Three northern Ontario government ministers skipped a vote yesterday on a bill called Making Northern Ontario Highways Safer Act.
The private member's bill from NDP MPP Guy Bourgouin sought to improve winter highway maintenance on highways 11 and 17 in order to reduce the number of winter closures and collisions on Northern Ontario roads. It was defeated by 59-38.
Bourgouin’s bill, Making Northern Ontario Highways Safer, 2019, would have ensured that highways 11 and 17 are maintained with the province’s strictest requirements for snow removal. By classifying the northern highways the same as all 400 series highways and the QEW, snow must be removed within eight hours of the end of a snowfall.
Bourgouin’s bill would bump up highways 11 and 17 to Class 1 in all of their sections, whether two or four-lane and eliminate vehicular traffic specifications.
"Doug Ford’s northern ministers Greg Rickford, Ross Romano, and Vic Fedeli all skipped the vote, preferring to toe Ford’s line rather than stand up and protect northern families," said Bourgouin in a release.
Timmins MPP Gilles Bisson said the Conservative caucus members who did speak to the bill, said "some really silly things."
"One comment was this is just the wrong timing to do it, I don’t when the timing should be,” he said, adding another member said it's a question of getting the value for the money spent.
Bisson said the changes would cost extra money.
“But the amount of money that we spend far outweighs the risk to drivers when they drive in Northern Ontario, and accidents and death and the cost that comes from those things because you have to dispatch the police, you have to dispatch ambulances, and there’s the health care system that we pay for,” said Bisson.
“It would be cheaper to keep the highway in good condition, give people peace of mind and the province will save money in the long run.”
Fedeli emailed a statement to BayToday but did not address the issue of missing the vote.
"Our 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.
"Highways 11 and 17 are major highways providing access across northern Ontario. The current winter service level 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.
"We have strengthened the oversight of our private contractors and we have worked with contractors to add equipment to clear truck climbing and passing lanes, freeway ramps, and shoulders more quickly."
"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," concluded Fedeli.
Privatizing winter road maintenance and changing circuit times are part of the problem on northern roads for Bisson.
"The circuit time is the amount of time that a plow goes in front of your house and you expect to see it again,” he explained.
“And circuit times were increased as part of the negotiations for the contracts that were signed with the private contractors. So this is not the fault of the contractor, this is not the fault of the plow drivers, this is the government that increased the circuit times so that they don’t have to plow as often and keep the roads as clean as they used to.”
If you're driving across Canada, Bisson noted you have to go to Highway 11 or 17, along with the people living in all the cities and towns in Northern Ontario.
“This is the TransCanada Highway, this is one of the major economic arteries in Canada and if the province is serious about being open for business and trying to encourage business to establish itself in Ontario and to prosper and grow, you have to have strong infrastructure and a highway system that you drive on in the winter is really important,” he said.
See a video clip of the vote here.
The Liberals also promised to make northern roads safer when they were the government in 2015. Better snow clearing and the ability to see the condition of highways were among promises made by Steven Del Duca, then Ontario’s Minister of Transportation.
Fedeli was skeptical anything would change at the time.
"We'll believe it when we see it," Fedeli told BayToday. "I think the proof will be the condition of the highways this winter. They're adding $5 million to an area where … the root problem was (caused) in 2009 when they changed the way the contracts were administered to save $36 million and they put people's lives at risk."
– with files from BayToday.ca