When Rick Bartolucci was first elected to the Ontario Legislature in the 1995, one of the first causes he took up was four-laning Highway 69.
Tuesday afternoon, nearly a quarter-century later, Bartolucci was on hand when the federal government announced it was providing $169.2 million to complete two key stretches of the project totalling 30 km. When complete, there will be roughly 38 km of the highway that still needs to be four-laned.
The first commitment to four-laning of the notoriously dangerous road came in 1991, under the one-term government of former NDP Premier Bob Rae. But when Mike Harris' Progressive Conservatives took power in 1995, the plan was delayed indefinitely.
Newly elected as Sudbury MPP at the time, Bartolucci and Gerry Lougheed Jr. helped launched the Crash 69 committee, which lobbied relentlessly for the project. It included billboards and bumper-sticker license plates that read, '4-LANE-69'.
A decade later, in June 2005, Bartolucci and then-Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty announced plans to four-lane the area between Parry Sound and Sudbury. By the time the Liberals were voted out last June, the province had spent about $900 million, with 68 kms still to go.
With budget constraints and other priorities, there were concerns the new Progressive Conservative government would put the project on the backburner. That's why Tuesday's announcement was so important, the former Liberal cabinet minister said.
“It's obviously good news for our community,” a beaming Bartolucci said. “It's a tangible sign that all levels of government understand the importance of completing Highway 69. And we have to honestly praise the two representatives because it's not easy getting $169 million.”
The two representatives – Nickel Belt MP Marc Serré and Sudbury MP Paul Lefebvre – announced the funding, which is coming from a few federal infrastructure funds.
With representatives on hand from communities such as French River and Markstay-Warren, the MPs praised Bartolucci's efforts to get the project done.
“Thank you Rick for your many decades of service to the province, for your service to Sudbury and also your service to get Highway 69 four-laned,” Serré said. “Thank you so much for everything you've done."
Too many lives have been lost on the highway, Serre said, and while completing the project will be great for the economy, ensuring the safety of people who use the roadway is paramount.
“That's why the federal government has partnered with the province to ensure that we complete Highway 69,” he said.
Lefebvre said he remembers how worried he was driving south for games when he was a coach of a girls hockey team, wondering if it was safe to travel Highway 69.
“The first question always was, is it safe going down that highway in winter?” he said. “It has certainly gotten better, but there are still missing pieces.”
Mayor Brian Bigger said that in addition to safety improvements, the fact so many people in the south can get here more quickly will be good for the local economy.
“So it's good for the North and it's good for southern Ontario, as well,” Bigger said. “This is something that's good for everyone. It's going to help with the tourism industry and it just makes Sudbury and the entire region much closer to people that spend a lot of money on tourism.
“We all know that tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in Canada, and this provides a quite an opportunity from that perspective.”
Roads are a provincial area, and Lefebvre said agreements have been signed with the province for the work. When asked why no one from the provincial government was at Tuesday's announcement, he said it was a scheduling issue.
"We were working hard to find a date," Lefebvre said. "Marc (Serré) and I found it hard to find a date for ourselves (to be both) here.”
The province will be making a separate announcement, he said, “but there is an agreement that has been signed.”
And, Lefebvre said, the money will be there regardless of who wins the fall federal election.
“The way it works is the province prioritizes projects, then it comes to the federal government, and we say yes, we will fund this,” he said. "This has been prioritized by the province, and we are putting in our 50 per cent towards this piece of infrastructure."
The first project involves twinning and realigning an 11-km stretch of road from north of Highway 559 to just south of Shebeshekong Road. Work also involves constructing a new interchange at Woods Road, building new service roads to improve access for local drivers, and installing 14 culverts and 22 kilometres of fencing to protect wildlife.
The second project involves expanding a 19.3-km section of the highway to a four-lane, divided highway, including new twin bridges over Still River, Key River and Straight Lake. The project work also includes building new interchanges at Bekanon Road and at Highway 522.