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Transportation Solutions for Northern Ontario

Transportation Solutions for Northern Ontario


May 8, 2022
Kosta Catsiapis, PEng

Northern Ontario is an expansive geographic area in Canada’s Ontario province. Its rural landscape covers almost 90% of the province’s landmass but contains only 6% of its population. Transportation options face many unique challenges in the territory, including large distances between workplaces, urban centres, and many remote worksites.

About Northern Ontario:

  • There are more than 800,000 people over 802,000 square kilometres.
  • The northern region is home to 7% of Ontario’s population; approximately 13% are from Indigenous Communities.
  • More than 50% of Northern Ontarians reside in large, urban centres.
  • Of the approximately 24,000 residents in the Far North region, 90% are First Nations peoples.
  • Key industries include mining, forestry, agriculture, manufacturing, and tourism.

Northern Ontario experiences drastic temperature fluctuations, ranging from bitterly cold winters to scorching summers. These extreme environments pose significant challenges to the region’s road network, leading to temporary closures, restricted load capacities, and unpredictable weather exacerbated by climate change. These issues profoundly affect the social and economic prospects of remote Far North Indigenous Communities & Organizations, whose challenges stem from a combination of socio-economic considerations, heightened vulnerability to climate change, public transportation shortages, and the imperative for responsible resource development, particularly in the Ring of Fire region.

Unique Challenges & Solutions

Frost Heaves and Pavement Distortions: Pavement frost heaves are ground movements caused by the freezing and expansion of moisture beneath road surfaces and structural foundations during cold weather. These heaves can lead to uneven and hazardous road conditions, affecting pavement integrity. Common treatments for pavement frost heaves include using insulating materials, proper subbase drainage systems, and strategic road design to minimize the impact of freezing and thawing cycles.

High Embankment Fills: Designing and constructing high embankment fills presents several engineering challenges, including slope instability, differential settlement, and erosion. Solutions to these challenges may include conducting a proper geotechnical analysis, engineering the slope with suitable materials, and implementing stabilization measures such as retaining walls or geosynthetic reinforcement.

Deep Fill Culverts and Trenchless Methodologies: Trenchless replacements, an alternative to traditional open-cut methods, involve installing or rehabilitating culverts with minimal excavation, reducing environmental impact, potential relining, and disruption to existing infrastructure.

Heavy Snow and Melting Events: Heavy snow melt and ice flow pose significant engineering challenges as they can lead to increased water volumes and rapid runoff, potentially causing flooding and erosion. Engineers must design infrastructure, such as bridges and culverts, to withstand the dynamic forces associated with the sudden release of water and ice. Effective drainage systems, snow management strategies, and reinforced structures are crucial in mitigating the impacts of heavy snow melt and ice flow on infrastructure. Moreover, our teams must ensure that site visits are carried out in non-winter conditions, as snow cover and inclement weather introduce additional challenges to fieldwork.

Earth and Material Management: Due to the remote nature of many project sites, hauling in earth and granular material over long distances can be expensive. Conversely, hauling excess material away from project sites comes with similar logistical and environmental challenges. Creatively managing earth, granular, and rock quantities generated by construction projects for reuse is critical to project success and delivering value to agencies.

Rocks and the Canadian Shield: The Canadian Shield, a vast geological region covering about half of Canada and spanning the majority of Northern Ontario, is renowned for its ancient and exposed Precambrian rocks, which date back over 4 billion years. The presence of excessive rock presents geotechnical challenges for roadway infrastructure projects. Engineering techniques include geotechnical analysis, rock blasting, rock scaling, and various stabilization measures adjacent to infrastructure facilities. Rock quantities generated from project sites may be crushed and re-used as roadway or track embankment materials.

First Nations Communities & Organizations: Northern Ontario is home to many cherished First Nations Communities and Organizations that are critical rights bearers to project lands. Meaningful engagement is critical to project success. Collaboration should be based on a recognition of Indigenous rights, cultural sensitivity, and a willingness to adapt plans in response to community input, fostering a collaborative and inclusive decision-making process.

These challenges also present opportunities to build a more reliable transportation network that supports the diverse needs of Northern Ontario industries, communities, and residents. Gannett Fleming is playing a pivotal role in addressing these challenges. From tackling unique issues presented by colder climates to navigating rocky terrain to implementing innovative and resilient solutions required in remote areas, our teams have advanced several vital projects to meet the needs of clients and communities in this remote region.

