Stormy truck route debate rages in Thunder Bay

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THUNDER BAY, ON – A longstanding dispute over truck routes in Thunder Bay, Ontario is heading toward another city council vote later this month, and the stakes are particularly high for Santorelli’s.

The truck stop has been in business for 65 years – 45 of which have been under the current owners — and welcomes truck traffic along Arthur Street. So do the 35 employees working in the restaurant and accompanying tire shop. But city council is looking to close much of Arthur Street and Dawson Road (Highway 102) to anything above 15,000 kilograms, squeezing more trucks onto the east-west Harbour Expressway that runs between the two routes.

It isn’t the first time a traffic change has affected the business. The truck stop dates back to a time when Arthur Street was part of the TransCanada Highway. Thirty percent of the business was lost when the nearby Harbour Extension was opened in 2008, says Lorne Kellar, Santorelli’s controller.

But it isn’t the first time that the idea of further restricting the city’s truck traffic has passed through council chambers, either.

“I’ve been a councillor for almost 17 years and it’s been an issue from Day 1,” says Trevor Giertuga, who has been championing the bid to limit truck traffic on Dawson Road. He cites safety concerns and infrastructure funding as the reasons. One stretch of the route recorded about 35 truck collisions in less than five years, he says. Municipal taxpayers are also responsible for road maintenance since the provincial government downloaded the route to the city.

“The trucks really beat up the road,” he says. “It’s in horrible shape again.”

Truck operators are quick to argue that they predated many of the adjoining residential areas, where homeowners have been pushing for the restrictions.

“If you build [a home] on a highway, you’ve got to live with it,” says John McKevitt Sr. of McKevitt Trucking. Drivers with his 150-truck fleet are not keen about the idea of being forced off Highway 102 and through the hills around Kakabeka Falls that also attract loads of tourists.

Trucks that serve the city’s last paper mill will face challenges of their own. “It puts a half hour longer on the journey and it’s more sets of lights,” says owner-operator Eric Harju of Firesteel Contractors, referring to the Harbour Expressway route. “There isn’t no problem the way it is right now. There’s about four different roads a guy can do. It breaks the traffic up.”

He’s personally met with the mayor to plead the industry’s case. “It’s sad when you have to fight for your business over something that is ‘not in my backyard’ … We use the highway to make our living. They use the highway to go shopping.”

“There’s no common sense. I don’t think any of them know how they get their stuff,” McKevitt agrees. He even remembers a discussion many years ago when one councillor wanted tractor-trailers to transfer their loads to delivery trucks at city limits.

It’s the classic case of balancing residential rage and business needs.

There are no fewer than 40 businesses with about 700 employees stretching between 25th Side Road and Highway 61 on Arthur Street, Kellar says, and many of them support the trucking industry. He also dismisses arguments that this is about safety. Trucks account for just 3.6% of the overall traffic on Arthur Street, and were involved in four accidents in a decade, he says. “One accident every 2.5 years doesn’t create a safety concern in my mind.

“The trucks that are on Arthur Street, they’re all local,” he adds, referring to the industry’s economic value. “All the money is being earned and spent in Thunder Bay.”

The affect on businesses is not lost on Mayor Keith Hobbs, even though the proposed bylaw would still allow local deliveries and emergency vehicles. “I respect what truckers do. I know they have a tough job and the timelines,” he says, stressing that he never charged a trucker during his 34-year career as a police officer.

That said, he has yet to decide how he will vote on March 24. “I’m going to read the bylaw this weekend.”

The need for the added research emerged with a bid to add a third route, Hodder Avenue, to the restricted runs.

“It’s like Groundhog Day,” said councillor Linda Rydholm, during a March debate on the issue. “This has been a topic too many times at the table.”

“We’re hoping for the best. We’re trying to work with them,” Kellar says, referring to the upcoming vote. But Santorelli’s is still preparing for the worst. He notes that the truck stop and other truck-related businesses have a plan that will drop in place if restrictions are passed.

“I believe it will pass,” Giertuga says, weighing the views of his fellow council members.

But council members have thought that before. 

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John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking,, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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