Ontario government abandoned highway plans

By RICHARD MACKIE From Saturday's Globe and Mail - June 28, 2003

The Ontario government has quietly shelved long-standing and controversial plans to build a new highway to ease congestion on the Queen Elizabeth Way, which carries traffic from the Toronto-Hamilton area through the Niagara Peninsula to the United States.

The reversal of plans to press ahead with the so-called Mid-Peninsula Corridor follows warnings that several Progressive Conservative MPPs could be vulnerable because of opposition to the highway, especially in communities around Hamilton.

Debbie Zimmerman, the chair of the Region of Niagara who has been arguing for the highway for nine years, was frustrated at the government's change in plans.

"Hopefully this is not being done for political reasons because of the potential election on the horizon and the necessity to placate the residents [of Burlington and Halton]," she said.

A commitment to build the $1.2-billion, 130-kilometre toll highway is in the Tories' campaign platform, The Road Ahead.

The Tory MPP for Burlington, former tourism minister Cam Jackson, has been one of the most vociferous opponents of the highway because of its potential to increase traffic and damage the environment.

Yesterday he praised the decision to review the existing plans for the highway.

"The province hasn't sufficiently examined the environmental impacts of building a new highway along the Niagara Escarpment," Mr. Jackson said.

He added that opponents of the government's plans "aren't sure the proposed route will solve all our transit issues, and we argue that the province is breaking environmental law by moving forward with this environmental assessment."

Transportation Minister Frank Klees revealed the change in government plans in a letter sent yesterday to Environment Minister Jim Wilson. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The letter cited objections by the City of Burlington and the Region of Halton as reasons that a hold has been put on the government's commitment to build the highway. It said the Transportation Ministry wants to change the terms of reference for the environmental assessment to meet complaints from the municipalities.

"We will be resubmitting the [environmental assessment's terms of reference] at a later date once the amendments have been incorporated and additional consultation with key stakeholders and municipalities is completed," Mr. Klees said in his letter.

He added, "The ministry remains committed to moving ahead with this important initiative."

Ms. Zimmerman noted that while the government has not dropped the idea of building the highway, the announcement means further delays for a project that the Niagara Region has sought for several years.

The highway is planned as a way to move cars and trucks off the Queen Elizabeth Way and as an alternative to widening it, which would pave over valuable lands that grow grapes and other tender fruits.

The Mid-Peninsula Corridor would run west from the Peace Bridge border crossing at Fort Erie through the middle of the Niagara Peninsula and loop up to the Hamilton airport, southwest of Hamilton. From there it would curve west of Hamilton to Burlington and then link up with the expressways serving the Greater Toronto Area.

Under the policies of the Tory government, it would be a toll highway similar to the controversial Highway 407.

The government was forced to rethink its plans for the highway when the City of Burlington went to court on June 16 asking for a judicial review of the terms of reference for the environmental assessment and arguing that they were too narrow.

On June 17, a ruling in a different case by Ontario Superior Court added ammunition to Burlington's argument. The court ruled that the Environment Minister does not have the legal authority to approve a narrow environmental assessment.

Burlington Mayor Rob MacIsaac said he was pleased by the government's change of heart, which puts an end to the city's court challenge.

He said Burlington wants the province to consider whether a highway is needed or whether there should be more environmentally friendly alternatives, such as upgraded public transit and increased use of rail for freight instead of trucks on highways.

"You really need to take an integrated approach to managing transportation. . . . Just building another highway doesn't cut it in the GTA. You need to be thinking about rail. You need to be thinking much more about public transportation," he said.

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