Northern highways safety bill defeated at Queen’s Park

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QUEEN’S PARK – A private member’s bill that aimed to the improve safety of Northern Ontario highways was stopped in its tracks last week, as the Making Northern Ontario Highways Safer Act, 2019 was defeated upon second reading in the house.

The bill was sponsored by NDP MPP Guy Bourgouin who had presented the bill for second reading on Thursday, November 7. 

Conservative MPPs Vic Fedeli of Nipissing, Ross Romano of Sault Ste. Marie and Greg Rickford of Kenora-Rainy River, Northern Ontario members who are all in Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet, were absent for second reading of the bill Thursday. The bill was defeated 59-38.

“Shameful, absolutely shameful,” said Mr. Bourgouin, who represents the Northern riding of Mushkegowuk-James Bay, following the defeat of his bill. “The Ford Conservative government has shamelessly put a price on the lives of people that tragically die and get injured on Northern Ontario highways every winter.”

The bill proposed classifying the Northern highways the same as all 400 series highways and the Queen Elizabeth Way, where snow must be removed within eight hours of the end of a snowfall instead of the 16 hours now allowed by the specifications in the Northern road maintenance contracts. Mr. Bourgouin’s bill would have bumped up Highways 11 and Highway 17 to Class 1 level in all of their sections, whether those highways are two or four lanes and would have eliminated vehicular traffic volume specification.

Algoma Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha, who had sponsored a similar private member’s bill in a previous legislative session, reacted with dismay over the defeat of his colleague’s bill. 

“(I am) very disappointed in the government in regards to once again denying the calls and answering the frustrations of Northern Ontarians,” he said. “Extremely disappointed in the Northern MPPs from the Conservative government who were not present for discussion and the vote on this bill.” He pointed out that while in opposition, those same members were very vocal over the lack of maintenance and the lack of snowplows.

In a statement released on Wednesday on the eve of the second reading of the bill, Mr. Fedeli said the 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.”

Mr. Fedeli went on to say that the current winter service level on the two Northern Ontario highways “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.”

In opposition, Mr. Fedeli rose to castigate the Liberal government in 2014 for the “disgraceful” state of the winter road maintenance in the North. Mr. Fedeli had gone on to cite municipal resolutions calling on the provincial government to restore the level of maintenance and adding that the municipalities “also want the Ministry of Transportation to undertake the evaluation and potential reclassification of all provincial highways to ensure adequate road maintenance and to ensure that contractors consistently maintain provincial highways to the standard that ensures continued public safety.” At the time the Conservatives had claimed the Liberals had reduced maintenance levels to save $36 million.

“It’s funny how things have changed now that they are in government,” remarked Mr. Mantha.