Improving safety on Highway 401 is a “work in progress,” but local mayors are pleased with the steps now being taken on the Eastern Ontario stretch of the highway.
Prescott Mayor Brett Todd and Joe Baptista, mayor of Leeds and the Thousand Islands Township, are both pleased with an announcement in Kingston Friday by Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca, who introduced new winter driving measures to be implemented in the near term.
“It was more of an announcement of the start of the process,” said Todd.
The province will add more changeable message signs along the 401 from Port Hope to the Quebec border “to provide real-time weather specific warnings to all drivers so that they can drive for the conditions, or make alternate travel plans,” the ministry announced Friday.
Del Duca also announced a new forecasted driving conditions feature on Ontario 511 that predicts driving conditions based on forecasted weather, precipitation, wind and temperature.
Todd and Baptista were joined at the Kingston event by United Counties of Leeds and Grenville Warden Robin Jones and other officials.
They are part of a “Safe Corridor Working Group” aiming to improve safety along the highway.
Their work follows a deadly hazardous materials spill on the 401 near Lansdowne last spring.
In the wake of that incident, Todd and other local mayors called on the provincial government for new rules for transport trucks on major highways. In particular, the mayors were concerned about the hauling of toxic goods during winter storms.
The ministry, however, only agreed to meet the mayors about six months later.
Todd reiterated his call to the ministry after tragedy struck again last month, when two separate transport truck crashes on Highway 401 within seven hours of each other killed two people and sent four others to hospital.
The next meeting of the Safe Corridor Working Group is scheduled for next Friday in Cobourg.
The ministry announced that, throughout the winter, “the province will conduct a series of targeted commercial vehicle enforcement blitzes, focused on distracted and aggressive driving, mechanical fitness and the safe transportation of dangerous goods on Ontario’s highways.”
Todd said Friday the initial six-month delay is “still bothersome,” adding it was ironic to see the process kick off amid the first significant weather warning in the region.
But he feels better about the process going forward.
“I think it’s poised to move forward very quickly,” said Todd.
“We were concerned that it took so long to get this off the ground but I think now they are moving as quickly as they possibly can,” Baptista agreed.
“It’s a work in progress.”
A more formal announcement is expected from the ministry in January, added Baptista.
For Todd, however, the longer-term goal remains widening the 401 to three lanes in each direction in Eastern Ontario, an objective he brought up again at Friday’s event.
“We’re not going to go away on that one,” said Todd.
The Prescott mayor is now part of an effort to get all Eastern Ontario municipal leaders to call for the added lanes on the 401.
“I think everyone’s getting behind it,” said Todd.
“We need the government to address it in the near future.”
The working group will meet four or five times between now and the spring and make recommendations, he added.
Todd described his mood now as “optimistic, but we’ve definitely got a long way to go.”