It's time to demand transport options

Lynda Lukasik
The Hamilton Spectator

I recently attended a provincial Ministry of Transportation (MTO) public meeting regarding the proposed mid-peninsula highway. The meeting was held in Burlington and attracted several hundred citizens, many of whom were clearly concerned about the MTO's plans to pave more of southern Ontario.

And while the MTO has only been consulting on the proposed roadway for about half a year now, the patience of both MTO representatives and concerned citizens is wearing thin.

At the Burlington meeting I watched as citizen after citizen raised concerns. They included people such as Helen Dutka of Burlington who urged the MTO to implement aggressive public transit programs before building yet another highway.

Dutka pointed to the existence of the right-of-way that the province already owns along Highway 407 and suggested that a commuter train line be established here.

Diane Green of Oakville pointed to increasing levels of air pollution that the MTO's own studies indicate a new highway will generate.

But by the time Green got up to the microphone, MTO representative Fred Leech had obviously had enough. He launched into what I would characterize as a tirade, listing all of the things that would happen if people kept pushing for alternatives to new highways.

The tone of his response conveyed the message that it's all fine and good for citizens to say they don't want another highway, but people won't be willing to live with the alternatives either. His "be careful what you wish for" list included the appearance of intermodal facilities for getting trucks onto rails, the intensification of urban development to reduce sprawl, tolls on existing highways during peak hours and the list went on.

I don't envy Leech in his role as MTO spokesperson for this proposed roadway; it's a thankless job. But I was really taken aback by his outburst, which served to highlight the dysfunctional nature of the MTO consultation process. Only through a rant did he finally offer a glimpse of what many people in that room were craving -- a discussion of alternatives to more highways.

I talked about the MTO public process with David Eckersley, a dedicated board member of COPE (Citizens Opposed to Paving the Escarpment), an organization of 1,000-plus members which emerged in response to the mid-peninsula highway proposal. Eckersley explained that the root of the process problem is the fact that the MTO came to the community after a decision had already been made to build a mid-peninsula road of some sort.

The first step of the process was a transportation needs assessment study that led to a recommendation to initiate an assessment process for the proposed roadway corridor. But, as the project's own Web site confirms, this first step offered no opportunity for input from the general public. As Eckersley puts it, the MTO launched the consultation process by saying to the public, "There's going to be a road here. Any thoughts?"

Not even a week after the MTO meeting, the Federation of Ontario Naturalists (FON) came to Hamilton to introduce citizens to its new book, A Smart Future for Ontario: How to Protect Nature and Curb Urban Sprawl in Your Community.

This was at a workshop co sponsored by Friends of Red Hill Valley and the Hamilton Naturalists Club. Eckersley was at that workshop along with well over a hundred other citizens who were keen to learn about smart-growth options for southern Ontario.

You can access the full text of the Smart Future Book on the FON Web site (www.ontarionature.org). The book is a must-read for anyone worried about the future of southern Ontario and keen to learn about how to push for progressive alternatives.

The FON is promoting all that the MTO has failed to offer the public, and this is most obvious in the group's call for a moratorium on road building.

In the book, the federation states "(I)t is essential that if we are to fully integrate transportation planning with land-use planning, there be at the very least a temporary moratorium on planning and building of any new 400-series highways and widenings of and extensions to existing 400-series highways and municipal roadways of equivalent size. The moratorium must last until a comprehensive Ontario smart-growth strategy, including a smart transportation network, is completed."

Of particular interest to our area is the federation's specific mention of both the proposed mid-peninsula highway and the Red Hill Creek Expressway in its moratorium.

Careful consideration of smarter options is what the FON is calling for, in combination with a call to action for citizens who are tired of government's lack of progressive action on these alternatives. And it appears that a growing movement of citizens is ready and willing to hear this message.

Lynda Lukasik is an East Hamilton resident, an environmental activist, and founder of the Environment Hamilton citizens' organization. She has a doctoral degree in planning. She is a freelance writer, and her views are her own.

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The COPE website was updated October 30, 2012
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