Midpen heads to court

May. 29, 2003 - Carmela Fragomeni - The Hamilton Spectator

Burlington and Halton have had enough - they are taking the province to court over its proposed mid-peninsula highway.

"The way it is being pushed through by the province is highly disrespectful to the people of Halton," said Burlington Mayor Rob MacIsaac.

Residents and the city say that, despite the Ministry of Transportation's (MTO) public meetings, their calls for more in-depth study have been virtually ignored. The research they want includes examining other methods of reducing traffic congestion - such as giving Hamilton full-day GO service into Toronto - and the full environmental impact of the highway.

Yesterday, Halton council joined forces with Burlington to take legal actiont o stop the highway. Councillors are especially concerned because Premier Ernie Eves is promising in his party's election platform to build the highway.

They are also concerned his government has recently introduced a bill, Bill 25, which will exclude new highway planning from having to undergo an environmental assessment.

In effect, the municipalities are asking the MTO to go back to the beginning and start the process over "in a way that is fair to Burlington," MacIsaac said.

He said there are other palatable solutions for the province, such as splitting the environmental assessment in two -- one for Burlington, and one for Hamilton and Niagara, where the politicians favour the highway.

MacIsaac said Halton's move adds a great deal of strength to Burlington's case.

"I'm very pleased we're not standing alone.

Regional chairman Joyce Savoline said, "We've had opportunity to make comment, but it's already after the fact (after the ministry has decided)."

Residents were incensed the ministry first proposed that the highway route through Halton would cut across the Niagara Escarpment down through environmental and rural lands in north Burlington to join the toll Highway 407 at Walker's Line.

The ministry eventually relented and added alternative routes to study.

Hamilton council, meanwhile, has already told the province it strongly supports the proposed midpeninsula highway. The road is predicted to spur economic development and reduce traffic congestion, a plus for attracting new industries.

Burlington's court action is disappointing for Neil Everson, executive director of Hamilton's economic development department.

"This will delay it," he said. "From an economic development perspective, we think the highway is very important ... we'd like to see it built sooner rather than later."

Stoney Creek councillor Larry Di Ianni understands the concerns in Burlington and Halton, but says: "I just hope we don't end up in an expensive legal wrangle over process ... We all know from bitter experience (with the Red Hill Creek Expressway) that if you don't get the process right from the start, it will really draw out."

Burlington and Halton say their portion of the highway was an afterthought and they weren't consulted when the MTO was studying whether the highway is needed.

Di Ianni said the process for getting the Red Hill approved was a long and exasperating 50 years. He hopes legal action prompts the province to take real action on route concerns.

Councillor Bill Kelly sympathizes.

"They have some serious questions about process and their input being ignored."

He said Hamilton, despite endorsing the highway, has concerns similar to Flamborough's and Waterdown's.

However, he said the midpeninsula highway "is something we desperately need ... It's one of the key components to our economic development strategy."

Burlington's and Halton's legal action requests a court order prohibiting the Ministry of the Environment from approving the MTO's terms of reference for an environmental assessment.

The assessment now concentrates studies on the best routes for the proposed $1.5-billion highway between Fort Erie and Burlington.

The MTO is seeking a "scoped" environmental assessment in its next step toward getting the highway approved.

A scoped assessment would look for the best routes that least harm the environment.

A full assessment, which is what Burlington and Halton want, takes much longer and is more involved, but would examine all options, including improved transit and rail travel.

MacIsaac said the two councils are most concerned that the ministry is leaving out key elements in evaluating the need for the highway and its route.

"They are not looking at enhanced public transit as part of the solution (to gridlock) here. It could negate the need for the highway.

"Our concern is about the process MTO followed. It is flawed and has been completely unfair, particularly in Burlington."

The ministers' offices of the MTO and MOE would not comment.

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