The 36 kilometres between River Valley and Warren are being characterized by local residents as “hell-on-wheels.” Drivers are decrying the patching on top of patching, the deterioration on the curbs, the heavy traffic of trucks from River Valley quarries further damaging the road and the dangers to cyclists and pedestrians. It’s not a new story – in 2018 The Tribune ran a story about the poor conditions – and things have not improved. At that time the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) indicated construction was scheduled to begin in 2020, with media advisor Kristin Franks saying “The project includes the rehabilitation of the entire 36.5km length of Hwy 539 and the rehabilitation of 5 km of Hwy 539A, along with safety and drainage improvements. The work may be completed over several years.”
Fast forward to the summer of 2022, when organizers of the local River & Sky music and camping festival are warning tourists not to travel this road. Local councilman Rolly Larabie says if the road is not repaired, it will have serious implications for opening up the economy of the area. In spring this highway is reduced to half load.
“Between Hagar and Noëlville, Hwy 535, it’s also a 500-series highway and there’s no half load, because it’s built to a better standard. …The economy has to roll… We need the road built to a better standard so there won’t be a need for a half load… We have letters from companies like New Age Metals, Inventus, mineral exploration, Coloured Aggregates quarrying, and another company just north of there – they are hauling big rocks from River Valley down to Hwy 17… hauling to the Sundridge area where they are cutting it and making product. With the amount of heavy, heavy traffic… deterioration has gotten worse.”
Larabie says that at one point, Miller Paving fixed portions of the road with hot patch, “which was good.” At that time Larabie was told by a foreman on the job that the traffic was very heavy and the road would not last. “Coloured Aggregates wants to double their production… I sent that letter to the Minister… Their response is that Hwy 539 from River to Warren will get the oil-chip-and-tar, they call it. It won’t last! It’s throwing out good money. They said we don’t have the traffic, the numbers. What we have is heavy traffic, so that should count for something. Those roads will not sustain that traffic, and we want to open up the area. Well, if we are open for business, this is affecting our area.” Larabie says that the number of campers is down, even as everyone else is making a comeback from COVID.
“We were promised that this year in spring the road would be done,” Larabie points out. He thinks it may be a matter of finances, as there is a concentration on Highway 11. “It’s not a high priority on their list.” Faced with the argument of low traffic count, he says of course, the count on Hwy 539 will be down now because of the road conditions discouraging drivers. “It’s a Catch-22 situation.” Regardless, “We deserve better roads,” insists Larabie.