KINGSTON — Firefighters were still cleaning up spilled fuel from a crash on the westbound lane of Highway 401 near Prescott, Ont., when two transport trucks and three passenger vehicles collided in the eastbound lanes along the same stretch of road, killing two people and injuring four.
That pair of crashes last November caused the 401 to close in both directions overnight, forcing detoured vehicles through Prescott (population around 4,300), and adding to the sense among several communities in eastern Ontario that similar scenes are recurring with a disturbing frequency. Prescott Mayor Brett Todd likened driving on the 401 to a “blood sport.”
In nearby Brockville, city councillors endorsed a motion last week that formalizes their support for adding extra lanes to the 401 in eastern Ontario, recognizing it as an essential public safety and economic issue in the region. The city joins Kingston and Prescott, whose mayors have also made pleas for highway expansion in an attempt to reduce crashes and the congestion and economic impact they cause.
Widening the 401 throughout all of eastern Ontario would be a costly undertaking. The Ministry of Transportation estimates that expanding the remaining 360 kilometres of Highway 401 in eastern Ontario (roughly from Cobourg to the Quebec border) would cost somewhere between $2.5 and $3 billion.
And while the ministry will not commit to expanding the 401 throughout the eastern Ontario corridor at this time — as recently as October 2017, then-transport minister Steven Del Duca reportedly told a group of local mayors that a full expansion won’t be happening any time soon — municipalities are determined to jumpstart their vision for six lanes.
And with local Progressive Conservative MPPs joining the call, widening the 401 could become an issue in the upcoming provincial election.
Steve Clark, MPP for Leeds-Grenville, says it’s time the province commits to expanding the highway to six lanes throughout eastern Ontario. Clark and three other PC MPPs from the region crafted the motion that was passed by local councils in Prescott and Brockville.
“Like some of the local mayors, I and some of my colleagues have been incredibly frustrated on the lack of action from the government,” says Clark. “It's starting to boil over into a widespread community discussion.”
Last year had an unusually high number of fatal crashes on the 401. According to the MTO, there were 15 fatal collisions on the stretch of Highway 401 between Trenton and Cornwall in 2017, resulting in 20 deaths and 14 injuries. In the three years before 2017, there were 21 deaths combined along this same stretch. While the Ministry of Transportation notes that the statistics “don’t reveal any particular trend or connection to the increase seen in 2017,” it’s no surprise that politicians in eastern Ontario are sounding the alarm.
Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson sees the burden on local roads first-hand when the 401 is shut down. “Rerouting cars through Kingston can often create traffic chaos if you have transport trucks coming through our downtown,” he says.
There’s also the economic impact: Closures and congestion mean lost productivity. “This is millions of dollars in raw cost,” Paterson says. “If you think of the time and cost involved in the disruption of transporting people and goods.”
While Paterson has added his voice to the calls for highway expansion throughout eastern Ontario, Kingston is already enjoying the addition of two lanes along much of the city — a final section is currently under construction east of its urban centre between the Cataraqui River and Highway 15.
“For Kingston itself, the 401 has been widened to three lanes in each direction,” Paterson says. “We've seen the benefits of that.”
The Ministry of Transportation is also in a preliminary design phase for 401 expansion in the Belleville area, partly because a pair of interchange bridges are nearing the end of their lifespan and need to be replaced. And by lengthening underpass bridges as they get replaced between Port Hope and the Quebec border, the ministry is leaving open the possibility of future expansion down the road.
A multibillion-dollar price tag
The ministry, for its part, says it determines the need for expansion based on traffic volumes, collision history, and “operational needs” of the highway.
Annual average daily traffic (AADT) is one factor in determining which sections of the 401 get priority. According to the ministry, traffic volumes on the 401 in eastern Ontario are highest near Port Hope and Kingston, with a range of 51,000 to 55,000 AADT. Expansion so far has been focused in relatively busy areas, such as Kingston and Belleville.
Still, the numbers pale next to, say, the two-kilometre stretch of the 401 between Toronto’s Don Valley Parkway and Leslie Street, which has an AADT of 348,000 vehicles. While the stretch of the 401 between Cobourg and Quebec does not have the traffic volume of the Greater Toronto Area, transportation policy consultant Peter Harrison says it’s still a crucial part of Ontario’s transportation system. “The fact is, there's an enormous amount of truck traffic going along the 401 between Quebec and Ontario.”
Harrison endorses the government’s approach so far, which puts practical considerations ahead of politics. “It seems that they're selectively widening the road,” he says. “It's not all or nothing. Let's widen the places where traffic is heaviest. Let’s hold back or defer where it isn't heavy. [...] Certainly the ministry would have a long list of projects across the province that they would like to do. They prioritize where they get biggest bang for their buck.”
Jeff Earle, a Brockville city councillor, agrees with a fact-based approach to deciding where to widen the 401. “Probably everyone between Windsor and Quebec City would like a wider road, and a little safer [road]. But you can’t just throw a road down and widen. There’s these little things called bridges,” he says, pointing to the practical realities of a sprawling and complex transportation system.
“I’m not for or against widening the road,” says Earle. “To their credit, I think the ministry has a pretty rational plan.”
Exploring stopgap measures
One experienced driver who can speak to how crucial the 401 is to Eastern Ontario is Johanne Couture. She’s been driving transport trucks for 23 years, and has seen roads all across North America. Couture, who calls Brockville home, figures she’s spent about 20 per cent of her driving career on the 401.
She is happy to learn that her city council has called for more lanes. “Widening would definitely be advantageous as far as traffic goes on busy days,” Couture says. “If you added a third lane to this, it would alleviate a lot of the pressure.”
Couture supports the idea of expanding the highway, but if that’s not going to happen anytime soon, she is familiar with other solutions to enhance safety and decrease congestion on the 401 in eastern Ontario.
For example, Couture says there are lessons to be learned from Michigan, which also deals with blizzards that can cause whiteout conditions on the road. She notes that on the highways of Michigan’s upper peninsula, the Department of Transportation has added “rumble strips” — those loud, vibrating ridges that let you know when you veered off-track — in between lanes, not just along the shoulders. Couture thinks Ontario should consider adding more rumble strips on the 401. It would be an expensive undertaking, but not nearly as expensive as lane expansion.
Already, the Ministry of Transportation has added signage between Port Hope and the Quebec border that provides real-time weather updates. Enforcement blitzes are also taking place, aimed at distracted and aggressive drivers.
For now, it looks like communities along the 401 in eastern Ontario will have to settle for these sorts of short-term remedies. The arrival of six lanes won’t happen in the near future.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.
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