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The proposed highway would be built beyond the farthest reaches of Toronto’s sprawl.

On the northwestern edge of Mississauga, where the 401 and 407 meet, the new highway would head north before arcing eastward, cutting across rural areas of Caledon and then plowing through farmers’ fields on the northern fringes of Vaughan to connect with Highway 400.

The plan, covering some 50 kilometres at a minimum cost of $6-billion, is officially dubbed the GTA West Corridor and more often labelled Highway 413. A better name would be The Sprawl Accelerator. It’s a plan to use taxpayer dollars to encourage real estate developers on the currently rural fringes of the Greater Toronto Area.

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The province’s former Liberal government studied the idea but shelved it 2018. Since his election, Premier Doug Ford has revived the superhighway. The route, after cursory consultations, was announced last summer, with a prediction of more than 300,000 daily trips made by 2031.

For drivers stuck in GTA highway traffic, promises of fresh blacktop are always alluring. And given the region’s population is expected to surge to 9.5-million over the next quarter century from seven million now, a major new highway may sound like prudent planning. But that rationale wilts under inspection. The reasons it was rejected in 2018 hold true today.

The story of Highway 413 stretches back more than a decade. In 2008, the Ontario Liberals launched an environmental assessment on a broad corridor of land where the Ford government has now drawn its proposed highway. The first phase of review was completed in 2012. Three years later, the Liberals halted the process and convened an expert panel to assess the situation.

The panel was not impressed. It recommended the project be scrapped. Instead, it told the government to widen its view from reflexively adding new highways to considering the future of transportation throughout the Golden Horseshoe.

The panel’s wariness can be distilled into a single figure: 30. That was the estimated time savings – in seconds – that Highway 413 would offer drivers. A new 50-kilometre highway – and half a minute shaved off a driver’s time behind the wheel.

That report has been scrubbed from the province’s website but is available for reading on a web archive. The panel argued the evidence failed to show a new highway was the best or only option. The bar to justify the plan was high, given climate change and the high value of what the 413 would pave over, including part of the Greenbelt – “prime agriculture lands and key natural heritage and hydrologic features.”

The panel saw other options. One was congestion pricing on existing highways that would help traffic flow better than a new highway. The panel also proposed, as have others, that the province shift more trucks onto the tolled Highway 407. Third, there was, and remains, the question of sprawl. Does the GTA really need to expand ever outward? Will a highway beyond the fringe of suburbia make travel around the region easier? Or will it just subsidize more distant and more car-dependent housing? The panel suggested a smarter use of land – “more compact” – would do more to reduce travel times.

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In early 2018, the provincial government took the panel’s advice and concluded a highway wasn’t the best answer.

When big problems need solving, too often the answer is set in stone before questions are even asked. That’s where Highway 413 started, until the former Liberal government asked some questions, got some real answers, and reversed course. Now, the Ford government wants to ignore all that.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In 2013, when the Toronto Region Board of Trade looked to break the gridlock on the roads, it blamed decades of underinvestment in commuter rail and called for new taxes to fund regional transit.

Instead, Mr. Ford wants to get building a new highway, as soon as possible. The current environmental assessment work will take almost two years, but his government proposed a regulation so it can start construction – including new bridges – before the review is finished.

The point is not that no new road can ever be built. Ontario has poured money into major highways in recent years; the last provincial budget listed 13 projects on the go. But Highway 413 won’t accomplish what it’s billed to do: make cars move faster. It will only encourage the GTA’s swollen sprawl.

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