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Raw Video: 403 multiple-vehicle crash 2:49

To call Colin Sword’s Wednesday morning commute “slower than average” would be a gross understatement.

The 28-year-old Ancaster resident left his home, near Jerseyville and Shaver roads, at around 7 a.m. to drive to his job at technology firm in east Burlington.

On a good day, the trip can take as little as 20 minutes, while on an average morning, the ride is about 35 to 40 minutes long.

But on Wednesday, Sword became one of the thousands of drivers across the Hamilton area who faced hours of delays, his commute lasting a full 175 minutes longer than normal. 

A multi-vehicle crash on the 403 at Waterdown Road — in particular, the highway closures that resulted from it — sparked a chain reaction that snarled traffic on streets across the western half of the city. Traffic backed up not just on the highway but also on city streets including Main, York, Dundurn, Locke, Aberdeen, Cootes Drive and many more as drivers crawled through neighbourhoods looking for ways past the blockage.

The ordeal highlights how a single collision can paralyze broad swaths of Hamilton and raises questions about what alternatives exist for motorists looking to avoid crippling backlogs on the QEW and the 403. Right now, motorists are completely on their own. Cars spill off the highway, but the city has no mechanism to systematically track or measure delays nor for adjusting lights to solve the tie-ups.

Developing alternative routes

Five years ago a committee was formed to come up with a plan, but that work never progressed. But last fall, the committee was resurrected.

Unlike other municipalities in region, Hamilton does not have designated emergency detour routes, a series of signs that motorists can follow to get off and back on the highway in the event of a crippling delay. But the city is looking to change that, working with the province’s ministry of transportation, the Ontario Provincial Police and local emergency services officials to develop a plan.

Martin White, the city’s manager of traffic operations and engineering, says staff have met “several times” with the ministry since the fall. 

“We have preliminary designs done at our level and we are just scheduling another meeting to present what we think is an optimal plan,” he said.

White said he doesn’t know when the route will in place, noting its implementation would depend on a council vote.

“The best that I can that I can commit to is that we’ll be in front of council in 2014 with our technical designs,” he said.

City staff have been discussing an emergency plan since 2009. But the project “basically went dormant,” White said, because of staff turnover in the city’s public works department.

Then, in October 2013, a crash fatal crash on the westbound 403 at Aberdeen Avenue renewed calls for the city to hash out an EDR plan.

Around 8 a.m. on Oct. 10, a motorcyclist died after colliding with a transport truckThe westbound lanes of the 403 were closed until 3 p.m. for an investigation into the death.

During the worst of the traffic delays, there was a 10 km backup on the highway, prompting motorists spill onto a host of city streets, White said.

The deluge led to bumper-to-bumper traffic on Main Street West near McMaster University and into Dundas and caused delays in central Hamilton and on the Mountain.

An EDR plan, White said, wouldn’t eliminate the risk of city-wide delays. But he said it could provide a “valve” to temper volumes on major routes and limit spillover into residential neighbourhoods.

'“Hamilton is not very straightforward because of our geography.'—Martin White, City of Hamilton

Challenges

City staff, he said, face several challenges in the planning of emergency detour routes.

“Hamilton is not very straightforward because of our geography,” White said.

Because of where it runs along the escarpment and Princess Point, the 403 through Hamilton doesn't have any service roads, unlike the stretch of the highway that runs through Oakville and Burlington.

“It causes a great deal of concern about the potential for [provincial highway] traffic to offload into residential or local arterial roads.”

Councillor Jason Farr, whose downtown Hamilton ward was affected by Wednesday’s delays, said he’s pleased that staff are working on an EDR plan and hopes it “actually mitigates congestion on non-arterial roads.”

For his part, Sword says he doubts EDR signs would have reduced his commute time on Wednesday. 

“I don't see how directing everyone to use a different route is going to help in the slightest. All that is doing is changing where the backlogs are,” he said. “I'm not convinced an EDR would help at all.”

Traffic chaos maps

Tweets from Wednesday morning show how a car crash in Burlington caused a web of traffic delays across west Hamilton. Click on each red pin to see what frustrated commuters had to say: