Sudbury·ONTARIO VOTES 2022

All parties pledging to bring back Northlander, finish Hwy 69, but disagree on the details

How northerners get around has emerged as a top regional issue in this Ontario election. While all the parties agree on some transportation files, others are struggling to get heard at all. 

Sault Ste. Marie mayor trying to get parties to promise to improve Highway 17 North

Temiskaming Shores, Ont., Coun. Danny Whalen gets off a charter passenger train in New Liskeard, in a similar scene to what a restored Northlander train service would look like. (Erik White/CBC )

An Ontario Northland passenger train pulls into the station in New Liskeard, Ont., which looks abandoned with boarded up windows.

It's kind of a tease. This is a charter train for delegates coming to and from a municipal conference in North Bay.

But it is looking like a sign of things to come, with all four major parties in this provincial election promising to bring back the Northlander passenger service.

That would be great news for Jamie Dabner, a 43-year-old engineer who moved up to New Liskeard from Toronto a year and a half ago.

Jamie Dabner, 43, moved from Toronto to New Liskeard partly out of hope of the return of passenger rail service. (Erik White/CBC )

"To be totally honest, we thought that maybe the train would come back within the next three to five years," said Dabner, whose work still takes him to Toronto about once a month, which right now forces him to rent a car.

He said he's watching other issues in this provincial election, but said passenger rail is at the top of his list. 

"This is a big one. Probably my biggest. I don't know if I can base it only on this," said Dabner.

"I've lost a bit of faith in the overall system of being able to bring the train here."

After being scrapped by the Liberal government in 2012, steady lobbying saw the Progressive Conservatives promise to restore the Northlander during the 2018 election.

Now all four major parties have it in their platform, including the Liberals, and the opposition is targeting the Tories for not bringing the train back sooner.

They have been planning for the Northlander's return in the next few years, looking at a daily run in peak season between Toronto and Timmins, Ont. Rival politicians have committed $75 million to restoring the service.

But the government's business case pegs the annual operating costs at around $283 million, with as much as $93 million in revenues, if they hit a target of 58,000 riders by 2041.

The Northlander passenger train was scrapped in 2012 when it drew just 39,000 riders in a year. The current plan to bring it back calls for 58,000 riders by 2041. (Erik White/CBC)

By comparison, the Northlander had 39,000 riders in 2011, with taxpayers paying a subsidy of $100 million to keep the train running.

Charles Cirtwill, president of the Northern Policy Institute, said after years of lobbying, it's time to "put our money where our mouths were."

"Basically what the province has said to us now is 'You guys want this rail? We're going to put in place, we're going to subsidize it,'" he said. 

"And it's really it's up to us to get on the bus, to get on the train, to ride these things."

Construction crews have been busy along Highway 69 for the past four years, but all of those contracts were approved by the previous Liberal government. (Erik White/CBC)

All the major parties in this provincial election are also promising to finish the four-laning of Highway 69 south of Sudbury.

But the ruling Progressive Conservatives have not started any new sections of the road over the last four years.

Highway 69 consultations

First Nations along the remaining 68 km two-lane section say negotiations came to a complete stop with the change in government.

Magnetawan First Nation said it is still waiting to hear from the Ford government and Shawanaga Chief Adam Pawis  says talks just resumed three months ago. 

"I would say there is some concern over the time that it's taken and some relief that the file is actually moving again," he said.

Pawis said Shawanaga  is now "beyond the 20-year mark" of talking about the highway. The route was approved by the community years ago, with specific design issues around water protection and animal migration still to be worked out.

"Our community is anticipating the construction process for a number of reasons, primarily for the safety of ourselves, our citizens and motorists travelling directly through our community," he said. 

The recent PC budget did mention some sections of highway 69 on a list of $10 billion worth of transportation infrastructure to be completed in the next decade, but only about half of what remains to be twinned. 

Opponents of the Progressive Conservatives, as well as many northern Ontario leaders, have suggested the billions earmarked for the controversial Highway 413 in the Toronto area would be better spent in the north. (CBC)

"It's pretty hard not to view it as a partisan issue," said former Sudbury Liberal MPP Rick Bartolucci, who championed the four-laning of 69, which he once branded as the "highway of death."

"Putting it on a plan where it may be addressed in 10 years is not a commitment."

He said he celebrated when the PC government of Premier Mike Harris four-laned Highway 11 to North Bay and brought the 400 up to Parry Sound.

Bartolucci said he wonders why in this campaign there is "more attention being spent on a highway nobody wants" referring to the controversial 413 in the Toronto area, instead of 69 which is "still a very, very dangerous highway."

Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Christian Provenzano is lobbying all the parties during this provincial election to spend some of the billions promised for highway improvements on making Highway 17 to Wawa safer. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Other highway issues

There has been little talk in this election about Highway 17 North between Sault Ste. Marie and Wawa.

But on the instructions of his city council, Sault Mayor Christian Provenzano is lobbying parties for small improvements to make the highway safer.

While there has been talk in the past of moving the often-closed highway away from the snow squalls of Lake Superior, Provenzano said they're only looking for some extra passing lanes and other minor changes. 

Studies show you are between two and five times more likely to die if you're in a car crash in northern Ontario compared with the south. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

"I don't know if it's going to get you a lot of votes politically to improve Highway 17 north in our area, but I can tell you it's the right thing to do," he said. 

"Government outside of the politics of election campaigns should take an earnest look at this, because frankly it will keep people safer."

A battleground riding that the PCs hope to hold onto, Sault Ste. Marie has received millions of dollars worth of funding announcements in the months leading up to the campaign, but Provenzano points out "there's a difference between announcing the resources and deploying the resources."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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