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Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Nov. 19, 2020 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Ottawa is stepping into the approval process of a proposed Ontario highway that would link four Toronto-area municipalities, saying environmental concerns require a closer look.

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson says “clear areas of federal concern” about species at risk – notably the Western chorus frog, the red-headed woodpecker and the rapids clubtail, a species of dragonfly – have helped convince him to examine whether a full federal impact assessment of the $6-billion Highway 413 project is required.

The federal move comes in the wake of rising local opposition to the highway project, which was defended in the Ontario Legislature by Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney as recently as last week.

Responding to Mr. Wilkinson on Monday, Ms. Mulroney said in a statement that she will work with the federal government to address their “newly found concerns” around the potential adverse effects on varied species.

She said it’s unclear what the scope of a federal assessment would be, or whether a full federal impact assessment would be warranted, especially considering that environmental effects “are expected to be addressed through federal and provincial regulatory processes” that already exist.

“The GTA West project is already subject to a robust provincial individual environmental assessment, which is among the most stringent assessment processes on record,“ Ms. Mulroney said.

The Highway 413 project, also known as the GTA West Corridor, would stretch 59 kilometres to the west of Toronto, linking Highway 401 with the 410 and 400. It was scrapped by Ontario’s former Liberal government in 2018, but revived under the current Progressive Conservative government, “to address congestion and forecasted population growth,” she said.

Environmentalists and opposition politicians have said the project would pave over environmentally sensitive areas and farmland as it runs through the communities of Vaughan, Caledon, Brampton and Halton Hills.

All three opposition parties have promised to scrap the project, with the Ontario Liberals saying they would use the money for the highway to build schools and new child-care spaces.

Critics argue that the planning for the highway ignored decades of science by failing to account for induced demand – the well-established principle that new or widened roads generate additional traffic – and that paving through farmland and protected green space was shortsightedly destructive.

In a recent open letter, dozens of scientists urged the federal government to conduct its own assessment of the project, noting “significant concerns about the highway’s impact on biodiversity and the increased greenhouse gas emissions it will foster.”

On Monday, environmental groups were heartened by news the federal government would take its own look at the project. Representatives for both the David Suzuki Foundation and Environmental Defence argued that Ontario’s environmental assessment, or EA, process was too lenient and would have allowed the province to start the project before the assessment was complete.

Ottawa’s move to intervene, which the green campaigners characterized as uncommon, came after a number of Southern Ontario municipalities spoke out against the project. Councils in Mississauga, Brampton, Vaughan and Toronto all voted against the proposed highway. These votes, while not binding on the province, suggested a growing political headache for the provincial government.

“They didn’t want this highway in their community and they wanted the federal government to step in to do a better job of assessing what the impacts would be to their local environment,” said Sarah Buchanan, Ontario climate program manager for Environmental Defence.

She said the federal decision to bring closer scrutiny was another strike against the project, citing also the cost, the climate impact and the other options for moving people. But she wasn’t optimistic any of this would be enough to convince Queen’s Park to kill the project.

At the Suzuki Foundation, though, climate change and transportation policy analyst Gideon Forman was more optimistic that this could be a death blow to the highway. “With the federal EA [being considered] now, and with all these local governments coming out against the highway, there’s going to be a lot of pressure on the province to cancel the project,” he said. “And that’s what we hope they will do.”

Mr. Wilkinson said the project proponent, namely the Ontario Transportation Ministry, is now required to submit a project description that will help the agency decide whether a full federal impact assessment is required.

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