As development and increased tourism bring more traffic through The Town of the Blue Mountains (TBM), residents and town officials have lobbied the provincial government through 2020 and 2021 to reduce the speed limit on Highway 26.
The main route through TBM presents safety concerns for drivers and pedestrians alike, as large sections of the highway pass through residential, commercial, and outdoor recreation areas.
Between July and October 2020, sections of Highway 26 saw speed limits reduced from 80 to 50 km/h after TBM mayor Alar Soever wrote to the premier requesting a change due to increased traffic volumes.
"We have all seen the amount of traffic up here right now is immense and we do need a permanent solution to this," Soever said that summer.
The temporary change received mixed reviews from the public, who alternately praised the move for increasing road safety and criticized it for lowering the speed limit by too much.
“Some people are claiming the new speed will take them all day to get to Collingwood but that is not correct,” Soever responded. “If you do the math, if you look at the difference between doing 80 km/h and 50 km/h, it is about 2.36 minutes for that area. I don’t think two minutes is a lot of time to give up to keep our community safe.”
A preliminary traffic study presented to council in January 2021 found that traffic volumes on Highway 26 have increased by 76 per cent since 2012, and a fatal collision that killed a 60-year-old woman on Highway 26 the same month put road safety front of mind.
“This is very preliminary information,” said director of operations Shawn Carey in January. “Once we hear back from the ministry, hopefully we'll have a little bit more of a robust data set to work with.”
TBM staff reached out to the Ontario Provincial Police and the Ministry of Transportation to share the data points collected, as well as any supplementary traffic information to allow for further assessment.
In January, TBM also announced that it had selected consulting firm Stantec to aid the town in putting together a transportation master plan. The master plan, which is meant to guide future investments in transportation infrastructure, is slated for completion by summer 2022.
In April, representatives from Collingwood, the Town of the Blue Mountains, Grey County, the Ontario Provincial Police and the Ministry of Transportation held a meeting to discuss and develop an action plan for Highway 26.
“We're really looking at it from Thornbury all the way through to Collingwood, not just certain segments as it's fairly segmented already in terms of different sections and speed limits,” Carey said in April.
The same month, local residents shared their concerns about the highway with TBM council.
“There's been a substantial increase in traffic over the years and the 80 km speed limit is causing great concern for the people in this area,” said Eric Button, president of the Georgian Shores Drive Preservation Association and Craigleith resident, during the April council meeting.
Button highlighted several areas of the highway that concern local residents, including the intersection with Timmons Street; the intersection of Hwy 26, Lakeshore Road and Fraser Crescent; and the intersection of Grey Road 19 west to the provincial park.
“This area is fully built with private driveways. It's a congested area. Again, there are pedestrians crossing and the pedestrians walking along 26 to get to the commercial establishments, and there is also a substantial amount of traffic going in and out of those commercial establishments,” Button said. “I would submit to council that an 80 km speed is simply not safe.”
Over the course of the spring, dozens of residents shared comments with the Ministry of Transportation as the town worked with the province on addressing the issues with Highway 26.
“I think we're all going have to get used to the idea that Highway 26 – the use of Highway 26 – is changing,” said late deputy mayor Rob Potter in May. “We should probably get used to the idea that there are likely going to be more stoplights and more pedestrian crossings. And we're likely going to see some reduced speeds here and there.”
In June, the Ministry of Transportation announced speed limit changes based on studies carried out by the province and TBM, collision data from 2015-2020, and input from local OPP and residents.
The changes to the speed limit, from the intersection of Grey Road 21/Long Point Road heading west included:
The changes to the speed limit took effect on June 21.
Mayor Alar Soever supported the changes brought forth by the province.
“The ministry started working with us and we were able to come up with this solution that we have now, which is pretty good,” he said in December.
However, he argued that there is still work to be done due to pedestrian traffic around Craigleith Provincial Park.
“The problem is not the traffic, it's the people walking across from the park entrance over to the Georgian trail,” he said. “There's a well-worn path right across from the park entrance up to the Georgian trail … so when the traffic's coming at 80, 90, 100 kilometers an hour … it's not a good situation.”
“We want them to extend it to at least the park entrance.”
Soever said that the town has developed in a way that might require more drastic action in the future.
“It's the main highway, it's the main east-west route,” he said. “The way the community’s developed, it's also a residential beach area, a recreational area.”
“The ultimate solution obviously is a bypass somewhere over the mountain, which has its own challenges because of the Niagara Escarpment and everything else. But you know, right now we need to manage that, and the ministry has been good in working with us.”
Greg McGrath-Goudie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CollingwoodToday.ca