Niagara superhighway will change our way of life

Nov. 8, 01:03 EDT

David Mclaren
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 Escarpment Plan.

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 growth.

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 in it."

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 Europe?

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 Niagara Escarpment

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