Mid-pen concerns deserve a response

The Hamilton Spectator -- Editorial
Transportation: Highway's impact must be minimal May 30, 2003.

There's little doubt that the province has been ham-handed and insensitive in its plans for a mid-peninsula highway. While we believe the so-called "mid-pen" is needed and important to relieving serious highway congestion in the Niagara Peninsula, we have sympathy for Burlington, which prides itself on careful planning and smart growth, only to see a highway rammed through its protected rural area.

Burlington was brought into the process after Niagara region and Hamilton had been consulted, and had virtually signed off on the proposal.

Burlington has one of the most carefully managed planning and growth strategies of any municipality in Ontario. But it is likely where the mid-pen would dump its traffic load onto the QEW and highways 403 and 407. To make those connections, it would have to cross the Niagara Escarpment.

The province has identified several options to bring the eastern terminus of the mid-pen down to existing highways, including Highway 403 between Mohawk and Aberdeen/Main Street East, and Highway 6 south of Clappison's Cut. But few people see those as anything but decoys; the smart money is on what the province calls "Option C" -- crossing the escarpment in rural north Burlington.

That was made even more unpalatable to Burlington by the province setting short timelines for response to its 179-page draft terms of reference, which includes its route options.

Now, Burlington and Halton region are trying to get a judicial order to stop the highway. They want a full environmental assessment (instead of the faster and more limited "scoped" assessment). Part of that full assessment would be consideration of other alternatives, such as mass transit.

But in Niagara and Hamilton, the need for a mid-pen highway is not mainly a commuter issue. It's largely about truck traffic -- vast numbers of 18-wheelers crossing the border every hour. The pressure on the QEW Niagara -- and the agricultural/residential corridor through which it runs -- grows every year. The mid-pen highway would significantly relieve that.

Burlington, and Halton, must realize that their enviable assessment growth -- both business and residential -- has to a very large extent resulted from their placement astride the QEW, the 403 east of Oakville, and now the 407. Trucks and commuters flow relatively easily in and out of Halton on a network of highways. Niagara and Hamilton do not have that: All the traffic that moves from the U.S. border at Niagara Falls and Fort Erie is funnelled onto one congested route.

An environmental assessment that bogs down a project for years while development and growth continue apace does no one any good. Assessment of the mid-pen project must keep pace with the demand for it.

The province has to communicate its case better and listen to municipalities more. It must deal with Burlington concerns, even if it means providing a special, broader assessment for the route where it crosses the Niagara Escarpment.

Having said that, the assessment should ultimately answer the question of not whether to build the highway, but how to reduce its environmental impact as much as possible.

The province needs to take notice of, and deal with, Burlington's concerns before the courts force it to. As the Tories found out with their planned sale of Hydro One, courts can derail even government plans.

-- Robert Howard

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