A trio of MPPs gathered on Zoom on Thursday to unveil a new transportation plan for northern Ontario: Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney; Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines Greg Rickford; and Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano (who represents Sault Ste. Marie) used the event as a predictable opportunity to sing the praises of their own government and to get a few digs in at their predecessors, whom, they alleged, didn’t take the needs of the north seriously.
In fact, this new transportation plan for northern Ontario isn’t wildly different from similar reports produced during the Liberal years. It even includes a nod towards blimps and cargo drones, as past reports have — some dreams never die.
On balance there’s arguably more rhetorical emphasis on the province’s roads and highways, which makes sense for a government that believes any attempt to shift transportation modes in northern Ontario is just GTA environmentalists engaging in social engineering. But nothing in the document is radically different from what we’ve seen in prior years, which is a good thing: the interests of the north are different than those of the south, but they don’t change that dramatically between elections.
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What’s more striking about the document is its context in the wider Progressive Conservative government. This is a government that’s awfully fond of transportation infrastructure — before COVID-19, it was one of the government’s top priorities, and we heard talk of the Ontario Line, other major transit projects, and highway expansions around the GTA and the rest of southern Ontario. But relatively little of that largesse has made its way north of the French River thus far, and the difference can’t be explained solely by the north’s smaller population.
Take an example that’s close to my heart: the winter road network that connects remote communities across the province’s vast north to the rest of Ontario’s highways — and with them, the entire global economy — for an increasingly tenuous and brief season every year. The transportation plan released Thursday does indeed include language about converting the current network to all-season roads, and that’s welcome and necessary.
But it comes with a price tag: upgrading the ice roads to year-round roads capable of handling heavy freight is an expensive proposition: just one project, connecting the communities on James Bay with Highway 11, is currently being studied, and early cost estimates peg it at between $500 and $700 million. That’s a lot of money, especially when it’s being spent on fewer than 20,000 people in four First Nations and one municipality. The Northern Policy Institute has estimated that converting the entire winter-road network to all-season roads would cost $9.5 billion, or $392,000 per person. These are large sums, but they at least come with the assumption that these would be life-changing investments for remote northern communities.
(That they would be life-changing is, in fact, one reason why we shouldn’t get starry-eyed about this topic: the politics of this are complicated, and many First Nations are understandably ambivalent about what it would mean to be suddenly and irrevocably connected to the wider world. The James Bay proposal, at least, is being led by Indigenous communities themselves.)
The problem of winter roads is just one example — although arguably the most extreme case — of the kind of investments that perpetually struggle to get funding from Queen’s Park. Even more modest proposals, such as twinning major provincial highways (including the Trans-Canada), tend to struggle due simply to the lack of people served across the north.
The converse is also true: the GTA will always get more infrastructure funding than all of northern Ontario, because the entire population of the north could be housed comfortably south of Eglinton Avenue, in Toronto. But that doesn’t mean Queen’s Park’s choices don’t deserve scrutiny.
Take, for example, the Eglinton Crosstown West extension championed by the current government. According to Metrolinx, this project makes no sense (or, in bureaucratic-euphemism-ese, “it has a negative net present value”). The costs of burying this transit line are enormous, no less than $600 million and as much as $2.2 billion, depending on whether the government decides to cut stations to save money and increase speed. To be clear, that’s additional costs above and beyond the estimated $2.1 billion to build a straightforward light-rail line running at street level.
It’s one thing to say that Toronto is going to necessarily attract the lion’s share of infrastructure spending because of its demographic and economic centrality. It’s something else entirely to say that Queen’s Park is going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in additional, avoidable costs in Toronto because the premier has a long history of hating light-rail projects that run at grade — and doesn’t want one around his riding. And that’s well before we even get to the Scarborough subway debacle, which entered a new tragicomic phase this week.
Nevertheless, it’s too perfect not to show the math here: the combined costs of the Scarborough subway and the Eglinton Crosstown West extension — both projects of dubious merit, by Metrolinx’s own assessment — could be as high as $9.4 billion. That’s awfully close to NPI’s back-of-the-envelope estimate to upgrade the winter roads. The money could be used on any number of other projects across the province’s north, but it’s being squandered on vanity projects a short drive from Queen’s Park.
The government would, of course, reject the accusation that James Bay communities are being left waiting while the premier’s personal preferences get showered with cash, but just because they don’t want to acknowledge the choices they’re making doesn’t mean the choices aren’t being made — or that northerners shouldn’t feel entitled to some explanations.