The City of Whitehorse has sold its municipal traffic infrastructure to a local private business, NorthwesToll.
The government was locked into the sale after a long period of secret negotiations between the mayor and representatives of the company (which is a fully-owned subsidiary of an Ontario-based consortium of liquor producers named Bomb).
Those who have seen the contract describe the mayor’s signature as “drunken.” The Bomb members of the negotiating team were overheard describing the Whitehorse mayor as a “suit-struck hick.”
NorthwesToll immediately institutes a toll system. (What, you thought the name of the company was a joke?)
Monthly rates are established based on the distance drivers may travel and the speed at which they may drive.
Light use personal drivers, for example, are limited to speeds of up to 30 km per hour on all roads (including highways) and distances up to 100 km each month.
The heavy use package (NorthwesToll’s marketing people christen it the “SUV” package in an unusual moment of ironic inspiration) may drive up to 100 km per hour and 1000 km in a month.
Business vehicles, of course, pay much more. In addition to rate and distance fees, businesses are assessed a weight surcharge.
Businesses must also pay to have extra equipment installed in their vehicles to help NorthwesToll monitor their driving habits.
Packages for business vehicles end up running into the several hundred, or even thousands, of dollars per month.
All vehicle owners that travel beyond their allotted distance in a given month are charged exorbitant extra milage fees.
The relationship between the City of Whitehorse and NorthwesToll is hailed as a marvel of public-private co-operation (in the business publications owned by Bomb’s media division, anyway).
Drivers bristle at the new system. They don’t like paying for what was once free, and what is still generally viewed as a public utility.
The moderate drop in taxes is somewhat appreciated, however.
After some time, the road surfaces on Two Mile Hill and Miles Canyon Road fall into disrepair.
NorthwesToll announces that, unless road use fees are raised, the company cannot afford to return either tract to an acceptable standard for traffic.
Whitehorse, it turns out, is a not a community that can profitably support more than one access roadway.
NorthwesToll closes Two Mile Hill. Mile Canyon Road is given back to the wilderness.
Robert Service Way becomes the only way into and out of Whitehorse.
Congestion builds. Drivers become frustrated as travelling to the downtown core takes longer. Businesses are less and less able to operate in a manner satisfactory to their customers.
Even worse, the accident rate goes up.
And when an accident occurs on the Robert Service Way, all traffic stops.
Cars back up along the Alaska Highway.
People wait for hours to get their grocery shopping done.
Workers spend long evenings away from their families, sitting in their cars, as they wait for these too-frequent accidents to be cleared.
One delay is reportedly caused when the mayor drives his Hummer into a light post. Witnesses say he appeared drunk, his Bomb baseball cap askew, but charges are never laid.
The word among tourists up and down the Alaska Highway is to bypass Whitehorse. Just gun it for Alaska, you’ll never get into Whitehorse (and if you do, you may never get out).
After a long period of declining customer satisfaction and a complete erosion of their public image in the community, NortwesToll responds by widening the Robert Service Way. Plus, they promise to let drivers travel faster.
The company turns the Alaska Highway from Marsh Lake to the Mayo cut-off into a 10-lane superhighway. They do the same thing with the Robert Service Way. Fourth and Second Avenues are joined in a loop of 6-lane pavement.
SUV package subscribers can now travel at up to 120 km per hour. Allotted distances for all packages is also moderately increased.
NortwesToll heralds the roadway upgrade as a significant improvement in service to the community. Everyone can travel faster and further now.
Even a few daring American RVs wander into town.
For a while, the matter of the single road into Whitehorse doesn’t seem to matter. It’s such a big road. Traffic can’t possibly be disrupted enough to have an effect on everyone.
Then the earthquake hits.
It’s only a minor one. But it severs the Alaska Highway in two just at the top of the Robert Service Way.
All traffic is stopped. Workers are trapped downtown. Visitors can’t get through. Home workers can’t go anywhere.
Business comes to a standstill and the local economy loses millions.
All eyes are suddenly on a small group of roadworkers who are served cold drinks and cookies by sympathetic old ladies. Everyone else sends daggers towards the gleaming NortwesToll edifice downtown.
For those with access to it, the road south offers a seductive opportunity for escape. Some people jump on that track and drive away with plans to never come back.
Eventually, NorthwesToll’s workers establish some dirt tracks around the broken highway and traffic begins to trickle through.
Drivers complain to the company and demand refunds. NortwesToll shrugs the requests off.
Voters complain to city counsellors who point to the multi-year deal with NortwesToll. The mayor is found down at the 98, passed out in a corner.
The highway is repaired after a half-day. But there’s a bump in the surface now. And every time a driver feels it against their tires, they are reminded of the fact that there’s only one road into Whitehorse.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, September 25, 2009.