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A northern environmental regulator has approved construction of a bridge across the Mackenzie River, a piece of infrastructure considered crucial to everything from industrial development to the supply of groceries in Yellowknife.

The final decision now rests with Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Andy Scott, after the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board gave the project the green light.

"The potential impacts of the proposed development can be mitigated if the developer's comments are implemented," said the board's report.

The bridge, to be more than a kilometre long, will cross the river at Fort Providence, NWT.

The $51-million project will be conducted through a public-private partnership, through which the Deh Cho Bridge Corporation will own the bridge for 35 years. The territorial government will pay tolls and other fees amounting to about $4.5-million a year.

The bridge will replace the combination of ferry and ice road currently in operation on Highway 3, the only road link into Yellowknife.

Not only did the ferry add about 30 minutes to the already long drive to Yellowknife, it was regularly closed for about four weeks during spring break-up. The crossing was also closed for several weeks in the fall when the water level was too low for the ferry and the ice too unstable for traffic.

Yellowknife retailers and expediters have learned to plan around the closings. Occasionally, however, it has taken them by surprise.

In November, 1999, businesses were forced to airlift groceries and other supplies into Yellowknife after a 15-kilometre ice jam closed the ferry for days.

Construction of the bridge is expected to take about 21 months.