A provincial plan to access the Ring of
Fire may be lacking, but for almost three years the Ministry of
Transportation (MTO) has been quietly working on a major pan-northern
planning exercise to support future regional economic development.
Known as the Northern Ontario
Multimodal Transportation Strategy, the multi-year study is directly
tied into the Liberal government’s implementation of the Northern
“It’s definitely a first for the
MTO in Northern Ontario,” said Tija Dirks, the ministry’s
director of transportation planning, of the comprehensive process
which began in 2011.
“The scope of the issues that we’re
looking at is much broader. We’re truly looking at the
transportation system and not just the highway network.”
The MTO hired consultants to interview
more than 100 people from the mining, forestry, manufacturing,
agriculture and tourism sectors, together with input from First
Nation, Métis and municipal leadership.
At the same time, travel surveys were
done at border points, truck inspection stations and highway rest
stops. The intent of the exercise is for the MTO to get a detailed
look at how the region’s supply chain works, identify the movement
of goods and people across Northern Ontario, and forecast what future
traffic patterns and volumes will look like.
Interviewees from all industry sectors
recommended that Highway 11 be fourlaned between North Bay and
Hearst, and between Thunder Bay and the Rainy River district, or at
least more passing lanes be added. Others want four lanes on Highway
17 between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie. They said some key winter
roads should be replaced with year-round permanent roads to reach
remote Aboriginal communities and forestry management units.
There were calls for airport
infrastructure upgrades, better rail and bus service, a port
expansion in Sault Ste. Marie, and stable government funding
mechanisms to support it all.
Those surveyed also lamented the lack
of road and rail access to the Ring of Fire, inner city congestion in
Sudbury, the absence of major railway intermodal facilities, and the
need for better highway rest stops and tourism signage.
About 60 of those people interviewed
attended a special workshop in Sudbury, Dec. 4, where all the data
gathered to date was presented.
“If this first phase was about
gathering information,” said Dirks, “this next phase is, what do
we do about it?”
The next steps will be to identify any
gaps or deficiencies in the north’s transportation network and put
together a to-do list to determine priorities for an actual strategy.
Dirks said the conversion with
stakeholders throughout this process will continue through various
means such as technical and working groups.
Most of the work to devise the
transportation strategy will be largely complete by the winter of
2015- 2016 and implementation would need final support from the
premier and cabinet.
Whether a spring election and a new
government at Queen’s Park would scuttle the strategy in midstream
remains to be seen.
“The work would still on go on unless
we were told to halt it,” said Dirks. “That’s always the
prerogative of a new government, but the principles and the need to
look at the transportation system remains. We haven’t heard from
any dissenters on the need for this work from any side.”