By IAN ROSS
It's not a matter of where, but when a new North Bay expressway will be built across the north end of the city.
The Ministry of Transportation (MTO) has laid out its long-range plans for a new highway by-pass that's hoped to deliver "some certainty" in painting a picture of what the future alignment will look like.
And it should give the city and impacted property owners in the area some warning years in advance.
"It's a planning study and we're probably 10 to 15 years from having a need to construct," says MTO spokesperson Gordan Rennie.
North Bay By-pass is a vital regional cross-road for Northern Ontario involving Highways 11 and 17 and is a major local artery.
But the city has grown up around it over the years with subdivisions and lately a spate of new retail and commercial construction.
Rennie says there's no burning hurry to move ahead with more detailed engineering drawings since the existing by-pass handles traffic quite well. The real impetus is to upgrade the project's designation for future work.
"It's still operating fine, there's currently 30,000 cars a day driving on this section, but we've done (intersection) improvements over the years."
The plan to create an expressway has been on the MTO's books since the 1960s.
Known as Route 6, the proposed expressway, and all its variations, has been a big 'X' factor for a succession of city planners, developers and those in the business community.
It's also been of keen interest to many residents, having drawn more than 600 people to public information sessions in 2006 and 2007.
"All of their input played a part in the recommended plan," says Rennie.
Much to the relief of some locals, the expressway won't be an elevated monument of concrete and steel, but will be built on the ground.
Together with their consultants, Stantec, the MTO's study area covers a five-kilometre stretch west of Algonquin Avenue from O'Brien Street and arches across the city's north to east end toward the Highway 11-17 interchange.
The recommended route updates earlier studies for a four-lane divided highway that parallels the existing by-pass built in 1953 and ducks behind the Northgate Square Mall toward the 11-17 interchange.
No project costs are yet attached.
"We've looked at it again and it's still the best way to go."
Over the years, the MTO has purchased blocks of property as it's come on the market to set aside as a protected corridor.
The ministry now has 80 per cent of the land required. The remaining 20 per cent includes 69 residential properties along Trout Lake Road and five commercial properties, totalling about 15 hectares. Rennie says the ministry will pick those up as they come up for sale.
Smaller property impacts would affect the Hydro One building, Arnstein Industrial Equipment Ltd. and Plastitech Products.
The recommended plan completed last October calls for a new interchange at Trout Lake Road. The expressway would pass over top with the street below accessed by off-ramps. A new expressway would also bridge the Ontario Northland Railway tracks.
The Highway 11-17 interchange built in 1993 would be rebuilt into a new cloverleaf.
Rennie says with the basic planning done, there remains some environmental concerns to address coming from individual residents during the 30-day review period.
Should the plan receive approval and later go into detailing engineering design, they'll likely be another round of public consultation.
"We've talked about a by-pass for many years," North Bay Chamber of Commerce manager Patti Carr. "We were involved in all the consultations."
"They (MTO) picked the less intrusive route and the chamber has been there the whole way," says Carr, which gives local business some long-term notice about moving. "We've got to look at the future and find out what are the concerns."
Overall, she believes it is a good thing for North Bay on issues of safety and growth. "It's long time away and it's not going to happen anytime soon."
The current alignment certainly works for the community, business and tourism purposes, "but there's always room for improvement."
One safety concern that will be addressed with the new plan is the overpass, which will eliminate the Ontario Northland Railway crossing as a barrier to ambulances and other emergency vehicles.
By IAN ROSS