Northeastern Ontario municipal leaders were hoping to pin down Premier Kathleen Wynne in Parry Sound this week to make a firm commitment to keep the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC) in public hands.
Mayors, including Kapuskasing's Al Spacek, were scheduled to meet the premier at a Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) meeting.
What Spacek wants to hear from Wynne is a “once and for all” commitment that the province will reverse its decision on the divestment of the agency and conduct an operational review and study some best business practices to make the ONTC as efficient as possible.
In Spacek's home community of Kapuskasing, area forest producers like Lecours, Columbia Forest Products and Tembec heavily depend on the ONTC to move wood products to customers.
Spacek said the message was received “loud and clear” from industry in northeastern Ontario is that they need rail freight to remain in business.
“Everybody recognizes it's the most economical and environmentally friendly way to move heavy freight such as mining and forestry products.”
Spacek, who serves as FONOM president, sits on a government-created ONTC advisory committee made up of municipal, industry and First Nation leaders.
The inaugural meeting was held in North Bay, March 25. A second will be held in Toronto, May 16.
Spacek said he heard nothing at the first meeting as to what is the province's timetable and order of priority toward putting individual business lines on the block.
“At the first meeting – which lasted three hours -- we didn't talk about business assets, we talked about process and structure of the committee,” including a pledge to meet once a month.
Last fall, the government stopped passenger rail service on the Ontario Northland. The province also opened up private sector bid proposals – through an RFP process – for Ontera, the agency's telecommunications division.
But Spacek said Ontera is far from being sold off.
He was assured by Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle that while the RFP process for Ontera is finished, “cabinet has yet to take a decision on whether to accept any of those proposals. They could say none of those meet our expectations and we're not going to accept any of them.”
Spacek is further hopeful that Gravelle reminds open-minded to what the committee members have to say.
Northern leaders have frequently huddled to game plan how to save the ONTC, but Spacek said it's difficult to strategize when the agency's ledgers haven't been made accessible.
“We haven't seen a true set of numbers yet. We've asked the question how much do you expect to save? Or much it's going to cost? These things haven't yet come to us. We have a general strategy on what our approach to it is and at the perfect time we'll reveal that.”
The government maintains the ONTC had been subsidized for years at an unsustainable level.
“Although we haven't seen the numbers yet our information is that generally Ontera and the bus service were profitable or close to break even,” said Spacek.