On the move
St. Thomas MPP Jeff Yurek was given a new role Monday in Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative cabinet. After serving for four months as minister of natural resources, Yurek is the new transportation minister, putting him on the hot seat in the debate over whether a concrete median barrier should be installed west of London on Highway 401 to prevent deadly crossover crashes.
From forest fires to the biggest road safety issue in Southwestern Ontario, Jeff Yurek has gone from one hotspot to another in an Ontario cabinet shuffle triggered by a top minister’s sudden resignation.
Yurek was moved from natural resources to transportation as Premier Doug Ford rejigged his cabinet Monday, four months after taking office, and days after Economic Development Minister Jim Wilson stepped down. Yurek now takes charge of highways, meaning he’s the new government point person facing a regional push to make the nation’s busiest highway safer west of London, where activists want concrete median barriers installed on a 118-km stretch of the 401.
Yurek, the only Progressive Conservative from London — his riding takes in part of the city — wasn’t available for comment, despite repeated requests.
But with the PCs saying they inherited a surprise $15-billion budget shortfall from the former Liberal government, cynics might wonder if the Tories — Yurek was among the early champions of the highway barriers — will deliver on Ford’s vow during the election campaign to see the costly project through.
So far, the safety activist leading the charge — it began with a deadly cross-over crash in Yurek’s Elgin-Middlesex-London riding that killed a friend and her daughter — isn’t worried.
In fact, Alysson Storey of Chatham was buoyed by the news Yurek is now the minister in charge.
“My first impression is very happy. We certainly had a good relationship with the previous minister (John) Yakabuski, but certainly Mr. Yurek has been advocating for this since the beginning, so over, well, over a year now,” said Storey.
Median cross-over crashes were a persistent problem on the 401 east of London for years until concrete median barriers were installed, but the stretch of highway west of London is one of the longest sections of the 401 with no median protection at all to separate traffic going in opposite directions.
In the last four years, at least six people have been killed in median cross-over crashes on that section of highway.
This year, there have been at least 13 crashes in the median on the longest section of that stretch through Elgin County and Chatham-Kent, police report.
The former Liberal government began installing high-tension wire cable barriers, which are cheaper than concrete barriers. Only in the run-up to the summer election did the Wynne government relent, saying concrete barriers eventually would come, but not right away.
Yurek, an MPP since 2011, cracked Ford’s cabinet as the natural resources and forestry minister just in time to deal with a terrible forest fire season in Northern Ontario.
It was in Yurek’s riding that the 401 safety drive began, after a cross-over crash near Dutton in 2017 killed a friend of Storey, Londoner Sarah Payne, 42, and Payne’s five-year-old daughter, Freya.
A Cambridge man, Hubert Domonchuk, has since pleaded guilty to multiple charges, including two counts of impaired driving causing death.
Yurek had expressed his support for concrete barriers in February at a town hall meeting on the issue.
“(Yurek has) been helping with this issue since it happened,” Storey said.
“The collision that started all of this was in his riding and he and his staff have been wonderful, so I’m actually very happy to hear he’s in that portfolio. He certainly won’t need any briefing on it.”
Others have argued cable barriers are just as effective as concrete barriers, and less expensive, at stopping cross-over crashes.
Nearly 50 km of cable barriers are being installed between Victoria Road in east Chatham-Kent and Iona Road in Elgin County. Concrete barriers were promised in about a decade after environmental assessments are done as the highway is widened from four lanes to six lanes.
“We have been told from Day 1 that those (cable barriers) were only going to be in place while they started the process for the construction of the concrete ( barriers),“Storey said.
“We need to make sure that the safest option for all drivers and first responders is in place.”
The collision that started all of this was in his ( Yurek’s) riding and he and his staff have been wonderful, so I’m actually very happy to hear he’s in that portfolio.” Alysson Storey