Ontario Premier Doug Ford is standing in front of a collection of heavy machinery for the second time in a week, pledging to build two previously rejected Toronto-area highways and dismissing critics who raise concerns about climate change or suburban sprawl as “ideological” downtown activists.
Surrounded by the farms and quarries that make up this part of Caledon, Ont., northwest of Toronto, Mr. Ford touts the proposed Highway 413, a 52-kilometre arc around the western half of the city’s outer suburbs with an estimated cost of at least $6-billion, warning of traffic nightmares without it. Earlier in the week, he made a similar appearance to highlight the other project in his government’s new highway push: the 16.2-kilometre Bradford Bypass, last estimated to cost at least $800-million, which would connect busy Highways 400 and 404 about 50 kilometres north of Toronto.
But not everyone, even in Toronto’s car-dependent suburbs, is on board. Most municipal councils near the route of the 413 have voted against it. Asked how local politicians outside the city could be considered “downtown” ideologues, the Premier said most people in these communities want the road.
“Just sitting there and telling people, ‘Hop on your bicycle or get behind a horse and buggy and start driving,’ it doesn’t cut it,” he told reporters, with highway-supporting Caledon Mayor Allan Thompson by his side. “That’s the ideology of a lot of people that are from downtown Toronto making their comments about up here in Caledon.”
It may sound like the kind of thing Mr. Ford said on Toronto city council years ago, but it’s all in preparation for his Progressive Conservative Party’s bid for re-election next June. Two PC sources say the highways have broad support among the public, as people want a solution to gridlock. But the Premier’s pitch comes amid growing concern over climate change and calls this week at the COP26 conference to cut greenhouse gas emissions faster.
The two senior PC sources, whom The Globe and Mail is not naming because they are not authorized to speak publicly, said internal polls suggest a strong majority of suburban residents support the highways regardless of how their local councils have voted. While public transit is more popular in cities, highways still rule in rural or suburban areas, one source said, including the swing ridings around Toronto that are key to forming a government at Queen’s Park.
Opposing the highways could cost the Liberals their suburban moderate voters, the PC source said. The issue does not have the same polarizing effect on Conservative supporters.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, who shelved the project when he was transportation minister, said last week he opposes Highway 413, which he called “a mirage.” He said he still has “a lot of questions” about the Bradford Bypass, but noted it has more municipal support and he wants to see updated studies on its impact. Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath opposes both projects.
The government says the new roads are needed because another two million people are expected to move into the Greater Golden Horseshoe around Toronto in the next decade. The trucking industry says the 413 would help the logistics hubs in the city’s northwest and secure the province’s place in North America’s supply chain. Farmers in the fertile Holland Marsh say they need the Bradford Bypass to get their goods to market and reduce conflicts between cars and slowpoke tractors on local routes.
But Environmental Defence and other advocacy groups warn the real winners would be developers who own land near both routes that could be turned into low-density subdivisions. They point out the government has already watered down Ontario’s growth-plan rules, loosening population density requirements for new development while forcing suburban municipalities to give much of their remaining farmland outside the province’s protected Greenbelt to development. (Both routes run through portions of the Greenbelt.) Environmentalists say the result would be more new housing too spread out to serve with public transit, consigning commuters to their cars.
Victor Doyle, a retired senior provincial planner who was an architect of the Greenbelt and the Growth Plan, said the plan to build the highways and the other policy changes show the Ford government has given up on the province’s goal of providing the outer Greater Toronto Area with proper public transit.
“The 413 and Bradford Bypass are condemning all Ontarians and millions in the outer reaches of the GTA to a life sitting in traffic,” said Mr. Doyle, who publicly clashed with the previous Liberal government over the influence of developers on the planning process.
Other questions remain. Mr. Ford and Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney say the new highways would save commuters up to 30 minutes (for the 413) or 35 minutes (for the Bradford Bypass). But no studies are provided to back up these estimates. One report that is public says the 413 would save drivers across the road network just 30 seconds.
Jordanna Colwill, a spokesperson for Ms. Mulroney, said the government’s time savings estimate for Highway 413 is based on a trip along the entire new highway, with a few kilometres tacked on each end. In the projected traffic of 2041, she wrote in an e-mail, this trip on existing highways would take 89 minutes at an average speed of 36 kilometres an hour. The model suggests the 413 would reduce the trip to 59 minutes at an average of 57 kilometres an hour. But only a third of the 22,400 drivers expected to use the highway in the morning rush would start at either end of the highway – with an unknown smaller number travelling the entire length.
For the Bradford Bypass, project officials say the 35-minute time savings estimate is the top end of a range. In an e-mailed response to a lawyer for Ecojustice fighting the project, the design team said time savings would vary from 10 to 35 minutes, with an average of 14 minutes.
How long any time savings would last is another matter. Critics say these new highways would not likely be congestion-free for long. Studies show that new roads attract more cars, creating more traffic jams.
“Generally, the backfill time in the research is within five years,” said Shoshanna Saxe, an assistant professor in the department of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto. “For a very short period of time, it does work. Just it’s very, very short.”
Mr. Ford cannot now unilaterally commit to building the 413. In May, the federal government said it may do its own impact assessment, which could take years and leave final approval in the hands of the federal Environment Minister. But federal officials could decide not to do a full review. A provincial environmental assessment will not finish until late 2023.
The previous provincial Liberal government rejected the Highway 413 proposal after an expert panel concluded traffic could be improved in other ways, including by diverting more trucks onto the privately operated Highway 407 toll road – alternatives the PCs rejected.
For the Bradford Bypass, the province has used new powers to exempt itself from completing a new environmental assessment before going ahead with preliminary work. It says it is updating environmental studies from an assessment done in 2002. Local environmental groups this week asked Ottawa, which rejected doing its own assessment of the bypass earlier this year, to take another look.
Councils of the two municipalities along the Bradford Bypass route, Bradford West Gwillimbury and East Gwillimbury, support the highway. But Barrie council to the north has asked the province to study its impact on Lake Simcoe. The 413 is also not without local political support outside Caledon. While Vaughan city council narrowly voted to oppose it, Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua supports the plan, as long as a federal environmental assessment is carried out. York Region council is also in favour.
To the west, Mississauga council voted no, including Mayor Bonnie Crombie. And Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown – the deposed PC leader replaced by Mr. Ford – has floated an alternative proposal in his municipality for an “urban boulevard.” He said in an interview that he had not heard back from the province. A spokeswoman for Ms. Mulroney told The Globe in an e-mail on Friday that the concept was “not compatible” with the province’s plans.
“We get that you need to move goods and people,” Mr. Brown said. “At the same time, we don’t want a traditional highway through a densely populated urban area.”
For Mr. Ford, the issue is not only an appeal to suburban voters. It fits perfectly into a pre-election portrayal of himself as a man of action and his opponents as naysayers.
“It’s very simple,” he said this week. “We’re going to build this highway.”
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