Project contradicts Smart Growth principles

Dave Eckersley June 6, 2003 - The Hamilton Spectator

The Ontario government's Smart Growth panel recently released its final report. It lays out their long-term visions for an Ontario that can grow economically while still maintaining a healthy respect for green space, the environment, and quality of life for all.

Smart Growth has the potential -- and it's important to note that it is only potential at this point -- to completely change for the better the ways in which we deal with development and growth. Rather than treating growth as the overriding concern while treating the natural world and our few remaining green spaces as impediments and obstacles to be filled in, drained or paved over, Smart Growth lays out a vision in which economic development and the natural world can co-exist.

In this part of Ontario, the biggest ssue pitting the forces for unchecked economic development against those who believe that growth can co-exist with nature is the potential construction of the mid-peninsula highway, also known as the mid-pen. Those who are pro-highway continually point to the economic benefits that will magically arise if the highway is built. The rest of us believe that transportation solutions can be smarter, cleaner and cheaper than the 1950's-style mid-pen, while still producing economic growth and jobs.

The Smart Growth vision includes four major recommendations that pertain to transportation: that investment in transit should occur before investment in highways, that balanced growth should be encouraged rather than urban sprawl, that existing infrastructure should be used where possible, and that green space should be preserved, especially unique green spaces of high value such as the Niagara Escarpment and the Oak Ridges Moraine.

One of the strangest and saddest things about the government's planned mid-peninsula highway is that it absolutely contradicts all four of these principles -- and the same Eves' government is responsible for both the mid-pen and Smart Growth.

The first Smart Growth recommendation for transportation is that investment in transit and rail should occur before investment in sprawl- inducing highways that are comparatively more damaging to the environment and to air and water quality.

That transit options are invested in first is absolutely key, if the government is to be forced out of its longstanding rut: In the past, Ontario has had a distressing habit of building new roads and then using the existence of those very roads to argue that demand has been satisfied and that transit is no longer viable or needed.

Construction of the mid-pen would obviously fly in the face of the Smart Growth vision that transit should come first when setting transportation investment priorities, and would once again eventually allow the government to claim that transit is no longer needed because they had just finished constructing a $1.5-billion toll highway.

Another major element of the Smart Growth vision is that urban sprawl should be discouraged. Sprawl consumes green space and is expensive for municipalities to service, putting upward pressure on local taxes. The construction of new highways leads inevitably to sprawl. In Hamilton, the highway would run south of the airport, an area that the city already has difficulty servicing and where service improvements would be a hard hit to an already-strapped city budget.

Third, construction of a new highway obviously represents construction of new infrastructure, rather than better or smarter use of existing structures as recommended by the Smart Growth panel. The highway represents a huge piece of new infrastructure, one that will require several hundred thousand truckloads of aggregate probably quarried elsewhere on the Escarpment to construct.

The option of improving the QEW and other Niagara area roads has been rejected by the government, despite the fact that their own studies have stated that improvements to the existing road network would solve the congestion problems their studies predict. Their documents also state that to improve existing roads rather than constructing a new highway corridor would save about $500 million for Ontario taxpayers.

Why was the option of improving existing roads rejected by the MTO?

Tellingly, one of the route options that was rejected early in the planning process was rejected because (to quote the government's own document): "Sections of alternative E use existing local roadways through Welland . . . making tolling of these sections infeasible."

The fourth aspect of Smart Growth pertaining to transportation is to ensure the specific protection of "unique and irreplaceable resources" and of green space in general. The Niagara Escarpment is specifically mentioned in the Smart Growth document, Shape the Future, which states that the Escarpment will be "enhanced and protected in perpetuity."

The proposed mid-pen has harmful consequences for this wonderful natural feature: not only from the development pressures that come with highways, but also the fact that construction of the mid-pen would place the Escarpment between two major highways (the QEW being the other one).

To sum up, it would be difficult to imagine another project that contradicts or is deaf to so many Smart Growth principles.

Dave Eckersley lives in Hamilton, He is a member of Citizens Opposed to Paving the Escarpment (COPE) and can be reached through the COPE Web site: www.stophighway.com

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