By Daniel Pearce, Simcoe Reformer
When Coun. John Hunt was an OPP officer in the 1970s, he was called to the Long Point causeway on a regular basis — often to an ugly scene.
Due to “a combination of speed, booze, and trees,” the narrow, shoulderless stretch of road from the mainland to the point became a deadly alleyway, Hunt recalls.
Drivers would lose control and crash straight into a tree.Back then, he says, many people, including himself, thought the causeway would be safer if the trees were cut down and the road widened.
But environmentalists were opposed because it would involve moving into the ecologically sensitive marsh.
“There’s been a real mind-change over the years,” says Hunt, who is supporting “the concept” of a plan put forward by a consortium of environmental groups to overhaul the causeway, which is in his ward.
It calls for the roadway to be raised, a bike and pedestrian path to be added, for culverts to go under the road so wildlife can safely pass from the marsh to the bay and back again, and for the trees to be cut down.
The $16-million proposal is designed to boost tourism and to protect wildlife, which the group says is getting killed by the thousands every year as snakes, frogs, and turtles migrate back and forth across the road.
But with traffic on the crossing heavier than ever — up to 10,000 vehicles use it on a long summer weekend, roughly triple the volume from the 70s — it will also make driving safer, say proponents.
The plan has nevertheless caused controversy on Long Point, where Hunt has a cottage, dividing the residents into those in favour and those against.
Cottagers along the causeway are opposed, saying it won’t help save wildlife and could cause flooding on their properties.
Others — Hunt says it’s the majority — favour the proposal.
Without any shoulders, and only a couple of spots to turn around, the 3.6 km stretch is a dangerous gauntlet for walkers or bikers as well as drivers.
“Speed is not the issue,” explains cottager Jim Billo, who favours the changes. “It’s improvement to the whole area.
“I would not allow my grandchildren to walk or ride along it.”
The bike path is something Susan Malcolm, a longtime cottager who now lives year-round on the point, would like to see.
“I’d like to get to the bike paths that start at the Lakeshore Road, but I can’t get off the point,” she says.
Before it can go ahead, the plan must get the approval of elected officials in the county, which owns the road.
So far, a cloth fence about a half-metre high has been put up on the west side of the causeway to prevent amphibians from crossing and a flashing sign warns motorists to watch for wildlife.
Bill Cridland, Norfolk’s roads manager, says the project’s costs are to be covered by federal and provincial grants. The county’s costs, he says, would be for paving — expenses already set aside for the road in capital budgets.
“It’s in the fundraising stages,” says Cridland, who sits on the project’s steering committee. “It’ll be a while yet (before anything major happens).”