Goodbye mid-peninsula highway, hello Niagara-to-Hamilton trade route

March 26, 2019 12:54PM

Dotted line support in federal transportation study latest turn on long and winding road

Written by Tom Hogue for the Hamilton Spectator

The first mid-peninsula highway cut through forest and swamp south of Hamilton 200 years ago.

A primitive form of pavement called a "macadamized" road packed gravel, dust and water together for a smoother stage coach run from Niagara Falls to Canborough, the junction with the established Talbot Trail that took travellers to the Detroit border.

Until the arrival of automobiles a century later, road construction between Niagara and Hamilton was haphazard and hadn't improved much beyond the stone technique named after its Scottish inventor, John McAdam.

Of the 49,875 miles of road in southern Ontario in 1922, half were dirt. And of the surfaced roads, 23,166 miles were gravel.

With the creation of the Dept. of Public Highways in Ontario in the early 1920s work got underway to improve travel around Hamilton, and one of the first routes was the "eastern highway" linking King Street with Lewiston, N.Y. via the Queenston bridge over the Niagara River.

What would later be named King's Highway 8 was one of seven big road projects out of Hamilton in 1923: the Toronto-Hamilton Highway, Hamilton-Guelph-Owen Sound Road, Hamilton-Jarvis-Port Dover Road, Dundas Street-Toronto Road, Hamilton-Brantford-London-Windsor Road and Hamilton-Kitchener-Stratford-Sarnia Road.

"Tourists in great numbers, trade and prosperity are the promises which these great arteries hold out for the Ambitious City in the next few years," proclaimed F.C. Biggs, minister of public highways, in a Hamilton Spectator article.

 

"It was not that many months ago that the automobile owner found the route to the Falls difficult to travel and at times impassable," Biggs said.

But better roads and more cars brought the traffic jam to Grimsby, Beamsville and the Jordan Valley, treacherous in all weather.

A decade later, King's Highway No. 20 rose up the escarpment on a newly created Centennial Parkway with the promise of a faster, more direct route to Lundy's Lane and the Honeymoon Bridge in Niagara Falls. It was a mostly ignored alternative route and still is today.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth officially opened the QEW in 1939, but sections of the route were unfinished gravel until after the war.

Initial pride that 41 miles of QEW pavement got slapped down in 48 days turned sour in the mid-1940s, when sections of concrete began to flake off. The problem: Poor drainage caused by the pad being poured directly on a loose clay base. The fix: a bitumen and macadam surfacing at the cost of $30,000 a mile.

"The Queen Elizabeth Way, known as the Middle road, has demonstrated that what were considered sound methods of construction less than 10 years ago no longer hold good," a 1945 Globe & Mail article concluded.

On top of troubled road surface, the QEW stopped cold at traffic lights in Beamsville and at canal lift bridges in Burlington and Thorold, causing long delays.

Lonely route to Niagara

Before these three highways existed, there were about 18,000 motor vehicles registered in Ontario, according to the Ministry of Transportation. When the QEW opened in 1939, there were 700,000. Today, over 8 million.

Of these three eastbound highways out of Hamilton, only the QEW exists today — No. 8 and No. 20 have retired from provincial duty, relegated to regional roads or downloaded even further to the municipal level.

Into this backdrop of misadventure, discussions began excitedly in the late 1990s about a means to solve the transportation riddle once and for all — with a mid-peninsula highway.

Political will and economic benefit statements were never in short supply in the feverish coverage of an early Niagara Peninsula Transportation Needs Assessment that concluded the possible route north of Waterdown and west of Ancaster would be "environmentally feasible" even as it crossed sensitive areas in Flamborough and over escarpment and agricultural land on its way past Welland to the QEW.

PC Premier Mike Harris with tourism minister Tim Hudak in tow made it official in June 2001 when it was announced the $1.5 billion superhighway to southern Niagara would be built by 2011.

But in 2010 the idea was declared dead by a Liberal government that determined in its own assessment there was insufficient need. With highway opposition heavy in Halton, a separate project in Niagara Region got the green light — the extension of Highway 406 to Welland.

Today, the 406 from the QEW in St. Catharines abruptly ends at a roundabout on Welland's Main St. East — roughly in the middle of the Niagara Peninsula. It's not really a highway to nowhere because just under the canal tunnel it connects with two-lane Highway 140 and on to Fort Erie along Highway 3.

