Jul. 29, 03:32 EDT
The Hamilton Spectator
Ontario's abysmal environmental record came back to haunt it at
the Mid-Peninsula Transportation Corridor public presentation in
Burlington 10 days ago.
The all-day session to collect public feedback for the environmental
assessment terms of reference attracted a record-breaking crowd.
The evening presentation alone drew 400 to Burlington's Holiday
Inn, seated, standing against the walls, sitting on the floor and
overflowing into the corridor.
Questions were asked about the Burlington impacts of a mid-peninsula
highway -- noise, effects on property values, escarpment crossing.
But the surprise was the concern from people not directly affected
by the highway. Residents of Hamilton, Ancaster, Dundas, Freelton,
Waterdown, Carlisle, Milton, Oakville and Toronto probed the environmental
effect of yet another highway in the GTA.
The theme was constant: "Why should we trust you to address
our concerns when this government has degraded our environment?"
A questioner reminded everyone that NAFTA's 2001 report on environmental
co-operation ranked Ontario the second-worst jurisdiction for air
pollution in Canada or the United States.
Air quality topped the issues. Someone asked: "Doesn't the
Ministry of Transportation talk to the Ministry of Health? Smog
causes 2,000 deaths annually."
Solutions proposed for transportation gridlock to 2031 were criticized
as yesterday's answers -- more highways, more lanes, more emissions.
One person noted, "Adding lanes and expanding roads to cure
highway congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity."
Critics pleaded for the ministry to take a leadership role. Making
transit and rail shipping more enticing would provide environmental
benefits, consume less nonrenewable fuel, and support the Kyoto
protocol. One asked: "If the MTO won't influence travel and
transportation patterns, who will?" He asked for a concerted
government focus on directing growth away from the GTA.
Speakers wanted GO Transit made more accessible, convenient and
affordable and were assured transit options are under review. But
most suggestions were answered with reasons they would not work.
Public reaction was cynical about the lack of neutrality among ministry
staff and consultants at this early stage. Such a highway would
be a magnet for development, adding even more congestion to the
403 and QEW corridors, some noted. Burlington's Mayor Rob MacIsaac,
a recognized advocate of smart growth, has emphasized it requires
strong planning policies.
Assumptions used in projecting traffic, trade, tourism and modes
of transport to 2031 were challenged. How will increased fuel costs
and a thinning ozone layer affect future transportation? Assumptions
used to promote Townsend and Pickering were wrong, it was pointed
out, and disrupted many lives.
Skepticism was rampant. Many jeered when told the highway concept
was not driven by the province's desire for a public-private partnership
(the buzz term for a toll route). The "407 boondoggle"
was cited. "We pay taxes, paid for a highway, then it was sold
for a ridiculous price and high tolls make it unpopular with truckers
and affordable only for the wealthy." The mid-peninsula highway
is the first major initiative since 407 privatization and people
used the opportunity to vent anger about 407.
Any new highway proposal evokes anger, but mistrust pervaded this
meeting. Many saw it as window-dressing for a done deal. Typical
comments: "Your credibility factor is not high" and "I
don't trust the process."
The meeting was planned originally to include maps and with ministry
staff and consultants available to answer questions. Thanks to Halton
regional council (Burlington Councillor John Taylor in particular)
the ministry reluctantly agreed to a dialogue. A project as pivotal
as this demands no less. Listening to a formal presentation, then
hearing perceptive questions (and the answers) is invaluable.
Hamilton and Niagara were consulted months ago, yet Burlington,
which stands to be fragmented, was not. Nor was the Niagara Escarpment
Commission. Nor Conservation Halton. Incredulity greeted the explanation
by Fred Leech, MTO's manager of planning and environment, that the
effects on Burlington and the escarpment had not been foreseen initially.
Burlington is a difficult city to service by local public transit
because it is already carved up by highways. And another highway
is in the offing?
Many citizens plan multiple-errand trips and avoid driving if possible
on the ever-increasing number of smog-alert days. But how many are
willing to give up their cars?
The ministry has a difficult selling job ahead. Cynicism and mistrust
were palpable and the process is just beginning. The mid-peninsula
highway promises to be a political flashpoint in Burlington and
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.