SARNIA, Ont. – The first example of a dedicated FAST truck lane on Ontario highways will become a reality at the end of summer after a major widening and reconfiguration of Hwy. 402 in Sarnia.
The $60-million federally- and provincially-funded project, paid for out of a border infrastructure pot announced post-9/11 to improve international access at various border points, is also unique in that it will create an irregular number of lanes.
The highway had been four lanes with two heading westbound and two eastbound. Once reconstruction is completed, the highway will have four westbound lanes to the US – for a length of four kilometres – and two eastbound.
Construction began in August 2009 and traffic flow has been “managed” with only a couple of temporary 12-hour full closures while the Christina St. bridge – Sarnia’s main downtown thoroughfare – was demolished to make way for an expanded two-lane bridge and new southbound ramp, allowing access to the city core including by trucks, said provincial transportation ministry engineer Brian Kope.
According to Stan Korosec, vice-president of operations for the Blue Water Bridge Authority, which manages the Canadian half of the twin three-lane spans, the Sarnia-Port Huron crossing has been gaining popularity with truckers. A large reason for that is the fact the bridge is the only one in Canada that has a lane dedicated to truckers with FAST passes, as well as motorists with NEXUS cards and buses.
“I think it has (drawn more commercial vehicles) because the participants in the program – carrier, shippers or whatever – know that they’re not going to be delayed,” he said.
Some 6,000 trucks a day cross the bridge, making the Blue Water Canada’s second busiest commercial crossing after the Ambassador Bridge linking Windsor-Detroit. In 1998 the Blue Water carried 140,000 trucks and by 2005 180,000, according to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).
But despite the dedicated FAST lane (the bridge also has regular lanes for non-pass vehicles), there was still a problem with traffic backing up on Hwy. 402, Korosec said.
On busy days, “A FAST truck would have gotten stuck behind regular trucks and cars out on the 402,” he said. “Now they get the advantage” of being in a FAST lane all the way to Murphy Rd. Korosec says about 25% of the crossing’s truck traffic is FAST-approved.
“It’s a pretty significant number – so we get those out of the queues and it helps reduce the idling (and) gives them the advantage of not stopping.”
Korosec says the authority is aggressively promoting FAST, including having a booth this April at Truck World in Toronto.
Once completed, the highway’s four westbound lanes will be configured so that the far left lane will be for non-pass cars, the next lane FAST and NEXUS holders and buses, the third lane regular trucks and the far right will be for local on and off traffic.
With the exception of the local lane, “it’s exactly the configuration that the designations we have on the bridge are out on the highway,” Korosec said.
While the Ambassador Bridge has designated FAST lanes at Customs, the bridge itself does not have a FAST lane and sometimes its two lanes have been reduced to one because of deck reconstruction over the past couple of years. Meanwhile, the Whirlpool Bridge at Niagara Falls has a dedicated NEXUS lane but not a FAST lane. Trucks cannot use the bridge because of its size.
Kope said drivers will also benefit by new variable message boards. There will be six of them over the entire four lanes leading to the bridge giving traffic conditions. Each lane will have a separate message. One of the boards “will be the largest one that’s in Ontario,” he said. The signs won’t go up until the fall after road work is done.
The eastbound lanes didn’t have to be widened because there was no back-up of vehicles coming into Canada, Korosec said. “Going eastbound, once you clear Canada Customs two lanes are fine because traffic just moves,” he said.
Meanwhile Michigan is also upgrading its Blue Water Bridge connections. Some $90 million is being spent to widen and reconstruct two miles of eastbound and westbound I-94/I-69 between the bridge and Lapeer Road, with completion this November.
But all the improvements won’t make a great difference if another issue isn’t addressed, says an industry official. That’s the lack of open Customs booths.
Ed Wiersma, owner of Ed Wiersma Trucking of Kitchener, Ont., which has a 20-truck flatbed fleet hauling steel to the US exclusively through Sarnia-Pt. Huron, said while the road widening is welcomed, sometimes “all the booths are not open for Customs and that is part of the back-up problem too.”