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TORONTO, Ont. - Drivers looking for a restaurant and a place to buy fuel on Ontario's 400-series highways will find slim pickings the next few years. Twenty of the 23 sites are closing while they are ...

TORONTO, Ont. –Drivers looking for a restaurant and a place to buy fuel on Ontario’s 400-series highways will find slim pickings the next few years. Twenty of the 23 sites are closing while they are being decommissioned and rebuilt. And although some parking, vending machines and portable toilet facilities will be available at some of them, the project is expected to take much longer than originally expected.

The service centres are being shut as soon as the leases expire and the last one will close its doors in 2011. But until the first of the new structures come on stream -a process that takes three years or more -we could be left with only three fully-operative service centres (Ingersol, Maple, and Newcastle) on the 400 and 401 highways.

This is nothing new to truck drivers. From Windsor to the Quebec border we’ve watched these places close in bunches for the last couple of years; the strategy probably suited the Ontario government as it wanted one vendor to take over the whole works.

The deal with a provider, at least, appears to be in place. In August of this year it announced Host-Kilmer Service Centers as the preferred proponent, although the monetary details are yet to be worked out.

The rebuilding initiative is a joint venture between the MTO and Infrastructure Ontario, but the fact that the ground at these sites is contaminated with decades of spilled gasoline and oil drippings brings the Ministry of the Environment into the mix.

The sites are subject to environmental assessments, and before the first brick can be laid, the old fuel tanks have to be dug up and the polluted soil removed. Then, according to the regs, the sites have to remain fully closed for six to nine months before any construction can begin.

But this slow approach is clearly not satisfactory to Bob Runciman, opposition Conservative house leader at Queen’s Park.

“This is a colossal screw up,” he tells me on the phone just after he’s finished lambasting the governing Liberals on the issue during question period. “This is going to provide a bad image for the province and potentially jeopardize public safety by not having these services available.”

Indeed, Runciman might be particularly agitated because two of the recently-closed centres (Mallorytown north and south) were in his home riding of Leeds- Grenville.

He estimates the closures from these two centres alone will cost 250 local jobs.

“There’s absolutely no reason those two service centres at Mallorytown had to close,” he fumes. “There’s nothing wrong with the tanks in the ground, they’ve been checked and they’re good for at least four or five more years. We talked to the lessee at Imperial Oil and they told us they offered to extend the lease and were denied. We used to get 15 buses in there at one time. Are you going to be able to do that with a little trailer and a johnny-on-the-spot?”

Furthermore, Runciman questions the deal with Host-Kilmer itself and the fact that no numbers have been released.

“They’re still negotiating and it’s not finalized,” he says. “Who knows how many billions this is going to cost? They haven’t supplied any kind of figure.”

The CAA has also expressed anxiety for motorists travelling the 400 highways.

“Our concern is that people, instead of stopping, will keep pressing on. Motorists who are not familiar are reluctant to stop in small towns or places they don’t know,” says CAA spokesperson Edyta Zdancewicz.

“With winter coming, it might be a big problem for motorists running out of gas who have to travel more than 150 km to get fuel.”

The provincial government, on the other hand, says it is doing what it can to mitigate the discomfort to travellers.

“If a service centre is temporarily closed, every effort has been made to have the next one on the highway open with interim services at a minimum,” says Paulette Den Elzen of Infrastructure Ontario.

Den Elzen adds that signs have been posted along the highway in advance of the service centres that don’t have fuel. As well, she says, “While the service centres are closed, fuel and food services can be obtained on a 24-hour-a-day basis at privately-operated and easily accessible alternative service areas located along the highways.”

It should be noted that some expanded truck parking is now available at the Morrisburg and Wooler Hill (Trenton) sites.

Bob Nichols, media liaison for the MTO, adds that King City, Barrie, Woodstock, Cambridge North, Cambridge South, Newcastle, Port Hope, Napanee and Odessa have been approved for LCV use.

“Once the new service centre sites have been redeveloped, all the sites will include LCV-friendly access and parking,” he says.

But on the whole, truck parking spots have been lost while the sites are being developed.

Joanne Richie, director of the Owner-Operators’ Business Association of Canada (OBAC), is critical of the government’s handling of the project.

“We’re incensed with the Ontario government’s poor planning… They’ve completely dropped the ball on this one.”

Ritchie recalls meeting with members of Infrastructure Ontario and the MTO while the project was in the planning stages.

She says OBAC’s suggestions for truck-friendly sites with safe, accessible truck parking so drivers can comply with HoS rules were warmly welcomed at the time.

“They liked our ideas and asked us if we would work with them and the contractor going forward (when they were chosen); we readily agreed, then we never heard from them again…That was over two years ago.”

As a professional driver, I agree that truck parking is available off the 401 at truck stops and the like, but finding a spot after 11 p.m. while you want to run in and get a coffee is often an ordeal.

As for the 401 centres, I stopped using them because of the dearth of truck parking and fears of getting blocked in.

Nichols may have declared the Odessa site LCV-friendly, but you don’t want to pull around the back of that place at night.

My linehaul colleague at Purolator, Tom Murray, agrees.

“I found out the best thing is to get off the highway.” He immediately starts listing his favourite Tim Horton’s in Brockville, Trenton and Belleville.

“The new rest area at Woooler is okay I guess, but it’s an awful long way from the truck parking to the bathroom.”

Fellow driver and newly-minted LCV pilot Greg Manchester is more scathing.

“Why could they have not brought in a temporary Tim Horton’s in those closed places? It is absolutely absurd and socially irresponsible that the Ontario government would allow this to happen. Where are drivers supposed to stop and eat and take their mandatory breaks?”

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