Too many fatal crashes and road closures have spurred the Temiskaming and Area Chamber of Commerce to champion the cause of four-laning the northern stretch of Highway 11.
The chamber is taking its cue from Nipissing-Timiskaming MP Jay Aspin who wants the federal and provincial governments to begin a dialogue for upgrades along the 160-kilometre stretch between North Bay and Temiskaming Shores to improve safety and relieve congestion.
Aspin said southern Ontarians have enjoyed an east-west 400-series highway link for decades and it’s time Northerners receive the same consideration from the province.
“I’m willing to push it from the federal level, but we need to impress upon the provincial government of the absolute need for this.”
Highway 11 is part of the Trans-Canada Highway network to Manitoba and is the preferred route for commercial truck traffic to Western Canada. As part of the national highway system, Aspin said a four-laning project would be eligible for federal funding of between 25 and 50 per cent.
Aspin, who voiced his concerns at a Nov. 21 press conference in Temiskaming Shores, said the issue was driven home last September when a long-time friend, Andre Lamothe, owner of Temagami Marine, was killed in a car accident on the highway near New Liskeard.
Aspin said he was forced to cancel three funding announcements last summer in the north end of his riding because fatal accidents had closed the road.
“It kind of brought it home to me what a toxic mixture we have on this highway.”
Aspin estimates commercial truck traffic has increased “five-fold” in the last decade and is convinced more people are on the road because of the province’s cancellation of the Northlander passenger rail service in 2012.
“The highway’s a killer, and it’s far outstripped its capacity in my opinion.”
Ministry of Transportation traffic counts taken between 2001 and 2010 at points north and south of the village of Latchford indicate commercial truck traffic has increased from more than 21.5 per cent to more than 34 per cent of the overall traffic flow.
Chamber president Darcy Griffith said taking on the four-laning issue has become a necessary one.
“The biggest challenge for us right now is the death happening on the highway. Far too many people are dying.”
Griffith operates a uniform and mat rental company with delivery vehicles on the road.
“It is impacting the safety of those that work for us, but our families, friends and those visiting the area and it’s having an economic impact on what we can achieve as a region.”
He concedes the highway closures are an impediment to businesses and a deterrent to attracting new investment to the area.
“It poses a real challenge for any new companies looking to open up here,” said Griffith, who moved to Temiskaming Shores from southern Ontario four-and-half years ago.
It’s also a hindrance, he said, to companies and institutions that rely on supplies from the south or bring in out-of-town specialists and technicians.
“We pay by the hour for travel time so it takes money out of the business. It makes it a challenge for everyone here from the restaurants that rely on fresh produce to the hospitals.”
Griffith finds most of the closures are accident-related with head-on collisions or vehicles sliding off the road into rock cuts. Detours around major accident scenes are non-existent.
“Once you’re north of Marten Falls there’s no way around (unless) you go south (to North Bay) and back around through Quebec because there are no side roads.”
Four lanes could more easily divert traffic around crashes and would likely limit the severity of collisions, he said.
More passing lanes have been added in recent years, but Griffith said they’re rendered ineffective to motorists once convoys of trucks begin passing one another.
“One of my staff drove to North Bay on a Saturday morning and counted 100 trucks coming northbound.”
Griffith said they’ll be compiling research on highway traffic volumes and marshalling support in the coming weeks and months from key stakeholders in the business community, road safety coalitions, and from MPP John Vanthof, who’s been instrumental in raising road maintenance issues.
While Aspin has gotten the wheels turning, he said it’s up to the chamber to take the lead, alluding to the successful lobbying effort by the North Bay chamber that resulted in the four-laning of the southern half of Highway 11 from North Bay to Huntsville. That project was completed in the summer of 2012.
“I am the catalyst to get this discussion rolling,” said Aspin. “If they really want this, they’ll put forward a campaign. The initiative has to come from them.”