Whitehorse Daily Star

Image title

Photo by Photo Submitted

TENACIOUS TREE – This tree, stubbornly clinging to the escarpment paralleling Robert Service Way, has drawn considerable bemused attention on social media in recent weeks. Photo courtesy CITY OF WHITEHORSE

Artery will close when necessary, mayor says

Until a permanent solution is found to stabilize Robert Service Way, the public should expect to see temporary closures when the conditions warrant, says Mayor Laura Cabott.

By Chuck Tobin on June 9, 2023

Until a permanent solution is found to stabilize Robert Service Way, the public should expect to see temporary closures when the conditions warrant, says Mayor Laura Cabott.

That solution may take the form of realigning the artery’s north end, the part closest to the SS Klondike.

The mayor hosted a media briefing Wednesday alongside city engineer Taylor Eshpeter to provide an update on the status of 
the roadway.

Over the past week, the city has been back and forth with closures, she noted.

The roadway was open Wednesday, she said, but officials know conditions can change at a moment’s notice.

There was, for instance, another slide between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. Thursday.

That slide was contained by the berm and no material crossed into the driving lane, the city said in a release.

The movement is considered to be a small landslide. Robert Service Way and the Millennium Trail remain open.

This would not be possible without a number of safety measures, including the berm, jersey barriers, ongoing inspections, and slope scanner data, says the release.

However, this serves as yet another reminder that slope conditions can change quickly, and residents are encouraged to plan accordingly. Road users should drive to conditions and watch for signage.

The temporary closures are frustrating for the public, tourists, visitors and city staff, the mayor acknowledged at Wednesday’s briefing.

Cabott said the closures cause stress to people’s day, impact jobs, schedules and family plans.

Closures can impact other areas of the city and can quickly compound.

“I want residents to know that these closures are always a last resort and done only when we believe there is a risk of a substantial slide that could impact road users,” she said.

“But this is also a new reality.”

Over the last few months, the city has been collecting data to better understand what a long-term solution could look like. City council was briefed last week on a permanent solution.

The city is looking to realign the north end of Robert Service Way, regrade the escarpment and extend the sheet pile wall, the mayor explained.

She said the city has entered into a contract with BGC Engineering, an international consulting firm, for conceptual design of the proposed solution.

The contract is worth $50,000, and the work is expected to be completed in July.

Once the conceptual design is done, they’ll have a better sense of the cost, she said.

Cabott said implementing a permanent solution will be a major undertaking, which is why they will be submitting an application to the federal government’s Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund.

The fund, she explained, is designed to support communities in mitigating the impacts of natural disasters triggered by climate change.

Actual reconstruction work would not begin until 2024.

Cabott said the slide was influenced by the impacts of climate change.

Eshpeter said the decision was made to close Robert Service Way last Sunday and Monday because of the heavy rainfall, which enhances the likelihood of slides.

The slope scanner installed by the city was also showing significant movement, he said.

Eshpeter said once officials have the conceptual design, they can begin preparing for the work to be done, but he expects the bulk of the work will be conducted next year.

Once the spring freshet season is over, the slide and the escarpment should stabilize somewhat, he said.

Robert Service Way was closed for five weeks after the major slide of April 8. It was then opened from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. – except for the Victoria Day long weekend – before being returned to 24-hour availability.

Comments (9)

Up 2 Down 5

Marianne on Jun 16, 2023 at 12:17 am

I understand that the city is in a tough position, with a major road between the escarpment and the river to deal with. But offering "climate change" as the reason for its perilous state is a little glib. Is it not possible that a host of other factors also play into it?

The increasing development at the top of the escarpment, with the removal of forest cover that has no doubt served to intercept much of the snowfall until lately, is something I think about. More roads, widening the highway, extending the runway, a staircase, trails...it goes on and on. Is it possible that encroaching on the escarpment with these developments has had an impact on how the natural systems stabilized the escarpment?

I really wonder if the escarpment doesn't now resemble the old days, when the access road ran across the escarpment and numerous other inadvisable activities led to the slides Laura Cabott referred to. Those activities are what galvanized the engineer Legett to write his well-known report. The mayor can refer to the residences being expropriated, but she forgets, or doesn't know, that there were those other uses that alarmed him.

In recent years, the city removed the special protection from development that the escarpment used to have , and designated it "greenbelt", with somewhat predictable results. That marked the beginning of an era where development proposals in the previously protected areas were approved, as city councils were assured that, basically, that was then, and this is now. The escarpment is not such a threat now. We do not have to tread as carefully.

You can say that the development is needed, or whatever rationale there is for placing them on the top, at the toe, and who knows, maybe someday up the escarpment, but "climate change" shouldn't then be the go-to for situations that the city can't seem to get a handle on.

Up 13 Down 8

Bruce Bark on Jun 15, 2023 at 10:41 am

Laura, I'm quite surprised by your response. If you were in the position of Minister of Highways for the Yukon Government would you be seeking funding to completely eliminate the danger of avalanches along the South Klondike Hwy. That would cost billions of dollars and would be an impossible undertaking. Are the avalanches a result of climate change as well? I believe this has been an ongoing problem since the Hwy was completed back in the 70's. Helicopters dropping explosive devices have been used for avalanche control in the Whitepass since the hwy was completed. Thanks to the hard work of the equipment operators based at Fraser, the Hwy is generally open and the public is kept safe. These people are put at risk daily during the winter working under potential avalanches, but the job must be done. Kudos to them. Just goes to show, ongoing care and maintenance is the answer, not vainly trying to eliminate the effects of gravity that Sir Isaac Newton discovered centuries ago.

