The provincial government has reinstated the Connecting Links program to upgrade roads and bridges across Ontario, but in the North, critics say the $15-million annual allotment isn’t nearly enough to cover the work that needs to be done.
The Connecting Link (minus the ‘s’) program offered provincial municipalities a subsidy to help pay for construction, repairs and maintenance to municipal roads and bridges that were part of provincial highways. But the province cancelled the program in 2013, leaving municipalities to cover the costs of those repairs.
On April 20, the province announced it was reinstating the program, allotting $15 million a year for road infrastructure projects. In a news release, the province said it would consult with “key municipalities to ensure the new program meets their unique needs,” and that the program would complement the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund, which provides small, rural and Northern communities with infrastructure capital.
There are 350 kilometres of roads and 70 bridges along connecting links in 77 municipalities across Ontario, according to the province.
Thunder Bay-Superior North MPP Michael Gravelle said the reinstatement of the Connecting Links program was “great news for the North.”
“We listened to municipalities and regions that asked for assistance in maintaining these important connecting highways,” he said in the release. “People and businesses across Northern Ontario will benefit from these highway improvements, and it will help boost local economies.”
Timmins Mayor Steve Black said the $15-million allotment is the same amount the province used to set aside for the program, and it’s what municipalities had been lobbying for. But he doesn’t think it’s enough.
“I’ll give the province some credit for listening to municipalities and accepting there’s an issue,” he said. “Unfortunately, in my opinion, the resolution to the issue falls far short of what we need to take on some of the reconstruction projects.”
The original program was designed to cover 90 per cent of the repair and maintenance costs of the connecting links after they were downloaded to the municipalities, Black added. In reality, the reverse is true: the funds only cover about 10 per cent, leaving the municipalities to foot the bill for the rest, he said.
For anyone doing the math, $15 million divided by 77 communities works out to roughly $194,805 for each municipality.
In Timmins alone, the city is looking to spend $10 million annually in the next five to 10 years, Black said. The cost of repairs just to the much-maligned Algonquin Avenue — the city’s main thoroughfare — is estimated at $50 million to $70 million.
“That’s five years’ worth of the funding complete, just to Timmins,” Black said.
Plagued by crater-sized potholes and water main breaks, Algonquin Avenue has caused extensive damage to private vehicles, traffic has been delayed and rerouted to secondary streets while repairs are made, and concern has been expressed over pedestrian safety.
Trucks hauling ore to and from in-town mining operations have been cited as one possible reason for the road damage, but recent research presented by Queen’s University Prof. Simon Hesp points to low-quality asphalt as an additional concern.
Black said the city needs to repair not only the road surface, but also the infrastructure underneath, which is 50 to 60 years old. Roadwork not being funded for two years created a backlog, which has exacerbated the problem.
“Our stretch is 21 kilometres and four lanes, so it’s a big issue for us, and we know we’re in major reconstruction mode,” he said.
City council has debated alternative solutions — instating a toll, implementing seasonal load restrictions, or building an alternate truck route — but because Algonquin comes under provincial jurisdiction, Black said the city would likely need the province’s permission before making any changes.
And, as always, there’s the issue of money. “If we took all the trucks off today, and just had the cars driving on it, we’d still need to do the repairs to bring it back up to standards,” Black said. “We’re scratching our heads to figure out how to get $50 to $70 million — how do you add another multi-million-dollar alternate route for the trucks to use?”
Funding for the new Connecting Links program is set to begin in the spring of 2016.