Anywhere but there - truckers dread GTA

By Ed Rogers
The Hamilton Spectator

NIAGARA FALLS - Truck driver Bob Wichert steers his maroon Freightliner out of a Niagara Falls yard toward the Queen Elizabeth Way. It's 7:40 a.m., and he's not looking forward to the day ahead.

Wichert, a driver for G. Zavitz Ltd., is carrying 17,700 kilograms of frozen meat to a Brampton distributor. He's dreading the congestion that awaits him in Burlington, where the QEW merges with Highway 403.

``I find it so stressful, I'd rather run to New York City,'' the 45-year-old says.

`No one makes money when you're parked, whether it's me in my car or my drivers. It disturbs the whole distribution chain.'

- Allan Ward
Owner, Norris Transport



The first 40 minutes and 65 kilometres are easy. The truck cruises at the speed limit. Then, at the highway junction, a sea of angry red brake lights slows the traffic to a numbing pace. It takes 20 minutes to cover the next seven kilometres.

It's a Wednesday, but the same scene is repeated every day here and on through Mississauga, as well as other hot spots across the Greater Toronto Area, such as Highway 401 near Weston Rd. and Highway 400 and along the Don Valley Parkway.

It's a problem that's not going to go away.

Trucks are the lifeblood of the southern Ontario economy. More than 95 per cent of goods moving in, out and within Ontario are hauled by truck, the Ontario Trucking Association estimates. About 78 per cent of the value of Ontario-U.S. trade travels the same way.

It's also a problem with a huge price tag.

Trucks cost about $100 an hour to run. The chronic congestion in the southern Ontario corridor, which can turn a 30-minute trip from Hamilton into two hours of frustration, is estimated to cost $2 billion a year, according to a recent report for the Greater Toronto Services Board.

The same report notes that future manufacturing growth is vulnerable if congestion forces businesses to move to other areas and cuts international competitiveness.

``No one makes money when you're parked, whether it's me in my car or my drivers. It disturbs the whole distribution chain,'' says Allan Ward, owner of Hamilton-based Norris Transport. The company takes about 40 loads of steel from Stelco and Dofasco into Greater Toronto each day.

``It gets to be ugly when we're trying to transport coiled steel into Concord and you have to send a guy into Toronto at 3 p.m. . . . No drivers want to go.''

It is the GTA that feels the problem most acutely. Every year, about 24 million trucks cross the GTA boundary, carrying goods with an estimated value of $700 billion. Some 35,000 trucks pass through the Highway 401/400 bottleneck each day.

Just-in-Time and Quick Response delivery, free trade, and an economy with a robust automotive sector - as well as the trucking industry's flexibility and timeliness compared to rail - have made the situation worse. A 1997 report for Ontario's Ministry of Transport found that provincial routes in the GTA are seeing yearly 10 per cent increases in truck traffic.

Consider Ford Canada. Its mini-van and pickup truck plants in Oakville unload just under 1,000 trucks each day.

General Motors in Oshawa unloads about 1,200 every 24 hours, the equivalent of one truck every 70 seconds.

``The thing that really causes us some grey hair . . . is more the unpredicted events,'' says GM official Stu Low. ``That tends to be weather or a very severe vehicle collision, where the 401 or the QEW is closed for a day or something.''

The closings are especially difficult on the QEW through Burlington and Oakville, Low says.

It's a particularly vulnerable section, agrees Dave McCleary, a senior policy adviser with Halton Region. When that link goes down, there are few roads that can pick up the burden.

Greater Toronto's position as a freeway hub also contributes to traffic. Even trucks that have no business in the GTA still must pass through it, whether they're running Windsor to Montreal or Barrie to Niagara Falls.

Drivers are bracing for the next big chokepoint in Niagara, a key conduit between the U.S. and the GTA. The Peace Bridge, linking Fort Erie and Buffalo, handles as many as to 6,000 trucks a day. But plans to twin the bridge to speed crossing times have been delayed after opposition in Buffalo and new environmental studies.

Still, Ontario is pressing forward with a study to assess the need for a new Niagara highway connecting with Hamilton, or more lanes on the QEW. The QEW/Highway 403 bottleneck is also expected to be eased by September, 2001 with the opening of the western extension of the Highway 407 toll route through Halton.