Greg Rickford says the twinning of the Trans-Canada Highway between Kenora and the Manitoba border has ‘never been in a better position’ after the release of a new transportation plan last week.
"There’s a plan to actually twin the highway from the Manitoba border at least, to Kenora over the course of time. We’ve refocused our commitment to twinning the highway. COVID has been a setback, but frankly, the twinning has never been in a better position,” said Rickford.
Rickford says the province is currently engaged in talks with Iskatewizaagegan #39 Independent First Nation and the Metis Nation of Ontario for the project, and the Memorandum of Understanding between the Four Winds Group in February, 2020 was a major step forward for the work.
“We're confident in the next construction season we'll be able to get shovels in the ground. To the credit of the Indigenous communities, there's been great progress on how that will roll out. It’s all coming together and we can’t get this project started soon enough.”
That work is only one of the Minister’s highlights from Ontario’s Connecting the North transportation plan released last week, which aims to support economic development and job creation in northern Ontario’s transportation industry.
Rickford says the plan includes 60 actions to create new economic opportunities in the north and to provide more safe and reliable transportation services for remote and First Nation communities, including a number of highway construction projects like the twinning of Highway 17, new bus routes and enhanced rest areas.
“We have a plan and have identified key parts of major highways in Northern Ontario, and other corridors that we think deserve attention. Not just for the economic prosperity piece, but first and foremost for safety,” noted Rickford.
Other highlights include supports for remote airports and First Nation communities, and Ontario will now offer the G1 driving test in three Indigenous languages and directly in remote, fly-in First Nation communities, opposed to members having to travel to their nearest Drive Test Centre.
“In stark contrast to the previous government, we actually have a plan that identifies areas that are most pressing and substantial to upgrade, built-on and based-on the work that’s already been done. There’s already been a significant increase in construction going on from the Manitoba border to Ignace and beyond.”
When it comes to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario’s new transportation plan notes that costs for bus routes have risen due to cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, all while ridership for inter-community bus services have dropped by 50 and 85 per cent in the area.
Rickford adds that small airports serving the region have also seen shortfalls and reduced services throughout the pandemic, but more help is on the way to preserve the essential service.
“That continues to be a top priority for us. The safety and security of our isolated communities is first and foremost. We’ve doubled our efforts to make sure those communities have state-of-the-art equipment.”
As many communities rely on small air carriers to provide essential services and goods to the far north, Ontario is engaged with Transport Canada to explore a potential program to support air carriers serving remote and First Nation communities, as well as to help grow local carriers.
“We’d like to encourage more traffic through airports like the Kenora airport. We’re working closely with the Thunder Bay Airport Authority and airline companies to see if we can make financial sense to get more people to fly out of our local airports.”
“80,000 people in a normal year leave northwestern Ontario to go to the Winnipeg airport. We think there’s an exciting economic opportunity to be captured by some of our smaller airports here in the district.”
To support truckers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario’s transportation plan aims to build 10 new rest areas and repair or expand 11 rest areas along Northern Ontario highways over the next five years from Thunder Bay to the Manitoba border. Truckers have seen a 9 per cent decline in employment in 2020.
“We’re making serious upgrades to the condition of the rest areas. The washrooms were a disgrace. Folks will have a much better set of rest rooms as we get into the winter and the new year.”
The development of Ontario’s far north of course includes the Ring of Fire development, which aims to connect a number of isolated, northern communities with the provincial highway network, which will greatly expand the province’s mining potential.
“We’re moving ahead on timelines that we’re very comfortable with for a corridor to prosperity. The Northern Link road’s environmental assessment is part of a process to open up northwestern Ontario, so a mine or mining operations can be built. It’s great. We’re very excited,” adds the Minister.
Last year, Ontario’s mining industry produced over $10 billion of materials, representing nearly one-fourth of the entire country’s output. The Ring of Fire development is expected to grow the economy by over $14.6 billion and generate $218 million of revenue per year.
Northern Ontario’s transportation plan is the second of a serious of regional transportation plans in the province. Southwestern Ontario received their plan last year, and plans for Eastern Ontario and the Greater Golden Horsehoe area are under development.
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Rickford says shovels in the ground this season for twinning
Transportation plans includes twinning