By Ian Pattison

With so much attention focused on the alarming pandemic situation in Thunder Bay, news that might otherwise have captured a lot of attention has escaped it. The city’s favourite hot-button issue -- traffic -- has seen some developments worth exploring.

The largest project has seen the least progress. Cloverleaf, interchange and flyover traffic systems were included in the initial design of the Thunder Bay Expressway which is snarled by six sets of lights. So, “expressway” in name only. And with no warning signals for lights about to change, drivers of heavy vehicles have to guess if and when they might have to try to stop 65,000 kg (143,000 lb.) in the case of a loaded logging truck.

The expressway is about 50 years old. So far, only the intersection at Hodder Avenue, which happens to be the least busy of the bunch, has been upgraded to connect with the four-lane divided Trans-Canada Highway. West of Hodder up toward Balsam was re-built with the interchange as divided highway and is what the whole expressway will look like whenever it’s finished.

That leaves seven plans on paper, including the Northwest Arterial route to divert expressway traffic to and from the city’s northwest neighbourhoods which have seen explosive growth. In its recent budget discussions, city council eliminated $150,000 for property acquisition and environmental assessment needed for the arterial. This is the City’s responsibility and is needed before the province can begin the interchanges and re-building the highway.

The province began planning and preliminary design work in the 1990s but it wasn’t completed. The process was re-started in 2015 with public open houses, but until council authorizes the Northwest Arterial, everything remains in limbo. So don’t hold your breath for a project that council still calls “a priority.”

Councillors did, however, commit a great deal more money to rehabilitate more pavement on multiple city streets that are the bane of drivers’ existence, and which keep a multitude of auto suspension repair shops operating at capacity every spring.

‘Just fix the damn roads first,’ is a common refrain whenever a major expenditure is under consideration like, say, an indoor turf sports facility. So $19 million in the budget for “roads and road-related projects and bridges and culverts” should make at least some people happy.

City streets have deteriorated badly over the years and catching up on repairs seems to take forever. Roads manager Brad Adams said this week that he thinks there are fewer potholes than in previous years because the freeze-thaw cycle and overall temperatures have been relatively mild. And with less snow, drainage is better.

That may well be, but the general condition of those streets is bumpy and uneven. Arthur Street between Kingsway and May is one example. A smooth ride on new pavement is a rare treat in Thunder Bay.

Aside from road conditions, traffic signal lights are a real annoyance for a lot of drivers. So a June 2019 report to council proposing $4 million to finally synchronize traffic lights was well received. No more stop and go at every light, no more congestion at intersections, no more idling at stop lights, often with no one coming from either side.

Apparently the City is still studying the concept because synchronization hasn’t happened. Perhaps that’s because there’s a lot to study. There are 113 traffic signal lights in Thunder Bay. The City says it regularly monitors these lights to determine how much time to allow for each cycle. Combining different cycles with the process of synchronizing a succession of lights along a major road must be difficult. Other cities have managed to do it while we wait … and wait.

One good thing is that some of these lights are being removed. Last month, council voted to remove lights at Donald and Vickers and Frederica and Brown streets. Neither meets the criteria for a controlled intersection any longer, and they haven’t since 2004 and 2006 respectively. So you get some idea of how long it can take to get things done in Thunder Bay.

The project also supports the theory of two steps forward, one step back. A new light has gone in on Arthur Street at Ford where there never seems to be a vehicle in sight.

Aggressive drivers make up a sizable proportion of Thunder Bay’s motoring public and one of their favourite manoeuvres is to run yellow-turning-to-red lights -- only to be held up at the next red one . . . because lights aren’t synchronized.

Last month, council considered authorizing public consultations on the proposal to install cameras at 10 intersections where data shows accidents have been caused by motorists running red lights. The cameras have been shown to cut down on angle, or “T-bone” collisions at intersections, the City says.

Installation is part of a provincial program that sees the photographic evidence of light runners sent to a facility in Toronto for study. Confirmed infractions see a $325 ticket sent to the registered owner of the vehicle.

But earlier this month, council put the brakes on the idea, primarily because some councillors thought cameras at 10 intersections was too many, even though the more cameras there are, the more revenue accrues to the City and, presumably, there would be fewer accidents overall.

It costs $875,000 to maintain 10 cameras and other cities have found they either break even on the operation or make some money through fines.

The City would be further ahead spending $875,000 on improving the traffic light system, said Mayor Bill Mauro, while Coun. Mark Bentz said that same dated infrastructure is responsible for many of the accidents that occur at those intersections.

So again, synchronization would solve a lot of problems.

Thunder Bay can and should make efficient transportation a priority while also expanding the trails system to take pressure off streets and help to reduce automobile traffic and its pollution.

Roundabouts instead of signal light intersections increase efficient traffic flow and reduce accidents and congestion. Yet every time one of them is proposed, it goes down in flames because Thunder Bay doesn’t like change.

A roundabout tender proposal for Edward and Redwood comes to council April 12 and one in Parkdale at Porcupine is in the City forecast. Will council show enlightenment or bow to the naysayers again?

Many local drivers are only just getting the hang of merge lanes (move to the centre as you approach one, please, and accelerate to get out of one) and travelling in the right lane of the expressway to make way for faster traffic is clearly beyond the comprehension of far too many drivers.

It seems that we’ve got a ways to go to adopt modern driving techniques.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.