Distrust dominates highway session

Jul. 29, 03:32 EDT

Joan Little
The Hamilton Spectator
Ontario's abysmal environmental record came back to haunt it at the Mid-Peninsula Transportation Corridor public presentation in Burlington 10 days ago.

The all-day session to collect public feedback for the environmental assessment terms of reference attracted a record-breaking crowd. The evening presentation alone drew 400 to Burlington's Holiday Inn, seated, standing against the walls, sitting on the floor and overflowing into the corridor.

Questions were asked about the Burlington impacts of a mid-peninsula highway -- noise, effects on property values, escarpment crossing. But the surprise was the concern from people not directly affected by the highway. Residents of Hamilton, Ancaster, Dundas, Freelton, Waterdown, Carlisle, Milton, Oakville and Toronto probed the environmental effect of yet another highway in the GTA.

The theme was constant: "Why should we trust you to address our concerns when this government has degraded our environment?" A questioner reminded everyone that NAFTA's 2001 report on environmental co-operation ranked Ontario the second-worst jurisdiction for air pollution in Canada or the United States.

Air quality topped the issues. Someone asked: "Doesn't the Ministry of Transportation talk to the Ministry of Health? Smog causes 2,000 deaths annually."

Solutions proposed for transportation gridlock to 2031 were criticized as yesterday's answers -- more highways, more lanes, more emissions. One person noted, "Adding lanes and expanding roads to cure highway congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity."

Critics pleaded for the ministry to take a leadership role. Making transit and rail shipping more enticing would provide environmental benefits, consume less nonrenewable fuel, and support the Kyoto protocol. One asked: "If the MTO won't influence travel and transportation patterns, who will?" He asked for a concerted government focus on directing growth away from the GTA.

Speakers wanted GO Transit made more accessible, convenient and affordable and were assured transit options are under review. But most suggestions were answered with reasons they would not work. Public reaction was cynical about the lack of neutrality among ministry staff and consultants at this early stage. Such a highway would be a magnet for development, adding even more congestion to the 403 and QEW corridors, some noted. Burlington's Mayor Rob MacIsaac, a recognized advocate of smart growth, has emphasized it requires strong planning policies.

Assumptions used in projecting traffic, trade, tourism and modes of transport to 2031 were challenged. How will increased fuel costs and a thinning ozone layer affect future transportation? Assumptions used to promote Townsend and Pickering were wrong, it was pointed out, and disrupted many lives.

Skepticism was rampant. Many jeered when told the highway concept was not driven by the province's desire for a public-private partnership (the buzz term for a toll route). The "407 boondoggle" was cited. "We pay taxes, paid for a highway, then it was sold for a ridiculous price and high tolls make it unpopular with truckers and affordable only for the wealthy." The mid-peninsula highway is the first major initiative since 407 privatization and people used the opportunity to vent anger about 407.

Any new highway proposal evokes anger, but mistrust pervaded this meeting. Many saw it as window-dressing for a done deal. Typical comments: "Your credibility factor is not high" and "I don't trust the process."

The meeting was planned originally to include maps and with ministry staff and consultants available to answer questions. Thanks to Halton regional council (Burlington Councillor John Taylor in particular) the ministry reluctantly agreed to a dialogue. A project as pivotal as this demands no less. Listening to a formal presentation, then hearing perceptive questions (and the answers) is invaluable.

Hamilton and Niagara were consulted months ago, yet Burlington, which stands to be fragmented, was not. Nor was the Niagara Escarpment Commission. Nor Conservation Halton. Incredulity greeted the explanation by Fred Leech, MTO's manager of planning and environment, that the effects on Burlington and the escarpment had not been foreseen initially.

Burlington is a difficult city to service by local public transit because it is already carved up by highways. And another highway is in the offing?

Many citizens plan multiple-errand trips and avoid driving if possible on the ever-increasing number of smog-alert days. But how many are willing to give up their cars?

The ministry has a difficult selling job ahead. Cynicism and mistrust were palpable and the process is just beginning. The mid-peninsula highway promises to be a political flashpoint in Burlington and Halton.

Former Burlington alderman and Halton councillor Joan Little is former chair of the Niagara Escarpment Commission. She does not identify with any political party. She is a freelance columnist and her views are her own.

Contact COPE:

©copyright 2002 - 2012 COPE

The COPE website was updated October 30, 2012
Website design and hosting by Virtual Image Hamilton: