TIMMINS — Northeastern Ontario delivered few surprises on election night, once again mostly sending New Democratic MPPs to represent it at Queen’s Park.
The Progressive Conservatives had made a point of courting northern Ontario voters during the campaign. Party leader (and now premier-designate) Doug Ford visited Timmins twice and promised to pay close attention to the city and its people. He told a standing-room-only crowd in Timmins on May 1 that far too much of the money generated in the north was being filtered down into the coffers at Queen's Park, doing very little for the region.
“Those days are done,” he said. “The money is going to start flowing back to the northerners.”
If the PCs hope to ever make a bigger dent in the predominantly orange north, committing to fixing roads could help. And it just so happens that patching up bad roadwork has been a central part of the Ford family’s approach to politics in the past.
When Doug Ford’s late brother, Rob, was mayor of Toronto, Doug was serving as a city councillor. The pair became known for their commitment to tending to relatively small issues their constituents raised — including potholes. As Toronto Life reported in 2012, “[Rob Ford] can often be found driving around the city tending to the hundreds of calls about potholes and cratered sidewalks that pour into his office. For Ford, answering such taxpayer complaints has become a personal crusade — some say an obsession.”
In northern Ontario, navigating the roads safely has long been a concern, regardless of who's been in power at Queen's Park. Potholes are so ubiquitous that they have become a defining part of the landscape. (As have auto body shops.)
The region is struggling to keep up with repairs to critical road infrastructure, and motorist frustration is rampant — when a municipality spends a dime on anything other than road repairs, outrage explodes on local social media.
Most cities in northern Ontario cope with bad roads, but Algonquin Boulevard — Timmins’ crater-filled main thoroughfare — is among the most notorious. In 2015, Algonquin Boulevard West topped the Canadian Automobile Association's “Worst Roads in Ontario” contest.
Algonquin Boulevard East came second.
The road is a so-called Connecting Link, a section of provincial highway that runs through a municipality. Sault Ste. Marie, North Bay, Kirkland Lake, and Kapuskasing also have Connecting Links within their boundaries.
The province used to cover 90 per cent of the cost of maintaining these roads, but under Mike Harris’s PC government, the burden on municipalities multiplied.
“When Harris came to government, he downloaded those roads onto municipalities,” says Gilles Bisson, the NDP MPP for the riding of Timmins. “I think it's extremely unfair to municipalities like Timmins, or Kapuskasing, or Sudbury … that they're essentially having to maintain the lion's share of a provincial highway that runs through their town.”
Bisson says the province desperately needs to revisit the Connecting Links funding program, as the $30 million sprinkled across Ontario each year just isn't cutting it.
The City of Timmins is in the midst of a 10-year plan to reconstruct the 21.2-kilometre stretch of its Connecting Link at an estimated cost of $120 million. The city received $3 million in 2016 and another $3 million in 2018 — the maximum annual payout under the program. That doesn't go very far in roadwork terms: Timmins refurbished just 1.4 kilometres of Algonquin Boulevard in 2016.
And in 2017, Timmins was shut out altogether.
Simply put, Bisson says, municipalities cannot afford the cost of maintaining quasi-highways within their boundaries. “We, as a province, should be playing a larger role when it comes to the maintenance of that road,” he says. “Something has to give here.”
As premier, Ford will probably not take a page directly from his late brother’s book and personally see to road repairs on city streets. But a commitment to smoothing over rough roads in the north could go a long way to improving his party’s standing there.
Andrew Autio is a freelance journalist based in Timmins.
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