Innovative 2+1 highway pilot projects advocated for North on hold in Ontario

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ONTARIO – Road safety advocates are calling for a 2+1 road pilot project in Northern Ontario, a popular system in northern Europe that enhances traffic safety and flow, though the Ontario government has no intention to pursue the idea at this time.

“It certainly is a model that can apply on any existing two-lane road. We had a feasibility report done which identified that and recommended a pilot project. We initially had some good support from the ministry but since then it’s been fairly silent,” said Mark Wilson, resource member at Going the Extra Mile for Safety (GEMS), a subcommittee of the Temiskaming Shores and Area Chamber of Commerce.

The 2+1 highway concept is not common in North America, though it has proven successful in many European countries such as Ireland and Sweden. It involves a road structure that is a constant three lanes in width with a physical barrier between the opposing traffic flows.

The centre divider gives one direction a passing lane while the opposite way has a single lane. These sides switch every few kilometres. The physical barrier prevents risky passing behaviour and its regular structure can calm drivers who know a safe passing opportunity will soon arise.

GEMS had been working with the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) which has decided, for the time being, to not proceed with a pilot project to test the usefulness of such a road structure in Northern Ontario.

The committee has been advocating for a pilot project on a 35.4-kilometre stretch of Highway 11 and engineering firm WSP completed a feasibility study on whether or not such a project would be worthwhile in the area.

The engineers reported that a 2+1 road system would reduce both the frequency and severity of collisions but the benefit/cost ratio was not high enough to undertake a widespread implementation of the model.

However, the team suggested it would be useful to create a small pilot project to study the potential impacts of such a road design. All of the estimates used European data which may or may not directly correlate to road conditions in Northern Ontario.

“We found in the report that there would in fact be a 41 percent fatality drop, and it would all but eliminate cross-over collisions, which make up 69 percent of the fatalities,” said Mr. Wilson.

Northern Ontario is a prime area in which to test a road system that could make highway travel safer. Deaths on Northern roads happen twice as often as in southern Ontario, partly because of the higher number of two-lane main roads as opposed to those with physical barriers between traffic directions.

“Something like (2+1 roads) could potentially alleviate a lot of congestion and a lot of safety concerns with the accidents we see throughout Northern Ontario. This idea could potentially work here as well as it has in Europe, but first we need a pilot study. This government is not receptive to that,” said NDP Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Mike Mantha.

An existing way to enhance traffic flow and safety has been highway twinning, such as the ongoing road work on Highway 69 between Sudbury and Parry Sound. This involves constructing two parallel roadbeds, one for each direction of travel, and having a physical divider between the two.

This carries a high cost. GEMS estimates the cost of building a twinned road at $6.4 million per kilometre, whereas 2+1 roads can be built on the existing or a widened original roadbed for up to 75 percent less, estimated Mr. Wilson.

The 2+1 work best for roads that see between 2,000 and 20,000 vehicles per day, on an annual average basis. 

Advocates have long called for more passing lanes on Highway 6 north of Little Current, a road for which a 2+1 study may be effective.

Highway 6 sees an annual average of 3,200 vehicles per day but summer values are as high as 4,250 vehicles per day. Traffic increases to 3,900 vehicles per day north of the Sudbury/Manitoulin border and 8,500 between Espanola and the Highway 17 junction.

“On Highway 6, we see major traffic volumes during the summer and busy times like hunting season. A lot of those people have extra trailers or campers and they all take Highway 6. With a proper investment in the highway, it may alleviate a lot of the safety concerns we have,” said Mr. Mantha.

He added that tourism is increasing across Northern Ontario and as traffic grows each year, making roads safer to reduce the risk of mishaps—part of a road design philosophy called Vision Zero—is more important than ever.

There was once a desire for a 2+1 pilot on Highway 6 from Tobermory to Wiarton to enhance flows and reduce inappropriate passing.

These roads carry some added maintenance costs above a conventional roadway. Cable barriers require regular tensioning and maintenance-free metal dividers are more expensive to install.

Snow removal operations remain largely the same as existing roads, with plows using wide wings to clear the double-lane section in one pass.

MTO spokesperson Kristin Franks said the ministry was aware of the studies into the new road model but had no plans for any such pilot projects in Northern Ontario.

“While this research provides an excellent knowledge base on the use of 2+1 facilities from which to start, more work is needed to address the differences and concerns from the European design before this system can be considered for implementation in Northern Ontario,” she wrote in an email to The Expositor.

Mr. Wilson said he had received strong support from organizations such as the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities and Ontario Good Roads Association, but acknowledged that any work toward a pilot project in the province is presently at a standstill.

“It’s always a battle of trying to move through government and bureaucracy. We’re keeping at it,” said Mr. Wilson.