Politics, not logic, is behind Doug Ford’s new drive to build Highway 413

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To hear Premier Doug Ford tell it, anyone who isn’t on board with his plan to spend billions on a new highway across the top of the Greater Toronto Area must be a “downtown activist” who thinks you can just “hop on your bicycle or get behind a horse and buggy.”

Well, no.

It’s true the kind of people Ford thinks of as downtown activists aren’t wild about his plan to revive the controversial GTA West highway, also known as Highway 413, just in time for next June’s provincial election. But boy, do they ever have a lot of allies in the very areas the premier says will benefit most from his big build.

Like municipal councils in Mississauga, Vaughan, Halton Hills and Halton Region, which are on record as opposing Highway 413. And councils in Brampton, Caledon and Peel, which have called for a federal environmental assessments of the project before it gets the green light.

Listen, for example, to that noted “downtown activist” Bonnie Crombie, the mayor of Mississauga.

“The proposed GTA West Highway will have a disastrous impact on the environment, encourage residential sprawl and increase our dependence on cars,” she said back in February. Or Rick Bonnette, mayor of Halton Hills: “This will lead to more urban sprawl, as developers will be building houses along the new route. Adding a highway is like Homer Simpson loosening his belt buckle at a buffet, thinking he is not gaining weight.”

They and others spoke out early this year, at a time when the Ford government sounded decidedly iffy about going ahead with Highway 413, which would involve building 59 kilometres of 400-series road across York, Peel, and Halton Regions, paving over a couple of thousand acres of farmland and hundreds more acres of Greenbelt along the way. It would cost at least $6 billion, maybe as much as $10 billion (no one really knows).

Then, the government said any decision about going ahead with this massive project, which was shelved by the previous Liberal administration in 2018, would depend on more consultation and study.

Now, just a few months later, and without the benefit of any new consultations or studies, Ford is hitting the accelerator on Highway 413 and another freeway project, the proposed 16-kilometre Bradford Bypass linking routes 400 and 404 in Simcoe County and York Region.

What’s changed? On the ground, nothing. But on the political calendar, a lot. The Ford government is already in pre-election mode and the premier senses a clear win in pushing new highways with the promise of shorter commute times in fast-growing parts of the GTA.

He claims building Highway 413 would address gridlock on other routes in the region, and save commuters 30 minutes each way. That sounds great, but it’s highly questionable, to say the least; an expert panel that reviewed the project three years ago concluded the time savings would actually be just 30 seconds each way.

That was one of the key reasons the Liberal government cancelled Highway 413, concluding it would be too expensive, too environmentally destructive, and wouldn’t actually solve congestion problems. Instead, as all those suburban municipalities fear, it would just add to the problem, luring more people into car-dependent developments. More old-fashioned sprawl, in other words, locking in the problem for decades to come.

This is shaping up as a key wedge issue in next year’s provincial election. All the opposition parties promise to stop Highway 413 if they win, while Ford clearly sees highway-building as a winner among suburban voters. That’s why he was out twice this past week, touting the benefits of the GTA West project and the Bradford Bypass.

There’s no question the GTA, and the entire Golden Horseshoe region, is growing fast. But there are smarter ways of addressing that growth than building another 400-series route.

They include congestion pricing to encourage more efficient use of existing roads. And they include taking a hard look at Highway 407, the privately owned and underused toll road that pretty much parallels the proposed route of Highway 413.

Why not strike a deal, as many have suggested, to cut tolls for trucks and divert thousands of them from jammed roads onto the often-empty lanes of Highway 407? Surely that could be done faster and cheaper than spending many billions of tax dollars on an entirely new superhighway.

There are also suspicions that the Ford government is pushing the 413 project to benefit big developers who own thousands of acres along the proposed route. A Torstar-National Observer investigation last April laid out an extensive map of ties between the government and some of those developers. More recently, questions have been raised about the fast-tracking of the Bradford Bypass.

But Highway 413 didn’t make sense before any of that was known. It still doesn’t make sense now.

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