THUNDER BAY – It’s been seven years in the making but by the end of the month the Trans-Canada Highway will be completely divided between Thunder Bay and Pass Lake.
Work to twin a nearly seven-kilometre section of Highway 11/17 between Birch Beach Road and Highway 587 is expected to be completed within the next three weeks, adding to previously completed work east from Hodder Avenue that began in 2010.
Finishing the first 37 kilometres of four-laned roadway heading from the city is a significant milestone for dividing the highway between Thunder Bay and Nipigon, an endeavour Michael Gravelle, the minister of northern development and mines, has advocated for since first being elected as MPP of Thunder Bay-Superior North in 1995.
“I recognized one of the real problems we had was there was no alternate route between Thunder Bay and Nipigon,” Gravelle said on Friday following a media conference announcing the status of highway construction.
“There was a tremendous amount of traffic and there were a great number of accidents and fatalities. I felt it was important for us to fight to see that four-laning project go ahead.”
At the other end of the project, construction has been ongoing at the Nipigon River Bridge and approaches as well as a 10-kilometre stretch from Stillwater Creek to Red Rock Road No. 9, with both of those pieces expected to be wrapped up in 2018.
Nipigon mayor Richard Harvey said a twinned highway gives increased reliability and consistency for drivers with a fully divided highway offering a potential travel time of 45 minutes to get to Thunder Bay.
“The time that has already been cut off the commute from Nipigon to Thunder Bay is quite impressive,” Harvey said.
“When this entire project is finished it will open up a lot of opportunities for Nipigon. We’re certainly seeing housing increases and real demand for housing in Nipigon because it’s becoming a very desirable location for people who work in Thunder Bay to live.”
Three other sections of highway – totalling nearly 23 kilometres – have been approved for design. Those stretches run from Stillwater Creek to First Street within Nipigon township limits, from the east junction of Highway 582 to Dorion East Loop Road and Pearl Lake to west of the CP overhead at Ouimet.
Harvey said approving the expansion – which would feature five lanes with two in each direction and a centre turning lane – on the original corridor is significant for the municipality.
“From a tax base perspective, it’s one of the most important in Nipigon. It’s where the majority of our commercial tax base comes from. It’s really important we have that and it’s important that it be easily accessible,” Harvey said.
In total, the province’s Northern Highways Program has a total budget of nearly $630 million in 2017-2018 with more than $145 million of projects awarded across Northwestern Ontario including resurfacing nearly 20 kilometres of Highway 17 west of Schreiber, about 20 kilometres of Highway 17 near Dryden and 20 kilometres of Highway 11 east from Mine Centre.
Nathan Lawrence, president of the Northwestern Ontario Associated Chambers of Commerce, said improvements to highways such as twinned roadways can mean fewer closures due to collisions, construction or weather that have impact on commercial activity.
“That delays goods, that delays activities, that delays people getting across the region,” Lawrence said. “It has a significant impact on businesses right from the Kenora border to Nipigon and further east as well.”