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Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath waves to the media before visiting communities across the GTA, as part of the 2022 Ontario election campaign trail, at Queen's Park in Toronto on May 4.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

A controversial GTA highway project was at the centre of the Ontario election campaign Wednesday as leaders hit the road on the first day.

The campaign officially kicked off after Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell dissolved the legislature and issued the writs to formally begin the race to form Ontario’s next government. Election day is June 2, with 10 days of advance voting opportunities from May 19 to May 28.

The Ontario Progressive Conservative Party is hoping to win a second majority government mandate under Leader Doug Ford, using the first day of the campaign to double down on its plan to build the 59-kilometre Highway 413 across the northwest portion of the Greater Toronto Area. The proposed highway would extend from the Highway 401/407 interchange in the west to Highway 400 in Vaughan.

At his first official campaign stop in Brampton Wednesday morning, Mr. Ford championed the proposed highway as a way to reduce traffic congestion in the GTA as well as to create 8,000 construction jobs. Opposition parties have said they would scrap the proposed highway if elected, making the project a wedge issue out of the gate.

“People are tired of the gridlock traffic that they see every single day sitting there,” Mr. Ford said. “It’s absolutely critical that we get this province moving.”

When asked about the estimated cost of the project Wednesday, Mr. Ford said a price tag wouldn’t be known until the bid process to find a developer is complete. The PC’s budget released last week pledged $25.1-billion for highway construction over the next 10 years, but didn’t provide a breakdown by project.

Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford attends a photo opportunity at a construction site in Brampton on May 4.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

An independent estimate has projected the cost of the highway to be around $10-billion, which Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said Wednesday his party would instead invest in the education system to build 200 new schools and reduce the repair backlog.

Speaking outside of an Etobicoke elementary school, Mr. Del Duca said a Liberal government would cancel the “wasteful and damaging” Highway 413 project and use the projected $10-billion cost for education spending.

Under the Liberals’ plans, that funding – in addition to $14-billion currently allocated in the province’s capital plan for schools – would go toward repairs of more than 4,500 schools, including new ventilation systems. This would address the estimated $16.8-billion repair backlog that grew under the PCs and the previous Liberal government.

The recent PC budget pledged $1.4-billion for repairs in the 2022-2023 school year as well as a pilot project to expedite construction of new schools.

In his opposition to Highway 413, Mr. Del Duca (a former transportation minister under the previous Liberal government) argued the project will have little value for the majority of Ontarians and only provide minimal time savings for those who use the highway. He also pointed to the environmental concerns associated with the highway as it is slated to reduce farmland and run through the province’s protected Greenbelt.

“The Ontario Liberals, if elected June 2, will once and for all kill Highway 413. It will be gone,” Mr. Del Duca said.

With the highway still in its early stages, there is significant debate about how much time it will save commuters once complete. Mr. Ford and the PCs say their studies show those travelling the full length of the highway would save 30 minutes each way. But another study from 2017 projected commuters would only save between 30 and 60 seconds per trip and the highway would become congested like other highways as more people start to use it and the GTA population grows.

Ontario Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca speaks during a campaign stop in Toronto on May 4.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

On the first day of her fourth election campaign, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath met with campaign volunteers across the GTA and urged voters seeking change that her party is in the best position to form a new government. Coming out of a term as the Official Opposition with 40 seats, Ms. Horwath said the NDP has the best shot to defeat the PCs and is asking voters to “come together.” The Liberals were reduced to only seven seats in the last election but recent polls show them in second place, pulling slightly ahead of the NDP.

“The NDP is your best shot this time,” Ms. Horwath said, noting the NDP came first or second in 100 of the 124 ridings in the 2018 election.

In its platform, the NDP also pledged to cancel Highway 413 and clear the school repair backlog within 10 years, but a funding amount has yet to be provided.

Ms. Horwath is scheduled to announce a new plan to expand health care coverage on Thursday. The NDP platform includes free mental health care coverage through OHIP and accelerated universal dental and pharmacare programs.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, also the party’s only sitting MPP last term, kicked off the campaign with a rally in Toronto alongside green electric cars that he will be using to travel across the province. Mr. Schreiner vows to double the size of the Greenbelt to include a Bluebelt of protected waterways as well as making electric vehicles more affordable by offering a $10,000 rebate for a new electric car.

On Wednesday evening, about 1,000 PC supporters poured into the Toronto Congress Centre in Mr. Ford’s riding of Etobicoke North for his campaign kick-off rally.

The Ontario PC Leader rode into the building on his “Yes Express” campaign bus to the applause of supporters who were waving signs of several PC candidates from the audience.

Mr. Ford addressed the crowd for about 10 minutes, touting his plan to “get it done” by investing in infrastructure projects, including building new highways and hospitals.

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