Mid-peninsula highway 'a step backward'

Wayne Creighton Special to the Review

Thursday, February 06, 2003

WELLAND - "This is craziness."

That comment by Fort Erie resident Al Seburn seemed to sum up the feelings of most of the more than 100 people at the Royal Canadian Legion Wednesday night for the latest public information meeting regarding the mid-peninsula transportation corridor.

The meeting was the second of three this week by the Ministry of Transportation to present its proposed terms of reference for the corridor's environmental assessment.

Another meeting is planned tonight in Rockton on the heels of a raucous meeting Monday night in Burlington, where more than 400 people gathered to quiz officials and consultants on plans for the 130-kilometre, $1.2-billion mega-highway stretching from the U.S. border in Fort Erie to Burlington. The plan is to link it up with existing highways at either the 403 in Hamilton or the 407 in Burlington.

Like many of the plan's opponents, Seburn is concerned about environmental issues. He is convinced there must be alternatives.

"It's a step backwards to me,'' said Seburn. "Other jurisdictions throughout the world are all looking at alternatives for vehicle gridlock and most of them are turning to public transportation systems.

"But to me it's a done deal no matter what we say."

Citizens Opposed to Paving the Escarpment (COPE) vice-chairman Dave Eckersley was at the meeting - his 14th. He said his group of more than 1,000 plan to keep attending meetings and making their voices heard.

"We feel that, environmentally, the highway is an incredibly bad idea,'' said Eckersley. "And there are problems with MTO's process, which as been opaque, misleading and rushed. The documentation is flawed, according to all the professionals we've had look at it.

"Basically, they haven't established that there's the demand for this highway. We aren't saying there isn't a congestion on the QEW, but what we are saying is that it could be solved with strategic widening to the QEW, along with some improvements to transit."

Eckersley said COPE began with just five people last summer and the task of scuttling the project seemed overwhelming, but he said some progress has been made.

"I think we're starting to make a dent, but it is an uphill battle,'' said Eckersley. "Their budget is $1.3 billion to build the thing and our budget is what we can scrape up from our members.

"But, on the other hand, we've got the high side the argument. Our argument is let's protect the environment. Let's protect the air quality. Let's do transportation in a smarter way. Their argument is let's throw some more SUVs and trucks onto the Niagara Escarpment."

Albert Garofalo of Welland is another opponent of the project.

"I have a problem with the needs assessment aspect of it. I don't think that has been addressed,'' he said. "I commuted every day for two years from St. Catharines to Burlington and not once did I hit traffic, except for the odd snowstorm. The traffic always starts at Guelph Line, where the 403 meets the QEW."

"To me, the need hasn't been addressed and there are many other alternatives."

Will MacKenzie, information officer for the central region of the ministry, said Wednesday's meeting was typical of the ones that preceded it.

"We've been hearing a lot of these same comments all the way through and we are listening,'' said MacKenzie. "I think the people have already made a difference in a lot of ways.

"We're confident the need is there,'' added MacKenzie. "You've got to remember we're looking many years ahead. The last time a process like this was done was route was chosen for the 407 - that was 30 something years ago and it wasn't built until five years ago.

"What we're looking at is that in the future, when the road becomes absolutely necessary, (and) how can we make sure we've protected the route from development. We need to tell the municipalities, so they can plan.

"There's a fine balance between protecting the needs of the environment and economic needs. That's what this environmental assessment is all about."

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