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Life is a Highway

The Niagara-GTA Corridor is fast becoming an endless road of controversy
By Wendy Peters

Proposed 11 years ago, the ambitious Mid- Peninsula route through Southern Ontario is still tied up in red tape and debate, with no clear resolution in sight. The initial plan for the 130-kilometre Niagara-GTA corridor (NGTA), as it is now called, connected Fort Erie with the Greater Toronto Area, including a 33-kilometre swath from Ancaster, through rural Flamborough to north Burlington. Its primary objective was to alleviate traffic congestion and create a transportation corridor throughout Southern Ontario. However, since part of the highway would cut through the Greenbelt, the Niagara Escarpment and agricultural lands, several environmental groups challenged both the need and placement of the road. Recently, seven activist groups joined forces to form the Stop Escarpment Highways Coalition (SEHC), which now boasts more than 5,000 members. The group’s ultimate goal is to find alternatives to building more highways.

Known formerly as the Mid-Peninsula Highway, the controversial NGTA—conceived with several optional arteries—was first proposed by the Mike Harris Conservative government in 2001, but then fell off the radar for a time. It reappeared on the agenda in 2003, and after much pushback from local government and community groups, as well as a request for a judicial review, the province agreed later that year to undertake a full Environmental Assessment (EA) of the project before proceeding further. The results of the EA are finally expected later this year.

In June 2006, the Liberal government commenced a “study to address existing and future transportation capacity deficiencies in the corridor.” Considerations include optimizing the existing network; adding/expanding non-road infrastructure; widening existing roads and planning for new transportation corridors.

The Ministry of Transportation (MTO) recently released its Draft Report and stakeholders of the NGTA, both for and against, are currently reviewing the document. Halton Region and the City of Burlington declared one minor victory in early February when they announced that the province had decided “to remove a controversial proposed transportation corridor slated to travel across a rural stretch of the Niagara Escarpment.” However, with the EA still incomplete, this may be only a temporary reprieve.

“I am pleased that they took it out of our plan,” said Halton Region Chair Gary Carr, after the province announced its decision. “We got unanimous approval of our Official Plan and I want the region, not the Province, to decide on our plan.”

Ted McMeekin, Liberal MPP for Ancaster- Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale, worked alongside Carr and the City of Burlington. He said his government realized the need for a full EA, and also concluded that the transportation needs of this corridor could be met through “enhancement of existing assets.” Any major new highway, he said, “would only be considered 25-30 years from now.”

Starting his 11th year on this file, Burlington Ward 3 Councillor John Taylor does not believe the Burlington portion of the NGTA will be built in his lifetime. “It’s too environmentally suspicious,” he warns. “If the highway is built through the escarpment, in time it would become a new urban boundary; that’s my fear. Burlington is known for two unique natural features we have to protect: access to the waterfront and Lake Ontario, and the Niagara Escarpment.”

Predictably, there are major proponents of the NGTA as well, including Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak, who has stated outright that he will proceed with building the highway, should he be elected Premier this October.

“Suspending the process on the Mid- Peninsula Highway is clearly giving false hope and taking the path of avoidance,” adds Joyce Savoline, PC MPP, Burlington. “It’s regrettable that they have decided to suspend the discussion and the planning of whatever options will be necessary to continue trade, tourist movement and employment in the area.”

The affected Chambers of Commerce also support the project. The Burlington Chamber has approved a policy resolution for submission to the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC), urging the government, in part, to “engage business leaders to ensure the broader community supports the regional transportation strategy.”

For its part, the OCC states clearly, “We suggest continuation of the planning process surrounding the development of a Niagara-GTA Corridor so that this vital trade corridor is planned and built in a timely manner.”

Another Mid-Pen advocate is Richard Koroscil, Past Chair of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce and President of Hamilton International Airport.

“We see it as an important element for the future growth of the Hamilton region with its connections to the border at Fort Erie and then connecting with the whole region,” explains Koroscil, who is disappointed that the government is not proceeding with the section of the corridor between Niagara and Hamilton, other than to widen the QEW. Koroscil believes the government’s suggested 20-year time frame is impractical, “as highways are long-term investments.” He also notes that transportation corridors such as this “are really not just about moving goods and people from A to B, but are also economic enablers.

“It’s the tender fruit lands...that we should be protecting,” he says—not the poor agricultural land covering much of the escarpment that environmental groups are presently trying to protect.

Koroscil argues that while rail opportunities might also be an option, rail serves a different market and does not fi t on-time delivery as highways do. But, it’s precisely alternatives such as rail that SEHC coalition member Oakvillegreen Conservation Association promote. “Oakvillegreen will continue to oppose any new highways,” says its president, Liz Benneian. “Until the province focuses on a sustainable transportation plan and not new highways, we will not be satisfied.” Benneian said there should be multiple options, including better public transportation, rail for the movement of goods and a lifestyle adjustment to adapt to the changing environment, since oil is not a finite resource. “The government needs to lead and drive that change.”

Benneian also doubts that there’s a true appreciation of the actual price of such extensive road construction. “It’s not just the initial cost, which is unbelievably high, but also the cost of maintaining the asphalt. “It is not a matter of planning routes; we don’t want any more highways,” Benneian explains. “There are alternatives and we must prepare for the future.” Another major player in the SEHC coalition contesting construction of the NGTA is Citizens Opposed to Paving the Escarpment (COPE).

“The government’s response to suspend the NGTA from (Halton’s) official plan was the only acceptable option given that it should never have been included in the plan before finalization of the EA in the first place,” says COPE Co-Chair Sue McMaster. “Our great concern with the MTO’s report is what they haven’t done.” She says the MTO has failed to project the impact of the NGTA on agricultural land and its ongoing ability to feed people. “If we continue to take agricultural land out of production at our current rate, we will have depleted the ability to feed ourselves within 50 years.”

On claims from the advocates that the highway would create jobs, McMaster argues that building rail corridors to move goods, plus repairing and maintaining existing infrastructure would also create jobs. “We need a better plan that seriously considers energy use, air quality and global warming, to name a few concerns. Highways do not address those issues and they do not solve transportation problems.”

And so the debate continues. The province’s recommendations will be dissected and responses from stakeholders provided. Meanwhile, the different routes are still undefined and time frames undecided. And rush hour is getting thicker by the minute.

Editor’s note: Burlington Mayor Rick Goldring and members of Burlington Council went to Queen’s Park on May 9 to support a petition by Lowville resident Janie Moorse, who collected more than 3,000 signatures from Burlington homes and businesses opposed to the NGTA transportation corridor.