Bridge linking N.W.T. capital with rest of Canada opens

The N.W.T. Department of Transportation says everything is ready to go for the Deh Cho Bridge opening ceremonies today at Fort Providence.

The one-kilometre long Deh Cho Bridge is the first bridge to stretch across the Mackenzie River and will replace ferry service and a winter ice crossing. It will be the first year-round road link between N.W.T.’s North Slave region communities, including the capital Yellowknife, and the rest of the country.

Department of Transportation spokesperson Earl Blacklock said several hundred people are expected to enjoy the festivities at Fort Providence.

"It's going to be a remarkable sight, I am sure,” he said.

“The community has an amazing record of putting on events like this. Essentially it proves the power of community because they are distributing the work around cooks in the town."

Vehicles can cross the river by ferry until 12:30 p.m. MT. Highway 3 will then be closed to traffic. The bridge opening ceremonies are expected to start at around 2 p.m., and the bridge is expected to be open to traffic by 4 p.m.

Jim Basha, an engineer and president of Ruskin Construction, said the bridge is one of the most unique in North America.

The bridge's piers are designed to cut through the river's ice during spring break-up. He also said the bridge is the longest, jointless bridge on the continent.

"It's all pieces that are assembled and pushed together and locked together — trying to lighten it up as much as you could, because of the length and because of transportation, in terms of getting it all there."

Fifty thousand tonnes of steel were shipped from Quebec to Hay River for the bridge's construction. The complicated construction process included installing a temporary bridge for the workers five times, something that had to endure temperatures as cold as -58 C.

It wasn't until 2000 that the Government of the Northwest Territories started talking seriously about constructing a bridge over the Mackenzie River.

Joe Handley was the transportation minister and minister of economic development at the time. He was just ending his term as premier in 2007 when the government negotiated a contract to get the bridge built.

"You know, there are people who would criticize it, but I'll tell you, within a few years, it's there and we'll wonder how we got along without it," he said.

Ten years ago, developers thought the bridge could be built for $50 million. After four years of construction and delays, the total cost wound up hitting $202 million.

The opening of the bridge also means saying goodbye to the Merv Hardie ferry.

Though many have a sentimental attachment to the ferry, Cathy Comeau says the territory is ready for change and a reliable link to the south.

"The ferry was backed up, so we slept in the car in the middle of the winter in a little Toyota Corolla and we kept turning the heat off and on,” she said. “It wasn't good."

Ben Walker, general manager of Yellowknife’s Co-op grocery store, said he is elated by the bridge opening. Never again will the store need to airlift supplies across the river during freeze-up and break-up.

"If it was really down for a while, we could spend $150,000 to $200,000 just in freight,” he said. “You really felt vulnerable."

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