, 2020. Some Yukon tourism and culture non-profit organizations may be eligible to receive up to $20,000 to help recover from losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Details released on relief funding for tourism and culture non-profits

Some Yukon tourism and culture non-profit organizations may be eligible to receive… Continue reading

Mayo-Tatchun MLA Don Hutton won’t be runing for re-election. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Mayo-Tatchun MLA won’t run for re-election

Liberal MLA Don Hutton won’t be running for re-election. A former wildland… Continue reading

Large quantities of a substance believed to be cocaine, a large amount of cash, several cells phones and a vehicle were all seized after RCMP searched a Whistle Bend home on Jan. 6. (Photo courtesy RCMP)
Seven arrested after drug trafficking search

RCMP seized drugs, money from Whistle Bend residence on Jan. 6

Most Read