Transport Infrastructure and Ontario’s North: Floating New Ideas – by Livio Di Matteo (December 15, 2011)

Livio Di Matteo is Professor of Economics at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Visit his new Economics Blog “Northern Economist” at http://ldimatte.shawwebspace.ca/

One of the persistent themes in Northern Ontario economic history is transportation and access.  From the days of the fur trade, to the arrival of the railroad and later on the onset of modern highways and air travel, transportation has been essential to accessing natural resources and getting them out to market.  Yet, Northern Ontario’s transport network has borne the marks of being tailored to economic resource exploitation rather than linking together people.  The network has been designed to move resources and goods out of the region rather than facilitate travel and communication within the region.  This has been a factor in the regional divisions within a vast and sparsely populated region.

A new report by the Conference Board of Canada titled Northern Assets: Transportation Infrastructure in Remote Communities highlights the challenges of northern Canadian transportation in general and particularly the new changes being wrought by climate change such as permafrost degradation.  While the report focuses on a case study of Churchill, Manitoba, many of the issues also apply to remote rural resource communities in Northern Ontario particularly with respect to the dawn of resource exploitation in the Ring of Fire.

According the report, transportation infrastructure is more expensive to build and maintain in Canada’s North and climate change is disrupting existing rail and winter-road links. 

This transportation infrastructure is not only vital to northern communities but also benefits all Canadians through its contribution to national security and sovereignty.  With milder winters, the viability of winter roads is becoming particularly acute as a problem to remote rural first nations given the reliance on them for resource development projects and supplies.

The report argues that the costs and benefits of transport infrastructure in Canada’s north must be measured by different standards than the more densely populated south. In particular, the design, construction and operation of new transportation infrastructure must include measures to mitigate and adapt to the potential effects of climate change and this will require better communication and partnership between public and private sector partners.

If rural remote First Nations in northern Ontario are to fully realize the benefits of resource development on their lands, they will require dependable transportation infrastructure.  Most interestingly, the report also discusses the potential contribution of non-conventional transportation modes such as airships in providing future transportation infrastructure. This aspect of transportation innovation is mentioned as “an intriguing possibility” in the report. 

As the report writes:

Today, airships are commonly thought of as an old, obsolete technology. However, that perception may change after the launch of Northrop Grumman’s long- endurance multi-intelligence vehicle (LEMV). Three of these vehicles will be supplied to the U.S. Army primarily for surveillance purposes. The first is on track to be delivered by the end of 2011.  These hybrid airships, which combine lighter-than-air technologies (buoyant gases) and heavier-than-air technologies (fixed-wing aircraft), are designed to carry a payload of over one tonne at nearly 10,000 metres, while staying continuously airborne for over three weeks. At this capacity, their use for Northern resupply would be negligible.  However, trade-offs can be made between range, altitude, and capacity. Cargo applications would not require the same type of endurance and would not need to fly at those high altitudes. Barry Prentice, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba, argues there are no technological barriers to building freight airships able to carry a payload of 20 tonnes or higher. 

This payload is in the same range as a single tractor-trailer truck, but an airship would be faster, more fuel efficient, and able to land virtually anywhere, removing the need for expensive road construction and maintenance.  In fact, airships may be operating in the North as early as 2014. Discovery Air Innovations Inc., a subsidiary of a Yellowknife aviation company, has signed a tentative agreement with Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd. (HAV) to procure a fleet of airships to be used in the North. HAV is the same company manufacturing the LEMVs for Northrop Grumman…There is significant potential for the widespread commercial application of airships, particularly for resource extraction industries. And, given that federal, provincial, and territorial governments are committed to supporting Northern resupply activities, there may be opportunities for public-private partnerships to help finance infrastructure capital and maintenance costs.

As a new and innovative transportation technology in Ontario’s North, airships could be useful for both passenger and cargo transportation on a year round basis and save public sector capital expenditure on permanent road and rail links.  Remote communities could have frequent and cost-effective transportation for their people and goods to urban centers that would provide the necessary market links that could generate economic viability for communities.

Manitoba seems to be taking a lead in pioneering this new technology. Today, the Isopolar Airships Inc. Company will be announcing the completion of an 80 foot single pilot airship – the MB80 – in the Engineering Building on the campus of the University of Manitoba.  The ship will be used to perform airship research under Canadian weather conditions as the next step to adapting airship technology to Canada’s north. In northern transportation, the sky is the next frontier.

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