Saskatchewan has the largest municipal (grid) road network in Canada, totaling 165,000 km. In combination with the province’s highway network, the province boasts over 190,000 km of rural roads—the most roads per capita of any jurisdiction in the world. The provincial municipal road system is based on the late 19th century Dominion Lands Survey of the prairies provinces. This rigid survey system divided the southern half of Saskatchewan into square-mile sections and included allowances for north-south roads at one-mile intervals and east-west roads at two-mile intervals. Following World War II, the rising popularity of automobiles and a growing rural population gave need for a safe, reliable transportation network linking farmsteads and trading centres across the province—a seemingly over-ambitious plan, given Saskatchewan’s vast land area and dispersed population. However, a municipal road network would be extremely important to Saskatchewan’s economy, particularly to the agriculture industry. By the 1950s the existing municipal road network had become inadequate and a financial burden for Saskatchewan’s municipalities. In response, the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities initiated the Grid Road Program in 1952 and passed a resolution requesting the provincial government to address the rural road problem. The government formed the Municipal Advisory Commission, and in 1955, after a three-year study of Saskatchewan’s rural transportation network, proposed a new 19,000-km system of municipal roads for the province. Offering technical and financial assistance to the municipalities during the expected 10-year construction period, the government backed the proposal and construction began in earnest in 1956. The new municipal road system would cover all settled parts of the province and be built to all-weather, all-season standards for motorized traffic. At an estimated cost of $50 million, the government and the municipalities each agreed to put in half.
Today, municipal roads are classified according to their function and traffic volumes, which in turn determine construction and maintenance standards. The six road classes and their percentages of the total 165,000-km municipal road network are as follows: primary municipal (5%), municipal (8%), main farm access (18%), special (2%), local access (25%), and land access (42%). Primary municipal roads link municipalities, highways and other primary municipal roads, and carry a minimum of 100 vehicles per day. Municipal roads provide major routes through municipalities and carry more than 60 vehicles per day. Main farm access roads carry a minimum of 30 vehicles per day, and access at least one permanent farm resident for every 1.6 km of road. Special roads lead directly into regional parks, resorts, industries, oil fields, and Indian reserves. Land access roads give access to land only. Local roads provide access to more than just land, but do not meet the standards of a higher classification. Of Saskatchewan’s entire municipal road network, roughly 52,000 km are classified as gravel municipal roads and 111,000 km as gravel or earth access roads to farms, homes, fields, parks, industries, etc. Only 1,500 km (less than 1%) of municipal roads are paved, and roughly 3,500 km (2%) are surfaced with a dust-free membrane. Although the provincial government does provide some assistance for road upkeep, Saskatchewan’s municipalities are largely responsible for the 165,000 km of municipal road in the province.
A second categorization system groups all rural roads (highways and municipal roads) in the province into seven classes based on their social, economic, and connective function. Classes 1 and 2 carry the highest traffic volumes and connect major cities and regional service centres with populations greater than 1,000. Classes 3, 4, and 5 link communities with populations of less than 1,000, and give access to large parks and industrial sites. Classes 6 and 7 carry the lowest traffic volumes and provide access only to individual residences, small industrial sites and parks, farmland, and other properties. Approximately 81% of Saskatchewan’s municipal roads are designated as class 6 or 7; 18% as class 4 or 5; and less than 1% as class 2 or 3. In only 50 years Saskatchewan’s municipal road program has evolved to its present-day form. Planning, constructing, and maintaining this extensive road system across a huge land area of few urban centres is a remarkable achievement. However, railway branch-line abandonment, grain terminal consolidation, and rural depopulation are changing traffic patterns in rural Saskatchewan. Travel distances to educational, health, commercial, and recreational facilities are getting longer; rural people are becoming increasingly dependent on automobiles to reach facilities and activities away from their homes; and farmers are hauling agricultural commodities over longer distances by truck. Saskatchewan’s municipal road network is experiencing increased traffic flow (especially intensive grain trucking) in some areas and reduced flow in others, and consequently the needs and functions of the network continue to change.