Northern Ontario Projects

Gannett Fleming is renovating and expanding roadway and rail infrastructure throughout the province. Here are a few examples of our work:

Highway 61 Rehabilitation Detail Design
Ministry of Transportation Ontario

This 20-kilometre stretch of Highway 61 lies just south of Thunder Bay from Jarvis Bay Road to south of Highway 130. The scope of work for this rehabilitation includes:

  • Cold in-place recycling with expanded asphalt mix.
  • Removal of existing shoulders to process and place reclaimed asphalt pavement rounding material.
  • Guiderail replacement and adjustments.
  • Culvert replacement and rehabilitation (deep fills and trenchless).
  • Platform widening.
  • Shoulder correction.
  • Slope stability treatment and utility relocations.
  • Entrance rehabilitation.
  • Drainage deficiencies and frost heave remediations.
  • Replacing seven deep fill culverts via trenchless methodology.

Highway 599 Rehabilitation Detail Design
Ministry of Transportation Ontario

Gannett Fleming performed detailed design and contract preparation services for 30 kilometres of highway rehabilitation from Little Pashkokogan River to the southern limits of Mishkeegogamang First Nations lands. This route provides potential access to the mineral-rich Ontario Ring of Fire. The general scope of work includes:

  • Caribou migration and noise considerations.
  • Widening platforms.
  • Providing an asphalt driving surface.
  • Eliminating frost heaves and distortions.
  • Addressing drainage deficiencies.
  • Replacing centerline and entrance culverts, as well as safety improvements.

Highways 664 and 72 Rehabilitation Detail Design
Ministry of Transportation Ontario

Near Sioux Lookout, this assignment involves preparing two separate contract packages totaling more than 100 kilometres long. The projects’ purpose includes:

  • Rehabilitating pavement.
  • Widening roadway.
  • Treating frost heaves.
  • Improving drainage.
  • Replacing non-structural culverts.
  • Upgrading traffic signals and illumination.

Highway 17 and Terrace Bay Rest Stop Detail Design
Ministry of Transportation Ontario

Gannett Fleming is designing a rest area at Terrace Bay along Highway 17. This section of the Trans-Canada route typically experiences several road closures each winter due to extreme weather and motor vehicle accidents. The new Terrace Bay rest area may help prevent tragedies by providing truckers and other motorists with a safe space to rest during long voyages. Additional features include a washroom facility, picnic area, dog park, bus bay, and electrical vehicle charging stations.

Transportation Master Plan
City of Timmins

The project scope for the City of Timmins’ Transportation Master Plan (TMP) includes a comprehensive analysis and future planning of the city’s entire transportation network. Gannett Fleming is collecting traffic data, investigating existing conditions, and developing a plan to optimize traffic flow, safety, and truck routes. The TMP aims to address vehicular, pedestrian, and transit system improvements, integrating traffic calming measures, updating traffic signals, and enhancing general traffic management.

Structural Rehabilitations and Replacements
Ministry of Transportation Ontario

Our team routinely addresses a wide variety of challenges on this project. By working closely with foundation engineering experts, we replaced old and failing timber structures and settlement issues that were affected by excessive salt impacts with corrosion protection techniques. Northern highway structures often involve tighter roadway platform widths, making safe and efficient construction staging a challenge. Select Gannett Fleming assignments on Highway 17 include structural culvert design at Neys Creek, Ruby Hill, and Fire Creek.

Northlander Passenger Rail Service
Ontario Northland Transportation Commission

Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC) is reinstating the public transit train service between Toronto (Union Station) and Northeastern Ontario via the Northeastern Passenger Rail. The scope of work includes track updates, adding a new station in Timmins, and reinstating 12 existing stations. Gannett Fleming partnered with ONTC to provide strategic advisory services supporting program management, engineering, and design, including rail passenger and rail freight considerations, rail infrastructure and environmental services, Ontario community engagement, and cost estimating.

Creating Solid Partnerships in Northern Ontario

Gannett Fleming has partnered with several agencies to improve transportation in Northern Ontario, where significant distances between communities, long winters, and a rocky landscape with many forests and lakes can make linking communities difficult. These challenges also present an opportunity to build a better transportation network that supports the diverse needs of industries, communities, and residents of Northern Ontario.

A man in a navy blue suit jacket with a blue, red, and white checkered dress shirt.
Kosta Catsiapis, PEng
Vice President, Roadway, Canada

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