The plan to twin the Trans-Canada Highway between Kenora and the Manitoba border is taking shape this summer.
Residents in this part of northwestern Ontario got a glimpse at the future four-lane corridor at a series of public meetings this past month.
The Ministry of Transportation (MTO) has put up for review their design and construction reports for the first two of three sections of the 40-kilometre highway project.
The ministry is working on the route selection and design work in preparation to build the first two phases starting at the Manitoba border and coming east to Rush Bay Road, roughly half way to Kenora.
Although final engineering and environmental approvals are still to come, and construction may be a couple of years away, the progress is encouraging for Kenora Mayor Len Compton.
A four-lane highway will safely ease traffic flow for tens of thousands of Manitoba and U.S. tourists and cottagers that head to their Kenora-area vacation properties and camp sites each summer.
A better road also opens up greater business opportunities to move locally manufactured goods like forest products into Western Canada and south to Minneapolis.
"We look west and south for economic development," said Compton, with Winnipeg about a two-hour drive away. "It opens up Regina and Calgary a bit more to us and and to move any product out of here to the U.S. Midwest. We could move it more efficiently and safely."
Widening this stretch of highway is long overdue. It's the only east-west highway corridor in Canada and there are no alternative routes if the road should be closed for an extended period.
During the summer and long weekends, it conveys tens of thousands of recreational and commercial vehicles. At certain times of the year, traffic volumes range between 4,400 and 6,850 vehicles daily, 16 per cent of which is commercial vehicles.
Compton said the current two-lane road is hazardous year-round because of excessive speeding and unsafe passing. During winter, it's not uncommon for the Trans-Canada to be closed for eight hours every two weeks because of accidents.
There is no price tag for the project and no definitive date when construction will start.
"No tenders have gone out as of yet," said Dan Preley, the Ministry of Transportation's senior project engineer, in an e-mailed statement.
The timing of construction of the first two sections of highway depends on environmental approvals and clearances.
Planning work is ongoing for the third and final section, a 25-kilometre stretch which will hook up just west of Kenora where the Trans-Canada splits into Highway 17 (which runs into Kenora) and 17-A (known as the Kenora Bypass, which loops north of town).
Preley said the terrain varies between flat and rolling land, much of it rocks, swamps, lakes and rivers. Where it's flat, the existing highway will simply be twinned. In places where it's tougher going, alternative routes may be blasted out.
According to timelines posted on the MTO's website, the preferred route likely won't be selected until the early fall of 2011. Construction may be a couple of years away.
Last year, Ottawa and Queen's Park committed an initial $100 million for the first 15 kilometres.
The third section hasn't yet received any funding nor has any scheduling commitment been drawn up.
Compton sees no problem with the route planning so far but is concerned that the nearby Shoal Lake First Nation Band 39's request for a more detailed environmental 'bump-up' may delay the project. The highway project is on the band's traditional lands, 10 kilometres east of the Manitoba border.
One of the mayor's pet projects is to convince the province to build a rest stop north of town where Redditt Road intersects the Kenora Bypass. It would replace an existing kiosk at the border that's only open during warm weather months.
Compton wants a rest stop on the bypass to funnel travellers into town and to enhance the City of Kenora's proposed Lake of the Woods Discovery Centre. Construction gets underway this summer on this Gateway-style tourism centre.
Preley said the MTO is working with the federal government and other agencies to assess rest stop needs, including a "comprehensive survey of commercial drivers and their requirements."