Dirt doesn’t need long to show its quality. Labrador’s newest so-called highway is less than a year old, but it’s already in rough and dangerous shape.
The region’s narrow land routes cycle quickly between good and bad. During construction they’re barely passable and once they’re finished they enter a short-lived honeymoon that is based solely on how they look, not on how they function. The highways, built to around the standards of a resource access road on the island, are not quite wide enough for two cars to pass safely unless they both reduce their speeds and pull towards the soft shoulders. When the surface is fresh like that, the loose gravel acts like ball-bearings mixed in K-Y jelly, robbing a driver of the full ability to steer or brake.
Those loose stones also become airborne. Flying in ones and twos, they’re launched off rubber treads to smack hard into innocently passing windshields. Long 18-wheel transport trucks let loose whole flocks of stones that rain down onto glass and paint like malicious hail.
Dust is likewise a constant, rising from every touch of the road, blinding and choking drivers who get relief only when rain falls or fog shrouds the land.
The new highway from the Churchill causeway at Black Rock to the Cartwright Junction was opened to public travel last winter, but not really completed until this summer. It has already passed this initial stage, the fake honeymoon, and quickly skipped right to the end of what might be called the real honeymoon: for a brief while, constant use packs the surface down and it becomes smooth to the tires and firm to drive. In addition, the dust is mercifully suppressed.
Unfortunately, the more it rains and the more the road is used, the more potholes appear and the more washboard bumps grow on tricky corners and blind hills. This is the current stage of the new stretch of the Trans-Labrador Highway. A small fleet of graders is striving every workday to keep the road drivable, but it’s a battle they’re gradually losing.
End of road
Sooner or later, the surface of a Labrador highway reaches its terminal stage. That describes most of the Labrador Coastal Route from Port Hope Simpson to the old pavement at Red Bay, although the stretch north to Cartwright is little better. The road has become a crater-filled wasteland of boulders and mud. Government graders have mostly abandoned it. They can do little to improve conditions.
So far the government’s only response is a promise to buy more dirt for the south coast highway — a promise wrested from the minister by mothers refusing to let their children travel in school buses going over the road.
Even if a pile of dirt is procured and spread over a small bit of the highway, it won’t satisfy anyone who uses it. The provincial government should be hearing the demands from all over Labrador for more pavement.
No one wants to wait until the 550 kilometres from Wabush to Happy Valley-Goose Bay are completely hard-topped, especially since that project is again at least two years behind schedule. Everyone says it: the Trans-Labrador Highway needs to be paved from the west to Cartwright and then down to Red Bay.
The government has its own cycles. Right now, it’s pretending the current paving project fully satisfies everyone and no one is calling for more. Eventually it will be forced to acknowledge the popular demand, but it will reject it. Ministers will explain that the proposal is prohibitively expensive because all the new roads must be widened first, but they’ll dodge questions about why they didn’t just make them wide enough in the first place.
Then the government, with an eye on uranium royalties from the north coast, might try to divert attention with talk of a whole new highway from North West River to Postville.
What’s sure, given that someone who could become premier knows the road intimately, is that paving Labrador will become a hot issue in the next provincial election. Promises will be made and some might even be kept.
Until then, however, drivers should really beware.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.