SUDBURY – The Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) released a draft plan for transportation in Northern Ontario on December 10, a document that highlighted 67 initiatives that the Ontario government wishes to implement (or are already in progress) to improve transportation from Parry Sound to James Bay, including the Little Current swing bridge.
“We recognize that the North has unique transportation challenges. Vast distances between communities, winter storms and the natural landscape can make it harder for people to get around. That’s why we have developed this Northern Ontario Transportation Plan,” stated Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney in an introductory statement.
On Manitoulin Island, the only project to get a direct mention was the Little Current swing bridge replacement study. The government pledged to “complete the planning, preliminary design and environmental assessment” for the bridge by fall 2021.
Critic calls plan a ‘failure’
Algoma-Manitoulin NDP MPP Mike Mantha, who serves as the opposition critic for Northern Development and Mines, was quick to denounce the document. For him, the plan was “a complete failure from this government,” he told The Expositor.
“What we were hoping to hear was how they would address busing routes, especially on Manitoulin where we’ve lost that option,” said Mr. Mantha, adding that many recent deaths on Northern roads are a clear signal that more maintenance is also required for all road users.
“People are scared to be taking our roads going to work or sending their kids to school. That’s the reality. That’s the plan that people in Northern Ontario were hoping to hear from this government. This draft plan doesn’t even get the merit from me of being called a plan—it’s a failure,” said Mr. Mantha.
He said he wanted to see the government open its winter maintenance agreements with private contractors to allow for more independent oversight on that work.
“And if you’re going to put out a plan, show us some timelines, show us some real investment and some concrete plans in how you’re bringing this forward and when it will be happening,” he said.
In response to the critique, a spokesperson for Minister Mulroney said the plan was intended to be a living document that will require regular updates to evolve alongside changes in needs. She added that the government is working with the public, Indigenous peoples, municipalities, transportation groups, industry and businesses to work toward improving transportation.
Province pledges improvements
MTO has pledged to continue to pursue designs and construction work to expand Highway 69 to a twinned highway. There is currently approximately 70 kilometres of the highway that remains one lane in each direction.
The province will work with Ontario Northland to audit its rail lines in the North Bay area to determine upgrades and the potential to carry passenger traffic.
Ontario will build three new rest areas in the Northeast and rehabilitate two others, though none in the Manitoulin to Toronto corridor.
Of note, the map that lists the rest areas has highlighted Highway 17 between Espanola and North Bay as a “potential priority location for highway widening.”
The plan also pledges support for local public transportation systems with an aim to increase usage of such services through the Ontario Gas Tax, which supports those programs.
The province has committed to repairing roadways and bridges on connecting links (roads that link provincial highways through communities or border crossings), to continue administering the First Nations Road Program that helps fund road work in partner First Nations, to continue cost sharing for off-reserve connecting roads in unincorporated townships, to continue expanding cycle lanes and paved shoulders and launching a task force on rail, bus and local transit in the Northeast, including inter-city bus service like the now-cancelled Manitoulin Ontario Northland bus route.
Hints at cycling upgrades
Mindemoya’s Maja Mielonen, who heads Manitoulin Island Cycling Advocates (MICA) alongside husband Guy Nielen, said the plan lacked details and substantial commitments to back up the wording within its stated commitment to support cycling infrastructure in the North, such as bike lanes and paved shoulders.
“We would really encourage it to include the whole length of Highway 542 with paved shoulders,” said Ms. Mielonen.
She explained that while Highway 542 is on the provincial cycling network, it includes no bicycle infrastructure on the highway from Mindemoya to Highway 6 in Tehkummah.
As more people travel to Manitoulin Island for cycle tours, the roadway is becoming increasingly dangerous because of a combination of hills, many tight corners as the highway weaves around property lines and other fast traffic on the road.
Farmers, Amish and Mennonite road users also use Highway 542 and their slow-moving vehicles are an additional consideration.
Ms. Mielonen said studies have shown roads with paved shoulders are both safer and more cost effective because large vehicles are less likely to tear up the edge of the pavement.
“I think the document they have delivered has not enough meat. We will be contacting the ministry as well as other organizations (to share these concerns),” she said.
Minister Mulroney’s spokesperson said the government was focused on supporting the ‘stayation’ industry and is actively creating paved shoulders on priority corridors. She did not provide details of where those cycle improvements would take shape.
Cruise industry considerations
The report included a mention of support for the cruise ship industry. Little Current’s Bruce O’Hare, who owns cruise-industry partner Lakeshore Excursions, said the plan seemed impressive because of the many points; he added he was happy to see the swing bridge replacement get a mention but said he did not yet know what it would mean for the cruise industry.
A Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries spokesperson did not speak directly to the cruise ship industry but pointed to past funding announcements toward the Community Building Fund, Travel Industry Council of Ontario, Ontario Travel Incentive and support for numerous festivals and other tourism-related businesses impacted by the pandemic.
The spokesperson added that Ontario is developing a five-year plan to help Ontario strengthen and regrow its tourism industry.
Ontario has also pledged to create more opportunities for Indigenous-owned businesses to contract on government jobs.
The province stated it aims to increase awareness of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in its draft transportation plan. It also sought to improve the 511 road condition updates network.
Ontario said it would review the needs of passing lanes in Northeastern Ontario and identify new locations for such lanes. It also included a vaguely worded promise to support municipal airports.
On the environmental front, the province pledged to find places that may be appropriate for alternative vehicle fuel stations such as electricity or hydrogen. It also vowed to tackle invasive species such as phragmites on provincial highways, construct more barriers to wildlife accessing highways and connect remote communities to the electricity grid to reduce reliance on diesel for power.
Manitoulin Phragmites Project co-ordinator Judith Jones said the mention of phragmites and invasive species control along transportation corridors was good to see, but that local contractors have not done enough meaningful work in the area lately to address these invaders. She said there were many places beyond Manitoulin that would be excellent places to complete eradication work.
The plan mentioned exploring emerging freight technologies such as drones, an initiative that Sheshegwaning has also begun to evaluate for its own community.
The draft plan did not specify when the province would undertake the actions it has promised. It described the plan as a living document and said it would update its goals as it gains more information to ensure it addresses the region’s needs.