Commercial and long-haul freight trucks are like modern-day dinosaurs. They lumber along and dominate the road networks they share with smaller vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. But we’ve learned to depend on these massive beasts which deliver vegetables, fruit, appliances and other goods to every community across North America, 24-7. In our fulfillment economy, they’ve been a godsend for many during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s quite another matter, however, when a growing stream of massive trucks loaded with chemicals, steel coils and other commodities are cutting through the downtown and residential streets lined with apartments, schools, hospitals, and retail strips as short-cuts to reach highways.

With Environment Hamilton (EH) working hard to get older industries to clean up their toxic legacy, while at the same time pressuring existing industries to stop releasing air emissions, it is not surprising that they’ve communicated concerns about the city’s proposed Truck Route Master Plan. This Plan – which is expected to be considered by city council later this year – aims to permit large truck traffic on designated routes along Main, King, Cannon, Victoria and Ottawa Streets (and other streets) daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

City transportation planners consider the proposed Plan a compromise between the Ontario Trucking Association (which would like to maintain the status quo of 24-7 access to the city streets for its members) and citizen groups which are calling for safer streets free of massive industrial trucks.

Proposed innercity truck routes. Map source: City of Hamilton.

EH Executive Director, Lynda Lukasik, points out that it’s during the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. period that these trucks are going to encounter residents going about their business in cars, bikes, and on foot.

EH is calling for a complete ban of these short-cuts across the city. Instead, massive trucks not on delivery should only be allowed to use truck routes on Burlington Ave and Nikola Tesla Blvd in the industrial zone to take advantage of the ring of highways including the 403, the QEW, the Lincoln Alexander Parkway and the Red Hill Parkway.

An Ontario Ministry of Transportation survey has found that close to 4,000 average daily truck trips are originating from or are destined to Hamilton, says Michelle Shantz, a communications spokesperson for the city. All categories of trucks and sizes are included. This survey does not indicate the difference between small delivery vehicles and the large trucks that are solely crossing Hamilton for the short-cut.

Lynda Lukasik. Photo The Spectator.

For Lukasik the Truck Route Master Plan jeopardizes a parallel City Hall policy of a livable city with complete streets — where walkability, public transportation and separate bike lanes are the priorities as well as recognition of climate impacts brought on through heavy fossil fuel usage by cars and trucks.

Also of concern to EH is the use of highly polluting diesel fuel by commercial trucks which is also contributing to greenhouse gases. (Full electrification of trucks as an alternative will take another a decade to set up, according to the Ontario Trucking Association).

Resolving the inconsistencies between city policies on Complete Streets and the Truck Route Master Plan is top of mind for Ward 3 city councillor, Nrinder Nann. She is anticipating an August 30 conversation with city transportation planners will clarify things.

Ward 3 Councillor Nrinder Nann. File photo.

Councillor Nann, the vice chair of the Truck Route Master Plan subcommittee, is very supportive of an upcoming technical review which is looking at how Ward 3 roads can become complete streets. She opposes the current designation of Ottawa Street North as a primary arterial road/truck route. Nann expresses concern that the Truck Route Master Plan could undermine current plans to expand cycling infrastructure on Victoria Street which is also a designated truck route.

“It would be poor planning for us to proceed with any recommendations on the truck route without the ward wide review done at the same time. They should be working in congruence [with each other] rather than working in opposition,” she states.

Lak Shoan a spokesperson at the Ontario Trucking Association doubts the city Truck Route Master Plan overnight restrictions can work as his members are typically carrying heavy loads between shippers and receivers 24-7. Certain companies are not going to be able to control the timing of long-distance trips into the city, he has told The Point.

Shoan declined to comment on the dissenting position of Fluke Transport which has announced that its drivers will avoid the short cuts through the city altogether. “I am not going to comment on individual trucking companies that have unique transportation needs based on their location.”

Lukasik says that suggested weights carried by trucks in the Truck Route Master Plan is also a concern and puts the Kenilworth Access 2010 provisions in jeopardy.

Residents living near the top of the access have been pushing for several years for a permanent ban on heavy trucks, citing noise, safety, pollution and escarpment erosion concerns.

Hamilton Spectator

Residents who live in neighbourhoods at the top of the Kenilworth Access fought in the last round of reviews to restrict larger trucks in this area.  There are issues with tight turning radii and concerns about the escarpment — rock falls, etc., that people worry could be further triggered by the impacts of heavy trucks. The freeze/thaw frequency being caused by climate change has only adding to the problems.

The city transportation department has received a large number of emails and questions following a virtual public information session on the Truck Route Master Plan held on June 24, 2021. Omar Shams, project manager for new initiatives in transportation planning, is promising more data about truck activity in Hamilton as the Master Plan subcommittee reconvenes in November.

An area which requiring more explanation from the city is air particulate matter emitted by trucks and inhaled into the lungs posing what Clean Air Hamilton calls “a significant health risk.” At the moment, the city lacks a breakdown of how much the trucks are contributing to general air pollution in Hamilton. Yet local residents on the ground have been able, courtesy of scientific measuring equipment, to raise the alarm by confirming large commercial freight trucks in Hamilton are a serious source of particulates.

Source: IQAir – Air Quality in Hamilton

“What I can tell you is that we know, using our hand-held particulate monitors, when an 18-wheeler diesel truck goes by, the street level particulate levels spike up into the zone that is harmful for respiratory health,” states Lukasik.

“We are able to get a ‘snapshot’ sense of the impact of these trucks in urban streetscapes — and that’s enough, if you ask me, to warrant getting them out of these spaces where so many people are being exposed.”

Meanwhile, Don McLean, a long-time environmental activist and the publisher of CATCH online argues that the city taxpayer is getting stuck paying the bill for the wear and tear on the designated truck routes.

I posed this assertion to city communications spokesperson Michelle Shantz who says that the city spends about $90-million annually on maintaining and operating city roads. But she had no breakdown on the portion spent on truck impact.

“During the design process for resurfacings and reconstruction of our roads, the city does consider the percentage of trucks and their loadings when engineering our pavements.  Common issues of rutting, shoving and base failures from overloading (to name a few) are also taken into account as part of that design process in developing the pavement structure,” says Shantz

The city response is somewhat technical which McLean suggests is an effort to obscure the real story.

“My casual reading suggests that trucks have far more impact on roads than cars, and that weight matters very much. (The city) seems to understand that matters when designing roads.”

He notes that in Hamilton, historically the premier industrial centre in Canada, steel mills regularly transported enormous loads on city roads in Hamilton.

McLean says this remains the case today. “Why wouldn’t city staff want to know what that meant for road life? To protect the steel and other heavy using companies and avoid a situation where the public asks if those companies are paying their fair share of road maintenance costs.”