Up 14 Down 8

Bruce Bark on Jun 14, 2023 at 9:35 am

Stephen, I'm sorry but I don't think she did answer my question. How can the record snowpack from 2 winters ago, effect the spring weather in 2023?

Up 14 Down 15

stephen on Jun 14, 2023 at 9:08 am

Burce actually Laura did answer your question you just chose not to accept the answer. "Our record snow falls in the last two years".

What I would like to ask City staff is why in the last 40 years the City and Yukon Government have not planted stabilizing vegetation on those exposed slopes? Such as blackberry bushes, etc.

Up 9 Down 4

L. Cabott on Jun 13, 2023 at 8:47 pm

@Bruce Bark

The City of Whitehorse received 2 million dollars from the GY last year and some of this funding was still available prior to a $175,000 contract awarded for the excavation of material above an active slide area adjacent to Robert Service Way; this work was completed this spring.

There are ongoing expenditures associated with a slide planning contract. The spring 2023 installation of a barrier below an active area as well as the removal of some slide material was undertaken by City staff. The financial accounting is ongoing as the invoices are processed.

There have been significant escarpment slides in the past and some homes were expropriated because studies showed they were in unsafe locations. Council does not want to continue with site specific fixes. The City of Whitehorse wants a fix that provides both safety and security for the entire escarpment and it will likely cost 10’s of millions of dollars. As unlikely as this may sound, the City has a plan to develop a plan and we will leverage territorial and federal funding to reduce the impact upon Whitehorse tax payers. I hope you can appreciate that it may take us some time to get there!

Your comments regarding the many years that White Pass and Yukon Route dealt with slides onto the railway tracks below the escarpment is very interesting. For the most part, there were many smaller sized slides that were quickly cleared in the area immediately below the escarpment and off the railway tracks.

People who witnessed the 2022 slides estimated they were travelling at over 50 km per hour and they were incredibly dangerous for pedestrians on the Millennium Trail and vehicle traffic along Robert Service Way. The smaller sized slides of the past cannot be directly compared to what took place in 2022. And the costs associated with dealing with past and recent slides are not comparable.

Without drastic intervention there is an unacceptable threat to anyone who is below the escarpment, particularly along Robert Service Way.
Previous councils have not forcefully dealt with the escarpment slide issue. Our current council regrets the inconvenience that road closures have caused, however, we take the safety of City staff and anyone who uses the area very seriously and we are dealing with this issue as quickly as we can.

Up 12 Down 5

Karl on Jun 13, 2023 at 4:36 pm

Or maybe its because they started using the space at the end of the runway as a snow dump. All that extra water has to go somewhere, just saying.

Up 35 Down 4

Bruce Bark on Jun 13, 2023 at 10:59 am

Laura, thank you very much for explaining your reasoning behind your decisions and your explanation on how the city is planning to move forward. Very enlightening.
Just as I see in the House Of Commons on a regular basis, you neglected to answer my question. Therefore I will ask you another question, and anxiously await your answer. For the almost 100 yrs that the Whitepass railway ran in to the City of Whitehorse, do you think they spent large sums of money to maintain the clay cliffs above the railroad tracks? I do. How much has the city of Whitehorse budgeted on care and maintenance in the past 30 or so years since the Whitepass Railway shut down?

Up 10 Down 32

L. Cabott on Jun 12, 2023 at 4:29 pm

@Bruce Bark

Thank you for your comments.

City administration and council are well aware of climate change including the rapid movement between recent El Nino and La Nina events. Our record snowfall in two recent years and major landslides along Robert Service way were attributed to La Nina. If you recall, our City declared a Climate Emergency. With a warming climate the COW has embraced Firesmart programs including a major fire break along the vulnerable southern part of our City. There are many challenges of course, but we are trying to address challenges in a reactionary way and well as part of a long term strategy.

Whitehorse has become a large City and we are approaching climate and humanitarian events as globalists. Our staff are well qualified and very dedicated and we plan to effectively deal with the many challenges of a modern City. The COW will move to full time council positions and we will assume responsibility, in collaboration with the GY, for social issues, low income housing and substance abuse treatment facilities.

Our outlook will reach beyond Whitehorse and the Yukon to embrace a world perspective. As an example, if Ukraine is successful in the war with Russia we will establish tourism and mutual support programs with our new sister City. Staff and council will become involved with exchanges and support for Chortkiv. City support will be revenue neutral since our wages are already supported by residents and travel expenses will come from interest that generated from our reserve fund.

If you have any additional concerns of comments please let me know.

Up 39 Down 16

Bruce Bark on Jun 9, 2023 at 8:06 pm

Can mayor Laura Cabott please give me one example, just one, of what has changed with Whitehorse's climate. Has this spring been unseasonably warm?, has this spring been unseasonably wet? Is it the permafrost melting?. The Permafrost melting story is impossible, since their is no permafrost in the clay cliffs. That is a fact. Please give me one example of how Whitehorse's weather is any different this spring then the past 35 springs I have witnessed since living here. I don't see any change. ONE EXAMPLE PLEASE.

Add your comments or reply via Twitter @whitehorsestar

In order to encourage thoughtful and responsible discussion, website comments will not be visible until a moderator approves them. Please add comments judiciously and refrain from maligning any individual or institution. Read about our user comment and privacy policies.

Your name and email address are required before your comment is posted. Otherwise, your comment will not be posted.