No end to mid-pen highway questions

Apr. 21, The Hamilton Spectator - Joan Little

Jeopardy is a TV game show that provides answers with contestants having to guess the questions. So too the Ministry of Transport of Ontario (MTO) has an answer, "mid-peninsula highway," but to what question?

Burlington's scathing 108-page report on the MTO's justification for a highway from Fort Erie to the Greater Toronto Area was endorsed unanimously by Burlington's community development committee last Monday. It was prepared in response to MTO's terms of reference for a "scoped" (minimized) environmental assessment, known as an EA.

The committee identified numerous concerns with the "deficient TOR (terms of reference)", claiming the ministry process "violates provincial and federal environmental assessment laws." It authorized legal action "to restrain MTO from submitting, and the MOE (Ministry of Environment) from approving, such fundamentally deficient and scoped TOR", unless the ministry provides requested assurances. Burlington council does not initiate litigation lightly, and sought advice from environmental experts.

The report attacked the transportation ministry's "seriously flawed" documents and lack of meaningful public consultation. MTO had hosted several meetings, but the terms of reference shows it disregarded much of that input. People asked repeatedly for emphasis on improved transit. MTO insists commuter demand would not invalidate the need for a highway, and movement of goods must be addressed. Burlington wants reasonable alternatives evaluated, and noted that excellent transit (e.g. expanded GO service) would reduce congestion on existing highways. Interestingly, a mid-pen highway never appeared in any MTO long-term plans for this part of Ontario.

Presentations were made to the development committee by groups and individuals. Laurence Russ, chair of the mid-pen highway stakeholders' advisory group, stated the overly rushed process was "put together with Scotch tape and chewing gum ... And it looks like a toll road."

There has been no decision on tolls, says the MTO. But cost estimates include tolling structures. David Turnbull, transportation minister in October 1999, floated the idea of a private Niagara Peninsula toll highway to a coalition of Ontario mayors.

Who would use a new toll highway? Trucks? On the Highway 407 toll route, it costs a heavy, multiple-unit truck $41.68 to travel a length of 108 kilometres in peak hours (with no Niagara section). Commuters? A commuter pays $27.78 return today. And after the fiasco of the government's sale of the 407, and the heavy-handed collection methods of the 407's operators, Ontarians have a right to be skeptical.

Burlington's report criticized MTO's disregard of the Smart Growth Panel's proposals in February. The panel recommended investment in transit have priority over roads, and advocated preserving our "green infrastructure" -- Niagara Escarpment and wetlands. It suggested a trade corridor circumnavigating the GTA, escarpment, and Oak Ridges Moraine.

Mayor Rob MacIsaac, a member of the Smart Growth panel, was incensed at MTO's lack of respect for the province's own smart growth initiative.

MacIsaac was blunt and forceful. "Some have called the MTO's process a sham, a fantasy," he said. "But it's been an insult to citizens. It was about satisfying political agendas in the Niagara peninsula. The process was fatally and fundamentally flawed. As loudly as we've been screaming, the minister hasn't listened at all. We have to show we're serious. Maybe then they'll listen."

Mid-peninsula Option C, crossing the escarpment between Number One and Number Two Sideroad in rural Burlington, is considered MTO's preferred option. Burlington questioned whether options F, G, and H have been added as "straw man" options, to be eliminated during a flawed, scoped EA process.

From a planning perspective, Option C is dumb growth. With its Highway 403-Queen Elizabeth Way-Highway 407 connection, it would feed traffic into the most congested highways in Ontario. It ignores Burlington's urban boundary, generating pressure for sprawl. It ignores Ontario's support for the transfer of rural Parkway Belt West lands in Burlington to the Niagara Escarpment Plan, which are not now, nor intended for, "urban" designation. Our Niagara Escarpment is a World Biosphere Reserve, as are the Serengeti Plain and Galapagos Islands.

Who would pay for North Burlington road expansions to carry traffic off the mid-pen highway to Cedar Springs Road, Guelph Line, and/or Walker's Line?

What about rural homeowners who invested life savings to "get away" from urbanization?

And air quality concerns must be addressed before the fact, not after.

Option C, says Burlington, should be a non-starter. The Niagara Escarpment received special provincial legislation and protection because citizens were outraged about aggregate operations on it.

How many more would spring up, anxious to ride the "gravel train of riches", to sell materials for a new highway planned on the escarpment's doorstep?

Burlington identified numerous technical flaws in the province's terms of reference for a mid-pen highway, such as projecting traffic jams by 2031 on highways that are scheduled for widening long before that -- the QEW and Highways 6 and 403.

Will the province listen, now, or will the lawyers do battle?

Former Burlington alderman and Halton councillor Joan Little is former chair of the Niagara Escarpment Commission. She does not identify with any political party. She is a freelance columnist and her views are her own.


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