SUDBURY -- The Ontario government released its draft transportation plan for northern Ontario Thursday, a $625 million package that includes more than 60 actions to expand highways and transit services and provides reliable travel options for remote and First Nation communities.

"Northern Ontario has unique transportation needs and this draft plan will make real improvements to transportation in the region," Caroline Mulroney, Minister of Transportation, said in a news release. "Our plan will help create a well-connected transportation network for the North to make it easier for people to get to critical services like healthcare, while supporting more well-paid jobs through investments in infrastructure."

The plan includes improvements to rest areas, expanding bus service and moving forward with highway widening projects on key corridors in the region, such as Highway 11/17.

It also includes actions to make further progress on passenger rail service in the North.

"Northern Ontario has long been awaiting improvements to create a more interconnected, modern transportation system that meets the unique needs of our communities," said Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli.

"Our government's 21st-century vision for a Northern transportation network includes a plan for providing passenger rail to get people where they need to go, bolster the economic recovery of the whole region, and create new and exciting jobs for workers and families."

Continue to evolve

The draft transportation plan is a living document that will continue to evolve, the province said.

Ontario will work with the federal government, municipalities, Indigenous communities and organizations, transportation agencies and local businesses to gather input and feedback on the plan.

"Our transportation plan for northern Ontario will make life easier for individuals, families and businesses in communities across the North," said Ross Romano, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities and MPP for Sault Ste. Marie.

"This plan will help create a reliable and modern transportation network to connect people to jobs, services and tourism destinations in Northern Ontario."

In 2020-21, Ontario is spending $625 million to expand and repair northern highways, estimated to create or sustain approximately 4,370 direct and indirect construction jobs.

Specific projects for northeastern Ontario include:

- Continuing to advance design work and construction for the widening of Highway 69 from two to four lanes to improve connection to Ontario's North, improve traffic flow and safety and support economic growth.

- Continuing to move forward on the plan for passenger rail services. The province is accelerating work on a track audit by working with the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission to begin an initial audit of ONTC-owned tracks on a section of the North Bay corridor. The track audit is an essential step to identify needs for safety and infrastructure improvements to support a potential passenger rail service expansion in the future.

- Completing the planning, preliminary design and environmental assessment for the Little Current Swing Bridge on Highway 6 by fall 2021.

- Building three new rest areas in addition to the two rest areas that will undergo repairs or expansion in northeastern Ontario.

- Completing the environmental assessment and preliminary design for the Cochrane bypass from Highway 11 to Highway 652 by fall 2023. It is anticipated that the bypass could divert approximately 960 vehicles and 195 trucks per day away from municipal roads.

- Supporting local public transportation services in the North and increasing overall ridership through Ontario's Gas Tax program. For example, in 2019, Elliot Lake used more than $90,000 towards the purchase of three conventional transit buses and Greater Sudbury allocated more than $1.5 million for their transit garage, terminal improvements and a route optimization study.

More information is available on the province's website.