TWENTY-THOUSAND seven hundred. That’s the average number of cars and trucks that travel the Thunder Bay Expressway between Oliver Road and the Harbour Expressway every day. It’s the busiest section of the expressway that will see an additional 500 transport trucks daily once the City of Thunder Bay diverts truck traffic that now uses a narrow highway shortcut. It’s also the part of the expressway where Jim Bailey’s son lost his life.
Dallas Bailey was an exceptional kid, his dad says in an emotional interview from the Darlington nuclear plant where he is working this week as a welder. Fit and fun at 19, the talented athlete was on his way to work at Bombardier on the morning of Oct. 17 when he lost control of his vehicle on a patch of ice and spun into the oncoming lane. Still moving backwards at full speed he was hit from behind by an oncoming vehicle. The combined force killed him instantly.
“I saw pictures,” Jim says. “My son’s shoe was burned onto the floor. Part of his pants were still attached to the seat . . .” He pauses to regain his composure. “If there had been a median my son would still be alive.”
Losing one’s child is as painful as life gets, more so when the death is preventable. Bailey will appear before city council March 4 to plead for a delay in implementing the designated truck route so that the province can be pressed to first install a variety of safety measures. He has the support of some 4,000 people on a petition and he’s hoping for more names over the next 11 days.
As sad as he is at having lost a son, Bailey is frustrated and at times angry at the attitude and answers he says he’s received from the Ministry of Transportation over lack of attention to the growing dangers of travelling the expressway.
It was bad enough, he says, that the section where his son died had not been salted that morning. But if Dallas had skidded into a barrier instead of an oncoming car, his vehicle would have glanced off it and he probably would have survived.
The ministry claims the highway is too narrow to allow for a three-metre shoulder on each side of a barrier that it says is required. Bailey says he has photos of southern Ontario highways with barriers installed on far less than six metres of pavement between lanes.
And that’s been the rub around here for years. Safety measures drivers take for granted south of Sudbury are for some reason not considered necessary here in the Northwest. Aren’t 20,700 vehicles – 21,200 once all those trucks are added – racing along at 100 km/h (most go 110) enough reason to separate the lanes with concrete medians or cable barriers?
Bailey says he would love to see the planned twinned expressway extended east beyond Hodder Avenue, the least busy intersection at 7,100 vehicles daily (2016 figures, the latest available) which still saw construction of an interchange. But he’s not holding his breath. Those plans have been on the books for decades but the MTO studies continue.
Traffic only grows west of Hodder – 12,500 vehicles a day at Balsam Street, 15,300 at Red River Road/Highway 102 (where most trucks now take the shortcut), and 17,300 at John Street.
The incongruity continues at the Harbour Expressway where safety seems to be in overdrive – a straight, level sight line with a 70 km/h speed limit and overhead flashing lights at all four main intersections.
Bailey says the MTO has told him it will take a minimum of five years before construction could even begin on a twinned expressway with overpasses. In the meantime he will ask council to help him make the case for a reduced expressway speed limit, overhead warning lights ahead of each intersection as now exist at Balsam, barriers between the two sets of lanes and perhaps lighted signs that display speed to remind drivers to slow down.
A November 2014 article in Accident Analysis and Prevention found that highway crash severity is reduced by 50 per cent when vehicles hit barriers instead of fixed objects beside the road or roll off. It stands to reason that the safety quotient would increase in the case of oncoming vehicles colliding. The study also found cable barriers caused less severe injuries than when vehicles hit concrete medians or guard rails.
A 2012 study in Elsevier using Swedish data found that installation of median cable barriers between highway lanes reduced the number of fatal crashes by 76 per cent.
Obviously, twinning the expressway as it is between Hodder and Balsam is the ideal solution. But rather than acknowledge this reality, the new Conservative government has indicated its priority is to twin the Trans-Canada between the Manitoba border and Kenora (the riding of Tory MPP Greg Rickford, incidentally) where the average traffic count is around 4,000 vehicles daily.
If Thunder Bay couldn’t get twinning when it had two provincial Liberal cabinet ministers (MPP Michael Gravelle did win tough approval to twin the section from Nipigon to Thunder Bay, which continues) it’s hard to imagine the Tory government looking kindly upon an extension through a city with no Tories elected last year. Which doesn’t mean local officials should give up. On the contrary, Bailey’s idea of a co-ordinated approach involving council, MPPs and the two federal Liberal MPs (he says Patty Hajdu told him federal funds are available if Queen’s Park green-lights the project) can hardly be ignored if it is large and persistent enough. Particularly given rising traffic – and accident – counts and the plan to divert 500 more heavy trucks onto the expressway every day.
By all means, let’s see a combined, concerted effort by local authorities to finally get the MTO on board with a twinned expressway. In the meantime, the relatively inexpensive cost of medians and warning lights is well worth pursuing with the ministry and its political masters. That effort will take on added significance with every signature added to Jim Bailey’s petition at change.org/thunder-bay-city-council-no-transports-on-the-expressway-in-its-current-form. It’s in everyone’s interest to sign on.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.
(Originally published Feb. 23, 2019)