Nov. 8, 01:03 EDT
The Hamilton Spectator
What on Earth do we do with half a million trucks? That's how many
cross the Niagara frontier each year, and the number is growing.
How do we reconcile the siren call of more tourism and more business
with the need to retain a clean and biologically diverse environment,
especially one recognized as a world-class ecosystem?
These questions are at the heart of a debate now raging in southern
Ontario over a proposal to build a 130-kilometre, $1.2-billion superhighway
straight through the heart of the Niagara Peninsula, at the southern
reaches of the environmentally sensitive Niagara Escarpment.
The Niagara Escarpment has been identified by the United Nations
as a World Biosphere Reserve and is protected by Ontario's Niagara
How development is handled on the escarpment is a real litmus test
of the Ontario government's new determination to protect the environment
and the health of its citizens and to plan for what the government
itself calls "smart growth."
The mid-peninsula highway proposal is a good example of stupid
The highway is still a glint in the eye of the Ministry of Transportation
of Ontario (MTO), but it's clear the MTO wants to see it built.
The MTO commissioned a needs assessment study that many commentators
believe was biased from the start in order to reach a conclusion
that would support a new highway.
The MTO's preferred route stretches from the QEW between Niagara
Falls and Fort Erie to the Highway 407 toll road in Burlington.
The problem is that route will mean paving over wetlands, displacing
people from what is now a rural way of life, building access ramps
and roads through prime agricultural land, reducing biodiversity,
and contributing to the deteriorating quality of air and water in
Ontario. It will also mean a major cut through the face of the Niagara
Escarpment when the highway reaches Burlington.
But perhaps the biggest blow will be felt by future generations.
Superhighways have a way of attracting development and pulling growing
populations into rural areas, away from cities. Suburban and industrial
sprawl grows at the expense of city cores, and breeds the need for
more cars and trucks, which increases the demand for more roads
... you see where this can lead.
The MTO needs assessment should have looked at the whole picture
and gazed into the future. Certainly its authors had enough clues
about how to do this. The government's own Smart Growth Strategy
sets out a number of principles for planning for growth.
The Ministry of Transportation's own TransFocus 2021 study (a plan
for the Niagara region done in 1995) specifically recommended against
a new highway through the Niagara Peninsula; rather it suggested
other infrastructure improvements including integrating road, rail
and municipal transit systems.
In 2000 and 2001, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario scolded
the MTO for not supporting integrated transportation systems. In
2002, the chair of the Central Ontario Smart Growth Panel, Mississauga
Mayor Hazel McCallion, said "promoting constructive growth
will require that governments, employers, developers and citizens
change the way they think about transportation and how we invest
If there is a transportation crisis looming in the Niagara Peninsula,
then let's address it, but not by automatically making more roads.
Let us consider the impact on the environment, on our health, on
the rural life and culture of the area.
Let us look at the past failures of roads and ask about their consequences
for the future. Let us find out how others are dealing with the
same problems -- how does Japan move its people and goods, how does
Let us pull together the country's best planners and think creatively
about how, for example, to economically and efficiently integrate
railways and roads.
Sure, it will take a little longer to do, but what's the rush?
The Niagara Escarpment has done without a superhighway for millennia,
but if it's built tomorrow, we will have to live with it forever.
All it takes is some political will to say, "Wait a minute,
we can do better if we take our time."
The kind of environmental assessment (EA) that's needed here is
a full, public and independent assessment of all transportation
options. The provincial government can order this kind of EA under
Ontario's Environmental Assessment Act.
The ball is now very much in the government's court. Ontario Environment
Minister Chris Stockwell has the choice of ordering a full environmental
assessment or a behind-closed-doors EA that ignores all options
other than a highway.
If we have learned anything in the past few years about the environment
around us, it is that whatever we do to it will come back to haunt
us in ways we cannot predict. We can no longer assume we will get
away with planning for short-term gain -- we know that there will
be long-term pain.
We can no longer afford to look at proposals such as the mid-peninsula
highway in isolation. We must begin to take a hard look at everything
they will touch and try to look as far ahead as we can. We must
start putting our environmental values first, for a change.
If we can't even protect a World Biosphere Reserve, it will be
the health of the environment and the health and well-being of our
children that will pay the price.
David McLaren has worked with First Nations and environmental groups
for the past 10 years. He is on the board of the Coalition on the