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Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) Quick Facts:
  • Years in Existence: 1939-Present
  • Current Status: In Service
  • Location: Southern Ontario
  • Counties Served: Niagara, Hamilton (Wentworth), Halton & Peel
  • Towns Served: Fort Erie, Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, Grimsby, Hamilton, Burlington, Oakville, Mississauga & Toronto
  • Fort Erie Terminus: Peace Bridge Toll Plaza
  • Toronto Terminus: Hwy 427 Junction in Toronto
  • Current Length: 137.8 km / 85.6 miles
QEW ROUTE MARKER - © Cameron Bevers
Queen Elizabeth Way Sign © Cameron Bevers

History of the Queen Elizabeth Way:

The Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) is an important freeway which generally follows the Lake Ontario shoreline from Toronto to the Niagara Peninsula. The highway is the oldest inter-city divided highway in Canada and has arguably been one of the most influential highway developments in Ontario's history. The highway passes through the heart of Ontario's largest industrial and commercial centres and provides vital access to the United States at Niagara Falls and Fort Erie. The QEW has also greatly improved travel times, particularly between Hamilton and Niagara Falls. This strategic highway corridor continues to fuel Ontario's economic growth over 75 years after it was completed.

By the 1930s, inter-city traffic volumes between Toronto and Hamilton had begun to overwhelm Highway 2, and to a lesser extent, Highway 5. Since there was little room available to widen Highway 2, a new highway corridor was planned. The Middle Road, a minor rural road located about 2 km north of Highway 2, was selected as the route for the new highway. Construction began in the early 1930s to convert this minor rural road between Toronto and Burlington into a four-lane "superhighway". Originally, the new road was planned as a four-lane undivided highway, but a landscaped median was quickly added along the highway in an effort to improve traffic safety. The highway narrowed into an undivided four-lane pavement on the approaches to major bridges. The new Middle Road Highway was opened in several stages between 1932 and 1937. The new highway was completed between Toronto and Hamilton in the summer of 1937 and boasted a full cloverleaf interchange at Highway 10 in Port Credit and a partial cloverleaf (trumpet) interchange in Burlington. These were the very first traffic interchanges ever built in Canada. The new Middle Road was extended to Niagara Falls, via Grimsby and St. Catharines in the late 1930s. Several more highway interchanges were built along this section, including a large traffic circle at the Highway 20 Junction in Stoney Creek.

While the new Toronto-Niagara Falls Highway was the pinnacle of 1930s highway engineering and innovation, the name "Middle Road" simply did not inspire an image of grandeur. While the Ontario Government was considering new names for the highway, an idea surfaced to re-dedicate the Middle Road Highway as the "Queen Elizabeth Way", to commemorate the first Royal Visit to Canada by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (The Queen Mother). Queen Elizabeth was delighted with the honour and agreed to attend a special dedication ceremony in St. Catharines on June 7, 1939. The dedication ceremony took place near the Henley Bridge in St. Catharines. After the ceremony concluded, special decorative sculptures and elements were added to the Henley Bridge to commemorate the 1939 Royal Visit. The QEW was quickly completed and was open to traffic to Niagara Falls by late 1939. However, due to the outbreak of war in Europe, several sections of the highway between Stoney Creek and St. Catharines remained unpaved until the summer of 1940. The QEW was extended from Niagara Falls to Fort Erie in 1941, but this section remained unpaved for the duration of World War II. Another extension of the QEW was constructed to provide access to the Rainbow Bridge, which opened to traffic in 1941. The Rainbow Bridge Extension met the Queen Elizabeth Way at a traffic circle, which was removed during a highway reconstruction project in the early 1970s.

The construction of a high-level bridge to carry the QEW across the Burlington Beaches had been considered as early as the 1930s, but it was not until the 1950s that the proposal became a reality. Until 1958, all QEW traffic crossed the Burlington Canal on a lift bridge, which was frequently opened to allow ships to enter Hamilton Harbour. Traffic jams had always been a serious problem on Beach Boulevard, so it was clear that a high-level bridge was needed to fix the traffic bottleneck. The Burlington Beach Skyway (now known as the James N. Allen-Burlington Beach Skyway) was opened in 1958, bypassing the old lift bridge on Beach Boulevard. The new Skyway was four lanes (two lanes in each direction) with a toll plaza on the Stoney Creek (eastern) side of the bridge. The bridge tolls were lifted in 1973. The Skyway was twinned in the 1980s to provide additional capacity along the QEW. The new structure was completed in 1985, immediately to the south of the existing Skyway. The newer structure now carries four lanes of Niagara-bound traffic, while the old 1958 structure carries four lanes of Toronto-bound traffic.

Another high-level bridge was constructed on the QEW in St. Catharines in order to bypass a lift bridge across the Welland Canal. Traffic jams had become a common problem at the old Homer lift bridge by the 1960s, so a new structure was built to allow free movement of traffic across the Welland Canal. The new six-lane Garden City Skyway was completed in 1963. Initially, there was a toll collected for all vehicles crossing the bridge, but the tolls were lifted in 1973. The six-lane capacity of the structure is still sufficient even for today's traffic volumes.

