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Signs against the proposed Highway 413, placed on a property in Bolton, Ont., on May 18, 2022.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

The federal government has signed a deal to work with Ontario to find ways to mitigate the effects of the province’s planned Highway 413 on endangered species, a move that will help clear the way for the province’s controversial megaproject.

The two governments announced on Monday that they had signed a memorandum of understanding on the planned highway, which is to arc through protected Greenbelt lands northwest of Toronto and cost billions of dollars.

The Progressive Conservative government of Premier Doug Ford says the 52-kilometre corridor is needed as the province’s population grows, but critics say it will prompt more suburban sprawl onto valuable farmland and encourage more dependence on cars.

Under the deal, the two governments have set up a working group to “recommend appropriate measures to minimize environmental impacts in areas of federal environmental jurisdiction,” Ottawa and Ontario said in a statement.

Last month, the two governments said they were settling a court fight, launched by Ontario, over whether Ottawa had overstepped when it designated Highway 413 for a federal review under its Impact Assessment Act – legislation the Supreme Court of Canada found had strayed too far into provincial jurisdiction in a ruling last October.

In their joint statement on Monday, the two governments said the working group would “ensure impacts to species at risk, like the Western chorus frog and the red-headed woodpecker, and their critical habitats are considered before the project moves into the detailed design stage.”

Steven Guilbeault, the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, said in the statement that the deal shows the two governments can work together. He said it would ensure “federal interests will be maintained on the protection of species” while giving Ontario “a greater level of clarity around the review process for the Highway 413.”

Prabmeet Sarkaria, Ontario’s Minister of Transportation, said the province would move ahead in the coming months on hiring private contractors for the highway’s “key interchanges,” and thanked Ottawa for “collaborating on the environmental protections needed to get the project started.”

When the deal to end the litigation was announced last month, advocacy group Environmental Defence, an intervenor in the court case, called the end of the battle a “betrayal” by Ottawa on climate change and the environment.

In an interview on Monday, Environmental Defence’s executive director, Tim Gray, said he hoped the federal government would still relaunch a review of the highway under a future, rewritten version of their impact-assessment legislation – and commit to enforcing its endangered species laws along the route. He said Ottawa giving the 413 a green light would be “a complete abdication of responsibility.”

Ontario’s Liberal Party declined to comment on Monday. The province’s Official Opposition NDP Leader Marit Stiles called the federal government’s move “shameful” in an e-mailed statement.

“Ford’s Conservatives cannot be trusted to protect the environment and the federal Liberals are simply rolling over,” Ms. Stiles said.

The planned highway, rejected by the previous provincial Liberal government, was a key plank in the Ford government’s 2022 election campaign, and was opposed by the both the NDP and the Liberals. Progress had slowed after the federal government earmarked the project for a potentially lengthy environmental review.

The NDP last month called on the government to abandon the costly highway and instead subsidize tolls for trucks to divert more freight traffic onto the relatively empty Highway 407, a privately controlled tolled highway, and away from the congested Highway 401.

The Ontario government has not released a firm price tag for Highway 413. An Auditor-General’s report pegged the likely cost at $4-billion in 2022. But critics have suggested it could run as high as $6-billion or $8-billion.

Mr. Ford has previously clashed with Mr. Guilbeault, who said earlier this year that Ottawa would no longer fund major road projects, calling him an “extremist.” The federal minister had also threatened last year to block housing development on the province’s Greenbelt if it harmed endangered species. The Premier has since rescinded those plans, which are still subject to a criminal investigation by the RCMP.

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