A bill in the provincial legislature proponents said would make Northern Ontario highways safer for travellers has been defeated.
MPPs Vic Fedeli of Nipissing, Ross Romano of Sault Ste. Marie and Greg Rickford of Kenora-Rainy River, all members of the Doug Ford cabinet, were absent for second reading of the bill Thursday.
“The @OntarioPCParty just voted against making Northern Ontario highways safer,” NDP MPP Guy Bourgouin, who presented the bill for second reading Thursday, said on Twitter.
“Shameful. Absolutely shameful. The Ford Conservative government has shamelessly put a price on the lives of people that tragically die and get injured on Northern Ontario highways every winter,” Bourgouin said.
Timiskaming-Cochrane MPP John Vanthof, “among the biggest backers” of the Making Northern Ontario Highways Safer bill, said Thursday before the vote that the bill, if passed, would have saved lives in Northern Ontario.
“A lot of my constituents are afraid to drive on Highway 11 or Highway 17 in the winter,” Vanthof said.
“Weather conditions have already closed the highway once this winter.”
Bourgouin’s bill called for winter maintenance standards on highways 11 and 17 to be brought up to the same level as major highways in southern Ontario.
“Too many Northern Ontarians have lost their lives, or suffered life-altering injuries driving on poorly-maintained routes in the winter,” Bourgouin, who represents Mushkegowuk-James Bay Riding, said.
“Northern drivers and families … deserve nothing less than to know that their roads are safe during the long winter months.”
By classifying the northern highways the same as all 400 series highways and the Queen Elizabeth Way, snow must be removed within eight hours of the end of a snowfall, instead of the 16 hours now allowed.
Bourgouin’s bill would have bumped up highways 11 and 17 to Class 1 in all of their sections, whether two or four lanes, and eliminate vehicular traffic specification.
Vanthof said the matter was raised two years ago when it was learned that highway crashes in the Temiskaming Region were “four times more likely to be fatal” than crashes on southern Ontario highways, including the 400 series of highways.
“That’s a telling statistic. That’s why people are so concerned,” Vanthof said.
In a statement Wednesday before the second reading of the bill, Fedeli said the government “recognizes that the winter months pose significant challenges for drivers. That’s why we have some of the highest winter maintenance standards in North America.”
He said the current winter service level on the two Northern Ontario highways “is based on the number of vehicles that use the highways in the winter, their proximity to cities, and the fact that they are part of the Trans-Canada network.
“Over the past few years, MTO has worked to enhance the quality of its highway winter maintenance across the province.”
He said the Ministry of Transportation “will continue to review the factors used to determine service levels for all types of highways in Northern Ontario and will develop a report on impacts of potential changes.”
Fedeli also said the province has “strengthened the oversight of our private contractors” and is working with contractors to add equipment to clear truck climbing and passing lanes, “freeway ramps and shoulders more quickly.”
In the Legislature on April 8, 2014, Fedeli, then an opposition MPP, said winter driving in Northern Ontario is “disgraceful,” and noted West Nipissing, Chisholm and Armour passed resolutions calling on then-premier Kathleen Wynne to “take the necessary steps to immediately restore the level of service for winter maintenance on provincial highways.”
Fedeli said those municipalities “also want the Ministry of Transportation to undertake the evaluation and potential reclassification of all provincial highways to ensure adequate road maintenance and to ensure that contractors consistently maintain provincial highways to the standard that ensures continued public safety.”