SAULT STE. MARIE, Ont. – There’s no runoff or left turn lanes and, especially when the weather gets iffy, the Montreal River Hill is an accident just waiting to happen.
That’s the upshot from some of the people who live in or travel through the area northwest of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., when asked about a petition a local couple is circulating that calls on the provincial government to make the highway safer. The hill in question is on Hwy. 17 – the Trans-Canada – south of Lake Superior Provincial Park and, while the government appears to be dragging its feet, some of the locals say it’s definitely time for changes to be made.
According to an employee of the Sault Ste. Marie North Husky who’s familiar with the area and the petition, “When (the government) redid the highway, they didn’t put in turning lanes and it’s a dangerous enough hill to start with – especially in the winter – without any added distractions.” This man, who doesn’t want his name published, says the petition has been received well at his outlet, and that (as of this writing) they were on their second copy, having already filled one with signatures.
Spearheading the petition are area residents Sharon and Rick Roussain, who hope to cajole the government into making changes to the Twilight intersection before someone is killed.
“We live near the bottom of the Montreal River hill and we have to turn in here,” Sharon Roussain says, “so if there’s a transport coming behind, obviously it’s going to make them mad when we have to slow down to turn in.” The petition, she says, asks for the government to put in turning lanes.
The Roussains posted their plea widely in both directions along the highway from the Montreal River Hill area. “It’s only been going for a few months,” Sharon Roussain notes, adding “we had some (petitions) in Wawa but it didn’t do any good, though we have quite a few signatures (from other areas).”
Roussain claims there have been transport truck driver deaths in the area over the years, but the government doesn’t appear to agree with her assessment. According to Gordan Rennie, regional issues and media advisor for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s northeastern region, “There is no operational issue or collision history at (the Twilight intersection).”
That was the upshot of a response the Roussains got as well. “We got a letter back from (the Ministry) saying they have no plans for this hill at all,” she says.
If an accident does happen at the Twilight entrance, the Roussains say they’ll give copies of their letter and the petition to the people involved in it. “When an accident does happen – and it will happen,” Rick Roussain told the Sault Star newspaper, “I want everyone to know that we made this request.”
Dorothy Sanderson, a truck owner and health and safety rep for the United Steel Workers Local 1976, lives in Cannington – near Lake Simcoe – but was on a Winnipeg run when the petition came to her attention at the Sault Ste. Marie Husky. She agrees with Roussain’s assessment, but doesn’t think they’re going far enough.
“I understand why (the petitioners) want a turning lane there, because the Montreal River Hill is horrible,” she says. “There’s no run-off, and it’s very dangerous.” She also says that when the weather’s bad “you probably can’t see the people who are stopping to make this sharp little turn to go down that hill.” And in the summer, she says, “you have tourists slowing down to take pictures because the lake is beautiful. Unfortunately, when you’re in the cab of a big truck and somebody slows down in front of you, all kinds of thoughts go through your mind – most unpleasant.”
The answer, to her, is to have the highway widened. “I’d like to see it four-laned, myself,” she says.
Sanderson notes there is an alternate route, but it isn’t economical for truckers to take. “If it wasn’t for the fact that we are paid the lowest common denominator miles,” she says, “the safe route would be Highway 11. But it’s about 40 miles longer and we don’t get paid for those miles, so in order to make money you have to be travelling Hwy. 17.”
The Sault Star reports that the government does have a plan to re-route Hwy. 17, moving it inland and avoiding the Twilight intersection completely, but MTO’s Rennie says any plans to expand highways in the area to four lanes are focused elsewhere, on Hwy. 11 south of North Bay, Hwy. 69 south of Sudbury and Hwy. 17 from Nipigon to Thunder Bay and Kenora to Manitoba. “The ministry has a long-term plan of four-laning Hwy. 17 from Sault Ste. Marie to Ottawa,” he notes, but “based on traffic volumes, there are no current plans to four-lane Hwy. 17 between Nipigon and Sault Ste. Marie.”
The area MPP, Michael Mantha of the NDP, says he’s familiar with the Montreal River Hill situation and appreciates the concerns of people who frequent the area. “I sent correspondence to the minister involved in regards to the suggested bypass,” he says, “and also I requested that he consider immediate changes which wouldn’t be as costly to build – some passing or turning lanes that would alleviate some of the problems that might happen there.” As of this writing he hasn’t received a response, however.
Sharon Roussain says there’s no firm time frame for getting the petition to the powers-that-be. “We’re waiting for one more letter to come back (from an MPP) and then we’ll mail out all the copies of the petition,” she says.
Whether it will do any good or not remains to be seen, but it doesn’t look good so far. Rennie says the Ministry completed a Planning and Preliminary Design Study and received environmental clearance for a future two-lane realignment plan for the area in 2007, but it’s “a long-term plan and not currently programmed for construction on the Ministry’s capital program.” It appears, then, that getting the changes made to the highway will continue to be an uphill battle for the foreseeable future.
The Roussains say they’ll continue to press their point, however. “We’re going to keep at it, because our kids and grandchildren come home and (the intersection) scares the bejeebers out of us,” adds Sharon Roussain.