On the move

St. Thomas Times-Journal - - FRONT PAGE - LAURA BROADLEY

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

FILE PHOTO

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