Airships, hover barges, and more: Five ways to connect northern Ontario

The region lacks roads and railways to connect its people, but a new report suggests ways to fix that — some of which are definitely outside the box
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 08, 2017
Airships not unlike the trusty Goodyear Blimp could one day be delivering cargo in northern Ontario. (Adam Lacy/CSM/REX/Shutterstock)

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The GTA gets all the attention when it comes to provincial government spending on new transportation infrastructure — but the province doesn’t end where the GO rail tracks do.

In 2011 the Liberals committed to creating a “northern multi-modal transportation strategy” that would encompass all the ways people and freight move around northern Ontario. Now, six years later, they’ve released a draft for the public to read and respond to. It includes some big unpredictable ideas, some big predictable ones, and one or two additional surprises. Here are five highlights.

1. Airships for all your northern delivery needs

Most people assume airships’ heyday ended with the Hindenburg (Goodyear Blimp excepted). But for some folks the flame has never died. Airships could move large volumes of cargo to places that lack decent road or rail access — like much of Ontario’s north.

The strategy suggests the government facilitate the use of “new and emerging” means of moving people and goods through Ontario’s vast roadless territory, including not just airships but also hover barges (yes, those are real things) and drones.

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2. Climate change is going to make a mess of everything

Speaking of roads, the government is well aware that global warming will leave many communities that rely on winter ice roads with fewer and worse connections to the rest of the province. It’s also going to lead to more wear and tear on Ontario’s permanent highways, as harsher freeze-thaw cycles crack the asphalt.

The only real answer is to spend more money throughout the north, on more road maintenance for permanent highways and on extending the lifespan of ice roads that are getting less icy every season. In some cases, the government will simply have to bite the bullet and invest in permanent roads where ice roads become too unreliable — if First Nations agree.

3. Maybe those cuts to Ontario Northland were a bad idea

Passenger rail service in the north is a touchy subject. The Liberals made big cuts to Ontario Northland’s rail service in 2012, ending the Northlander train that served communities from Cochrane south to Toronto. Their new transit plan doesn’t quite call that a mistake, but it does say the government should “reinvigorate passenger rail service where appropriate.”

The plan notes that many northern communities rely on passenger rail — despite “service reductions, inconvenient service hours, lengthy distances and poor connections between urban centres and stations” that would cause riots in the GTA. But some communities, like the Missanabie Cree First Nation, advocate the resumption of train services lost to budget cuts.

4. Northern highways are choking on choke points

Only one highway crosses the Nipigon River, and when it fails — as it did in January 2016 — it forces northwestern commerce to take lengthy, arduous detours or stop altogether. The Nipigon bridge is fixed now, and the government is working on its twin, but the region has plenty of other choke points in the highway network where bad weather (perhaps you’ve heard about northern winters?) can close a stretch of much more important road. Given more than $1 billion moves across northern highways every week, even a brief disruption can be costly.

The Liberals are proposing to widen nearly 170 kilometres of the Trans-Canada Highway in the province’s northwest around Thunder Bay and Kenora, where the potential for closures is most acute. The government is also looking at improving highway capacity around Sudbury and Cochrane to support industry in the northeast.

5. Boats, boats, boats!

The Great Lakes are a key part of Ontario’s geography, and northern ports like Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie are key parts of its economy. The government plan calls for working with shipping companies to help get cargo to ports that currently have spare capacity and could accommodate new deliveries without major new investments. Plus, waterborne cargo makes a smaller carbon footprint per tonne than does cargo carried by truck or rail.

The government would also like to see more Great Lakes tourism, including cruises in northern Ontario — but federal regulations intended to protect Canadian-made passenger boats currently make that a tricky business proposition.

The Northern Ontario Multimodal Transportation Strategy is available for public comment until September 15.

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