Highway debate a healthy exercise

Dennis Smith - The Burlington Post
Feb 14, 2003

I'm struck by how tough it is to find parking at mid-peninsula highway information meetings. The lot is filled with cars of various sizes and the occasional pickup truck or sport utility vehicle. I haven't seen anyone arrive at these meetings by taxi or bus.

This scene illustrates why there's a growing transportation mess in southern Ontario. Our area is built for cars and trucks, suburban transit doesn't offer total convenience and most people prefer cars for their core transportation.

The proposed highway from Niagara to Hamilton/Halton has sparked legions of local critics, with many bona fide arrows to fire at planners. They note the road would be hugely expensive (more than $1 billion), increase pollution and create urban sprawl. The Hwy. 407 connection runs close to Waterdown and north Burlington population masses and cuts through the Niagara Escarpment -- no wonder local politicians are lined up against it!

Suspicion of the process runs high. Critics believe the province and transportation planners are already committed to the highway. Surprise additions of route alternatives (connecting it to Hwy. 407 or Hwy. 6) and the transportation minister's comments about 'when the new highway is built', add to feelings of mistrust.

Connections with Hwy. 401 and Hwy. 403 are other route alternatives. But skeptics believe these routes are impractical and that planners will zero in on the unpopular Hwy. 407 connection.

I'm not sold yet on the mid-peninsula highway. But I've softened from my initial reaction that it's an insane idea.

Planners have presented compelling arguments that strong medicine is needed for transportation west of Lake Ontario. The crucial one is that 2.5 million more people are expected to live in south-central Ontario over the next 20 years. The accuracy of this prediction is key to whether the highway is justifiable.

Major tourism and trade growth from the Niagara border isalso predicted. Planners add they have examined improvements to existing highways, transit, rail and ferry service and that it's not enough.

Burlington is on the firing line for highway improvements, since it's strategically located between Niagara, Toronto and southwestern Ontario. It's great for prosperity, but there's a price to pay.

There are also costs to expanding rail and transit services, such as larger railway yard activity and more cargo shipped through communities. It also means more apartments on nearby arterial roads, to encourage transit use.

I'm not sure this has sunk in at meetings, where stopping or re-routing the mid-peninsula highway is paramount for participants.

Meanwhile transportation planners are catching flak, while provincial government officials are betting voters still prefer to hit the road rather than making politicians do it.

The saving grace is that this highway planning (with many years still ahead) is producing some interesting transportation ideas. Special lanes for car pools or buses, truck tolls for certain highways and railroad upgrades for moving people and goods are among very good suggestions. Let's hope these alternatives see the light of day and aren't lost in the debate over whether to build a highway.

Dennis Smith can be reached at dsmith@haltonsearch.com


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