Highway project is issue that crosses party lines

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 assessments.

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."

Contact COPE:

©copyright 2002 - 2012 COPE

The COPE website was updated October 30, 2012
Website design and hosting by Virtual Image Hamilton: