MTO seeks environmental assessment for Barrie-area bridge widenings, setting the stage for expanding Highway 400


By Bob Biurton

Replacing bridges over Highway 400 could pave the way for widening this increasingly busy roadway through Barrie, which is good news for both Ontario’s construction industry and those who travel this highway south to the Greater Toronto Area and north to Muskoka cottage country.

Widening the 400 to eight or 10 lanes from six is not a new notion. The plan has been around for decades as a way to ease the growing gridlock commuters, commercial vehicles, tourists and cottage drivers face on a regular basis.

Ontario’s Transportation Ministry (MTO) says the average annual daily traffic along Highway 400 is approximately 100,000 vehicles in the Barrie area.

Widening the 400 has become a going concern again because the MTO has retained McIntosh Perry Consulting Engineers to complete the detailed design and class Environmental Assessment (EA) study for the replacement of three bridges on Highway 400 at Dunlop Street, Anne Street and Sunnidale Road in Barrie.

McIntosh Perry says the new bridges will accommodate the future, ultimate widening of Highway 400.

Andrew Hurd, the Ontario Road Builders Association’s director of policy and stakeholder relations, said these plans are positive for his group.

“Obviously we view any investment in public transportation infrastructure as good news. It creates thousands of jobs for our sector alone,” he said. “At peak it employs about 30,000 people. It’s important work. Of course, road work touches pretty much everyone.”

Hurd said ORBA was generally pleased to see the province’s commitment to transportation infrastructure funding in the Ontario budget of April 11.

MTO spokeswoman Astrid Poei said plans to expand the provincial highway remain preliminary.

“(The) widening of Highway 400 through Barrie is not currently funded,” she said. “However, there are several anticipated rehabilitation projects along Highway 400 through Barrie that include the replacement of crossing road bridges and interchange reconstruction where applicable that will accommodate future widening of Highway 400 from six to 10 lanes.”

She mentioned underpass replacements at Anne Street and Sunnidale Road, underpass replacement and interchange reconstruction at Dunlop Street and the Essa Road replacement and interchange reconstruction.

Widening the 400 through Barrie was included in the EA for this highway from one kilometre south of Highway 89 to the Highway 400/11 split, Poei said. The EA clarifies property requirements for future freeway expansion, Poei said, and allows development in the vicinity of the freeway highway to proceed with greater certainty.

But would the money be better spent improving GO train service between Barrie and the GTA – which stands at five trains down and back on weekdays?

Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman said there isn’t just one solution to moving people and vehicles.

“Both GO trains and highway expansion need to be part of the solution, it can’t be one or the other,” he said. “Commercial (truck) traffic needs better highway capacity to ensure our economy stays competitive, and if people are stuck in traffic that has a cost in terms of people’s time, environmental damage and the economy.

“So the highway expansion needs to happen, in my opinion.”

The Barrie mayor has said Highway 400 is also used as an urban expressway by city drivers, to get to one end of Barrie to the other.

Lehman said GO trains can be added to the Barrie line almost immediately and would be a welcome initial step.

“While there is capacity on the existing trains, they are limited to a very short period during the day and all-day service would certainly provide a better alternative to the 400 for trips to Toronto,” he said.

And with the relatively new Vaughan Metropolitan Centre Station, Lehman said it’s possible to reach destinations on the TTC’s University line without having to go all the way to Union Station.

But ultimately it’s all about handling capacity.

In 2002, MTO officials said commuter times on the 400 would double in 20 years if the highway wasn’t widened. At that time, the plan was to expand the 400 to eight lanes between Highway 89 and Molson Park Drive, with an option to go to 10 lanes. It would be 10 lanes from Molson Park Drive to Bayfield Street, then back to eight from Bayfield to the Highway 400/11 interchange. The cost of this work was estimated at $300 million.

While it was a construction project that never happened, the idea hasn’t gone away.

Two springs ago the MTO’s Southern Highways Program, a five-year capital plan updated annually, included the Essa Road bridge/interchange replacement, along with the Dunlop Street interchange and bridge, along with the Sunnidale Road bridge. The Anne Street bridge and Bayfield Street bridge/interchange were not included.

Replacing these bridges will one day mean a wider Highway 400.