With the aim of someday linking the QEW in Fort Erie with highways 140 and 406 in the near term and potentially a mid-peninsula highway in the longer term, Niagara Region allocated land for a highway easement roughly alongside Netherby Road near Stevensville.

Phantom road resurfaces

It's part of a plan to redefine the mid-peninsula highway as the "Niagara to Hamilton Trade Route."

"We recognize that citizens and politicians will always remember it as the mid-peninsula highway so we may have to change our terminology to put emphasis on it as a trade corridor and not just another highway," said Jack Thompson, senior transportation planner for Niagara Region.

Rationale for transportation investment is embedded in a 2017 Niagara Region Transportation Master Plan that concludes travel between Niagara and the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area will grow by nearly 50,000 daily trips between by 2041 and that, "in the absence of any improvements to transportation infrastructure, travel times and operating service levels between St. Catharines and Hamilton will continue to deteriorate."

Trade valued at $1.6 billion is hauled annually by 1.7 million trucks crossing border points at the Queenston-Lewiston and Peace bridges. Freight traffic is "expected to grow significantly" over the next 25 years but the report warns that "increasing demands on the QEW will lead many truck drivers to look for alternatives."

Just as the idea of a route from Niagara to Hamilton was approaching mythical status, the corridor resurfaced in a federal report early this month. Though last on a list of 31 recommendations in the Establishing a Canadian Transportation and Logistics Strategy, the mention is still "encouraging" to Niagara Region Transportation Director Carolyn Ryall.

An accompanying map shows a matrix of highways north of the lake and a single lonely path to the border on Lake Ontario's southern shore.

It calls on the government to co-operate with Ontario and affected municipalities to "establish redundancy in relation to the current Queen Elizabeth Way and concludes that Ottawa "should consider the creation of a Mid-Peninsula Transportation Corridor."

The name of the solution is immaterial to commuters and truckers halted in QEW traffic at Grimsby on any given morning. They don't need a study to prove there is a problem.

Patience will have to persist, is the interim answer from traffic experts.

"We don't see any improvements in the QEW (Niagara) for at least 10 years," says the region's Thompson, because the "priority of the MTO is the 403-QEW octopus interchange as you come from Hamilton into Burlington — they want to fix that before proceeding with the Hamilton-Niagara corridor."

To improve the situation in the near term, Niagara Region is studying a new route up the escarpment from the QEW to connect with a section of Regional Road 20 that bypasses Smithville.

Toward this goal, efforts are underway to reduce the traffic complexity of Casablanca Boulevard in the location of the proposed new GO Station in Grimsby.

If, when and where

There were many dotted lines drawn on the mid-peninsula map.

It's still not clear where it might eventually go because early reports used a giant magic marker for rough diagrams of route options.

One path favoured by planners a decade ago connects the mid-peninsula highway to Highway 407 north of Burlington at Walker's Line, running through Flamborough just north of Millgrove and looping around the Ancaster Fairgrounds to a point just east of Jerseyville.

A line drawn southeast from this point would position a route south of the Binbrook Conservation to Empire Corners, Caistorville and Canborough.

From that point a route option is straight east to the canal along the abandoned New York Central railway line. Locomotives steamed through this corridor a century ago, powering passenger and freight trains on the Chicago to New York City run. The strategic shortcut through Canada helped fund the Vanderbilt fortune.

The future of the Niagara to Hamilton Trade Route might include a combination of truck and rail, according to Thompson.

In the approaching era of driverless vehicles, building a customized corridor is preferable to outfitting an existing highway with necessary technology, he said.

"Autonomous commercial vehicles are better suited to a new corridor rather than an existing one because there are a lot of ons and offs at the various interchanges along the QEW where people are using it for short trips and moving over from lane to lane."

The hope of the corridor is for Niagara to become a greater destination rather than a conduit for business to more swiftly pass by. Of the current freight crossing the border, 85 per cent of it is bound for points beyond the peninsula.

By 2041, the population in Niagara is expected to grow by 36 per cent and employment by 30 per cent.

"This is really the last frontier for major expansion of population and employment within the Greater Golden Horseshoe," said Thompson.

"With its strategic location close to the border, Niagara can serve 130 million people within a day's drive."

Depending on traffic.

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