By the 1950s, it became obvious that the QEW was inefficient as a non-controlled access highway. While there were some interchanges along the highway, there were many at-grade intersections and most of the busier intersections had traffic signals installed. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the at-grade intersections were closed off along the QEW and replaced by overpasses and proper interchanges. Service roads were constructed along the highway to provide access to adjacent properties. The highway was widened to six lanes from Toronto to Burlington to accommodate the ever-increasing traffic volumes. The section of the QEW from Highway 427 to the Humber River was reconstructed as an 8 to 10-lane freeway in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with a short collector-express lane system from Kipling Avenue easterly to Royal York Road. By the end of the 1970s, all of the at-grade intersections along the QEW were gone, including the infamous Stoney Creek Traffic Circle at the junction of Highway 20 (Centennial Parkway). After nearly 40 years, the QEW was finally a fully controlled-access freeway.

In 1997, a portion of the Queen Elizabeth Way from Highway 427 to the Humber River was transferred (or "downloaded") to the City of Toronto. The non-partisan "Who Does What Committee" concluded that a portion of the QEW within Toronto served only a local purpose and was therefore no longer needed in the Ontario highway transportation system. Their conclusions were based on the fact that the QEW did not connect to any other provincially-maintained highways east of Highway 427, meaning that the QEW carried little provincially-significant through traffic within the City of Toronto. On March 31, 1997, the City of Toronto reluctantly took over ownership of the QEW east of Highway 427 and re-designated the highway as the Gardiner Expressway. This highway transfer proved to be particularly unfair, since the majority of the traffic using the downloaded portion of the QEW originates in Peel Region and other cities and regions to the west. City of Toronto taxpayers are now bearing the burden of maintaining a highway which mostly serves residents of other municipalities. This situation resonated countless times throughout Ontario, as municipalities struggled to maintain the downloaded provincial highways. The transfer of the QEW plainly illustrates some of the negative impacts of the hastily-executed highway downloads of 1997-1998.

During the 1990s, the QEW was widened to six lanes (three lanes in each direction) from Highway 20 in Stoney Creek to Highway 406 in St. Catharines. The Ministry of Transportation (MTO) recently completed the widening of QEW to six lanes from Highway 406 to Mountain Road in Niagara Falls. This work was carried out through two major reconstruction projects. The first project, from Highway 405 to Mountain Road, was started in 2004 and was completed in late 2007. A second project, from Highway 406 to the Garden City Skyway was started in 2005 and was completed in 2011. As a result of these highway widening projects, there are now six continuous through lanes from Hamilton to Niagara Falls. Unfortunately, these projects resulted in the demolition of some 1930s-era freeway structures along the QEW.

A long-term reconstruction project began on the QEW in 2005 to address ongoing traffic congestion problems between Burlington and Oakville. Two High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) Carpool Lanes were added during this reconstruction project (one HOV lane in each direction) between Guelph Line in Burlington and Trafalgar Road in Oakville. These new HOV Lanes are for the exclusive use of public transit vehicles and passenger vehicles with at least two occupants. Transport trucks are prohibited from the new HOV Lanes, as are single occupant passenger vehicles. The intention of these HOV Lanes is to ease traffic congestion by encouraging public transit use and carpooling. The new HOV lanes on the QEW were officially opened to traffic on November 29, 2010.

The QEW is the only freeway in Ontario which does not have an official route number. Route markers on this highway are gold-coloured, with the road's abbreviated name "QEW" displayed in blue text. There are also no cardinal compass directions posted underneath the highway markers, due to the road's meandering route. Directional tabs below the route marker simply name the next control city leading away from Toronto, which are "Hamilton", "Niagara" or "Fort Erie", depending on the specific highway section. Toronto-bound QEW signs are marked with a "Toronto" tab. The QEW is sometimes referred to internally by the Ministry of Transportation as either "Highway 1" or "Highway 451". However, these numbers are only used on internal Ministry documents and for accounting purposes and are not posted on the highway. They are merely reference numbers given to this otherwise "unnumbered" highway. Since 1939, the highway's legal designation has always been "The Queen Elizabeth Way".

There are no Service Centres located along the QEW, but services are available at almost every exit. Unless posted otherwise, the speed limit on the QEW is 100 km/h (60 mph). On September 26, 2019, a pilot project commenced to test higher speed limits along some sections of the QEW. Between Hamilton and St. Catharines, sections of the QEW have a posted speed limit of 110 km/h (70 mph). In 2022, this pilot project concluded and the speed limit increase to 110 km/h was made permanent. Exits along the QEW are numbered based on their distance from the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie. Approximate distances along the highway can therefore be calculated by subtracting one exit number from another. For example, the distance from Highway 406 (Exit #49) to Highway 427 (Exit #139) is 90 km (139 - 49 = 90). Please visit the QEW Mileage Chart page for a list of interchange numbers along the QEW.


Additional Information About the Queen Elizabeth Way:

Queen Elizabeth Way - Route Information  (At Scott Steeves' website: asphaltplanet.ca)

Queen Elizabeth Way - A Virtual Tour  (At Scott Steeves' website: asphaltplanet.ca)

Links to Adjacent King's Highway Pages:

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