Tory bafflegab on mid-pen highway

Feb. 10, - Joan Little The Hamilton Spectator

Last week provided a classic example of provincial public relations gone askew -- again.

Tuesday marked the first of three public meetings to outline draft terms of reference for an environmental assessment on the controversial mid-peninsula "transportation corridor."

That day, The Spectator quoted Transportation Minister Norm Sterling as saying a highway would be built. And, he said, the province is considering truck tolls on the QEW through Niagara to get them off the QEW onto the new highway. But no route has been decided, he said. The same edition reported driver outrage at the fifth 407 toll increase in 40 months. The public is convinced the "mid-pen" will be a toll highway.

What started as a "transportation corridor study" now resembles an exercise justifying the highway the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) wanted -- and Sterling confirmed before the meetings a highway would be built.

Ministry representatives talk about transit, rail and transportation strategies, but their message is loud -- there will be a highway. But they've listened, they said, and added other corridors. On Tuesday, new "corridor H" was unveiled, from the QEW in Niagara to Highway 6, and widening highways 6 and the 403. Cynics expect the original proposed escarpment route will be chosen, and members of COPE (Citizens Opposed to Paving the Escarpment) donned symbolic nose masks to protest that "the process up to now stinks."

People at Burlington's meeting asked if their concerns were being relayed to the minister. Repeated requests that the meetings be recorded were rejected, but they were assured notes were being taken. A few minutes later, it was pointed out the recorder took no notes during a complex technical exchange.

Tuesday, a COPE member noted the new 183-page "needs assessment" document that forms part of the terms of reference had been posted on the mid-pen Web site only two days earlier, and asked for 60 days to respond. (MTO wanted responses by March 17).

Burlington Councillor John Taylor requested April 30, because the city must hire consultants to assess the documentation. He claimed the ministry said at the November meeting it would release the document the end of December. Bill Rhamey of the ministry disagreed, prompting the angry retort, "If you had a tape of the November meeting you'd know what was said." Rhamey agreed to pass the request to the minister. Taylor persisted, "Will you recommend it?" Rhamey said he would recommend the end of March.

David Pengelly, associate professor of medicine at McMaster, noted nitrous oxide emissions are a grave health concern, but he had not found reference to "air quality" in the new 183-page document -- other than a reference that automakers are improving vehicle emissions.

Don McLean, who led the battle against the Red Hill Valley Expressway, also questioned air quality, asking whether "no highway" would be included as an option.

"No," was the answer.

A Grimsby resident, named Craig, said a new highway was needed in the Niagara area and to "do nothing" was not an option. The QEW through Niagara could not be expanded, he said, because some parts are too constrained. He moved back to Grimsby, he remarked, because he likes a small community, and transit is not an option because Grimsby does not have a local transit system. This generated groans from proponents of increased transit usage.

Cynthia Taylor-Luce of Burlington asked: "Assuming you built the highway, where would interchanges be, and how many?"

She expressed concern a highway through open country would affect local connecting roads. This would be dealt with at the route planning stage, she was told.

Questions were also raised about the implications of Canada having signed the Kyoto Protocol. Ministry staff said this was being investigated.

Sterling has said the province will consider tolls to keep trucks off the QEW in the Niagara area.

Why not start now in the Hamilton-Toronto corridor? Alternate routes exist -- the 401, 403 and 407 -- and the MTO cites other transportation initiatives: transit improvements, high occupancy vehicle lanes and a highway commuter parking lot needs study.

Why not implement these? Then reassess the need for a costly highway, increased pollution and more smog days. At earlier meetings it was suggested transit could be viable if it connected the right destinations.

These initiatives could be cheaper than bashing a new highway through agricultural land and the escarpment, and expropriating private property. The highway price tag is only based on "ball park" costs for the initial proposed route -- $1.2 billion.

The prospect of the GTA and Golden Horseshoe becoming Los Angeles north is worrisome. One brash speaker advocated targeting Tories in the upcoming election. Somehow everything gets back to politics!

Former Burlington alderman and Halton councillor Joan Little is a freelance columnist. She does not identify with any political party. Her views are her own.

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