By Ellwood Shreve, Chatham Daily News
A provincial commitment to install a concrete median barrier on the Highway 401 between London and Chatham-Kent has pleased a group that pushed hard for it, but its work isn’t done.
The announcement from the Ministry of Transportation Monday that it’s committed to building the barrier hasn’t changed plans for a public meeting on the hard-fought safety measure Wednesday in London hosted by Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek at the Lambeth Community Centre.
“We’re still building the case for it to continue,” Yurek said Tuesday, adding he still believes there’s a lot of work to be done on this issue.
Yurek said the announcement that a high-tension cable barrier will be installed in the interim while an environmental assessment is undertaken to build a permanent concrete barrier doesn’t mean it will be completed in a relatively quick timeframe.
“We have to stay on top of this issue. We need to ensure that we still have public support for this project,” he said.
The MPP admits with this kind of announcement coming so close to an election “you get suspicious of what the end result is going to be.”
He said the town hall is being held so people get to speak their mind and “also ensure we develop a strong enough case that whichever government is in power, continues and goes through with this plan for concrete barriers as soon as possible.”
Postmedia contacted the MTO on Tuesday for details on the timelines to complete the median barrier project.
The ministry said in an email that a 2009 environmental assessment (EA) done for reconfiguring the 401 in Chatham-Kent to six lanes with a permanent concrete barrier needs to be updated, which will take two years.
The ministry also plans to begin an EA this year to assess Highway 401 through Elgin County and part of Middlesex County, similar to the 2009 EA for Chatham-Kent, which will take roughly three years.
“This is a necessary step in the engineering process required to expand the highway and to allow for the installation of a concrete barrier.”
The ministry said once this EA is complete, “we will know what Highway 401 will look like in the future for the whole stretch from Tilbury to London.”
The studies will recommend the timing for construction of these improvements, the ministry said, adding cost estimates can’t be provided in order to maintain the integrity of the bidding process.
Chatham-Kent Mayor Randy Hope is not overly enthusiastic about the project.
He said he is not arguing against public safety, adding he believes some kind of barrier needs to be installed.
However, Hope said there is a “double-edged sword” when it comes to the cost of the barrier because there is only so much provincial money available for infrastructure projects.
He said Chatham-Kent has other big infrastructure projects it’s looking to cost-share with the province, including a bypass around Wallaceburg as well a major bridge project in that community, along with a new 401 interchange at Charing Cross Road.
“You start giving up that money for (a barrier) where does it take those other projects?” he said.
Hope said the barrier won’t eliminate other crashes on Highway 401, adding when traffic is re-routed it puts added pressure on municipal roads paid for by local taxpayers.
Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley credits “citizen power” for getting the MTO to move on this issue.
Having gone through a similar experience back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, while working with former mayors from London and Windsor, Bradley said he had been communicating with Build the Barrier founder Alysson Storey of Chatham about their effort.
Observing what they were doing, he said, “they were relentless, they just did not give up and that is the key.”
He also advised they should “not let Queen’s Park be condescending to you, because they were being brushed off … on occasion.”
When asked about the speed in which the group was able to get action, Bradley said, “The spotlight was on this issue, things weren’t getting better, there continued to be accidents and fatalities.
“A cynic might say it’s related to the election, but it doesn’t matter how you get to heaven as long as you get to heaven,” he added.
Elliott Silverstein, manager of government relations for CAA South Central Ontario, said the agency didn’t get involved in the call for the median barrier.
But he believes it is a good step when the public gets involved with an issue such as this.
“I think what it really comes down to is people are paying attention to infrastructure on roads, some of the things that are needing improvement, some of the things that can be expanded upon,” Silverstein said.