The Standard (St. Catharines - Niagara)
- Fri 26 Sep 2003 - By: Kalvin Reid
As a steady stream of trucks and cars roar
by below, Jason Thorne looks apprehensive. Already at six lanes across,
Highway 403 forges a significant cut in the escarpment where it begins
its descent in Ancaster. Should the proposed mid-peninsula highway join
with the road commonly known as the 403, one of the main arteries connecting
Toronto with southwestern Ontario, that cut will have to be widened.
As executive director of the Coalition on
the Niagara Escarpment (CONE), Thorne fears the consequences of that course
of action. "A project this big is only as strong as its weakest link,"
he said, standing on the pedestrian bridge where the Bruce Trail crosses
the highway and begins its descent of the escarpment. "It has a real weak
link here. They either blast through the escarpment here to 13 lanes,
or they cut into it in Burlington. "If one end doesn't make sense, the
whole project collapses and on this end there just isn't a good option."
But in the midst of this provincial election
campaign, Thorne and CONE are not looking for candidates who will kill
the project or put it on a shelf to languish in perpetuity. Rather, he
wants the project to be subject to the scrutiny of a full environmental
assessment, including a look at the need in the Niagara Peninsula for
an alternative highway to the QEW. "A full EA allows us to reach a common
ground," Thorne said. "If we can agree on a full and open process, we
can live with the outcome.
"There have been some reasoned arguments
put forward in favour of the highway. They have to be looked at, as long
as our issues are looked at as well." But according to most proponents
of the highway, the need was clearly established in the Niagara Peninsula
Transportation Needs assessment, released by then-premier Mike Harris
in June 2001.
"I don't believe we need to go back and
examine the need because we've already done that," said Niagara Region
Chair Debbie Zimmerman. "A scoped EA would be sufficient. "A full EA goes
over all the ground we've already covered. The work done by the Ministry
of Transportation has been precise and has had tons of public input."
Once Harris released the needs assessment, and announced the province
was moving ahead with the $1.3-billion, 130-kilometre highway project,
the mid-peninsula highway got tied up in the bureaucracy of the Ministry
of Transportation until earlier this year when the ministry released,
about six months behind schedule, terms of reference for the highway's
scoped environmental assessment. That, in turn, sparked a whole new set
of delays. Upset at the prospect of a new highway slicing through their
backyards, adding traffic to an already congested interchange where Highways
407, 403 and the QEW connect and slicing a new cut in the Niagara Escarpment,
residents in Burlington began voicing concerns.
"In Niagara, all three parties say the mid-peninsula
highway is the answer," Thorne said. "In Halton, all three say it is a
problem. It's an issue that crosses all party lines."
The City of Burlington and Halton Region
initiated legal action against the government's terms of reference, which
was halted when the ministry withdrew the terms in June. The province
has also appealed a separate court decision ruling against scoped environmental
In the meantime, the project sits in limbo.
"It's troubling to me," Zimmerman said. "I want recognition of the work
that's been done. "The only positive I've heard so far in this campaign
is out of Welland, when all the Niagara Centre candidates agreed it would
be an economic boost for the riding."
While the exact route of the highway will
be determined by the environmental assessment, the general route will
come off the QEW between Fort Erie and Niagara Falls and head west towards
Hamilton, where it will pass near the airport and loop around the head
of Lake Ontario to connect with the rest of the provincial highway network,
somewhere in the Hamilton-Burlington area.
"We are absolutely committed to this highway,"
said Erie-Lincoln's Conservative incumbent MPP, Tim Hudak. "It's in our
platform. We'll get it done." Despite the threat of court action, Hudak,
the minister of consumer and business services, said the Conservatives
will be moving ahead with the environmental assessment. "We've already
done a needs assessment," he said. "Why we would want to go back and do
the needs assessment all over again is beyond me.
"The mid-peninsula corridor would take up
to three years longer under a Liberal government. They want to go back
and do a needs assessment, which was done three years ago." As mayor of
Port Colborne, Erie-Lincoln Liberal candidate Vance Badawey has been a
strong voice in favour of the highway, calling it the key to an "economic
renaissance" in Niagara. "We either expand the QEW, which is not a choice,
or we build a new mid-peninsula corridor," Badawey said.
Anxious to see the road developed, he feels
the whole project has been wrought with unnecessary delays brought about
by government bungling. Although Badawey and CONE are on opposite sides
of the fence when it comes to the need for the highway, they agree a full
environmental assessment is required, which could take up to three years
to complete.Had the government embarked down that path in June 2001, the
project would be well under way, Badawey said. "This project has been
mismanaged since day one," he said. "We need a more conclusive and inclusive
process that will include all the stakeholders from all sectors.
"The current process is open to challenges
because of mishandling."
New Democrat candidate Julius Antal also
believes the highway should be subject to a full environmental assessment.
"Once you put construction through that area, there will be a buildup,"
he said. "We will be paving over natural wetlands and cutting hundreds
of acres of trees, affecting our air quality." In Antal's mind, the need
for the highway hasn't been clearly established and he wants a more thorough
look at transit and transportation alternatives.
"I look at the traffic tie-ups between Hamilton
and St. Catharines and it is growing," he said. "But it is manageable.
There are alternatives that can be looked at." Such as improved rail transit
in the peninsula for moving freight or better use of the shipping lines
through the Welland Canal.
Even a better public transit system, which
may include express rail. "I know a lot of people take the GO Train from
Burlington to Toronto," Antal said. "Some type of express rail could be
taken from Niagara to Toronto."