By Jennifer Bieman, The London Free Press
After a years-long battle to save a London Highway 401 overpass, pitting rural residents against provincial officials, there’s renewed hope the so-called “farmer’s freeway” might survive after all.
In what’s shaping up as a hard-fought win for farmers, Ontario’s Transportation Ministry is mulling a new plan for the contentious Colonel Talbot Road interchange, one that would rebuild and relocate the farmer-frequented Glanworth Drive overpass.
“Everyone is happy that they’ve been listened to,” said MPP Jeff Yurek (PC – Elgin-Middlesex-London).
“You don’t have many wins in opposition and it’s great that the community came together and were able to make the government have a change of heart.”
A third public information session was held Thursday evening as the ministry works to figure out the best option for the highway exit. Along with improvements to the interchange ramps, bridge and roads, the plan ministry officials are floating involves building a new Glanworth Drive overpass just east of where the bridge is now.
So far, the new plan is a hit with concerned area residents.
“It certainly looks a lot better than the last one they had set out. All of us in the farming community feel like we’ve got a bit of a win,” said Jeff Cook, owner and operator of Mapleview Farms, just west of the embattled interchange.
“We were a little discouraged there for a little while, but certainly people finally listened to us . . . It’s a safer solution.”
In his peak season, Cook drives machinery back and forth over the Glanworth Drive overpass up to dozen times a day.
He’s not alone. Since it was built in 1958, farmers have driven heavy equipment on the quiet stretch of rural road to avoid taking the slow-moving mega-machines through high-traffic zones.
But in 2013, as part of a broader push to revitalize Ontario’s busiest trade corridor, the Colonel Talbot Road interchange was earmarked for a major overhaul.
The ministry’s plan at the time called for the Glanworth Drive overpass, about 500 metres northeast of the Colonel Talbot Road interchange, to be scrapped.
The design features appease farmers included fully paved shoulders, extra-wide left and right turn lanes and traffic signals on Tempo Road, south of the highway.
But rural residents balked, arguing that taking lumbering farm equipment on busy, fast-moving Colonel Talbot Road — one of only a handful of north-south links between London and St. Thomas — would endanger drivers and farmers.
With Yurek’s help, Elgin County and Lambeth farmers co-ordinated a community pushback, including appeals to then-transport minister Steven Del Duca.
“It was an outcry from many residents in the area, businesses, farmers and others that use the roadway. It was a cohesive voice that made this happen,” said Yurek.
It was a long process, admits Yurek, but he felt like the ministry was re-evaluating its plan.
He said the new design was worth the wait — and the fight.
“We’re . . . going to be using these roadways over the next 50 to 100 years and they have to fit our needs,” said Yurek. “Hopefully, it’s a lesson that cookie-cutter designs don’t necessarily work everywhere in the province and local input is imperative.”
Project consultants are collecting public input on the proposed design until Feb. 15. The preliminary new design and environmental study on the project could be completed by spring.