The escarpment is not for scarring

August 8, 2003 , Guelph Mercury, Byline: WAYNE THOMSON

The controversy over the proposed mid peninsula highway and the terms of
reference for its environmental assessment is growing.

We have experienced scientists and legal experts, active stakeholders and
reasonable community groups with environmental protection as their mission,
who advise caution and call for a complete examination of impacts and

To me, an environmental assessment of any transportation project, let alone
one as important at the proposed $1.2 billion, 130-kilometre route from
either Niagara Falls or Fort Erie to Burlington, serves as an all-important
table of contents of the business plan for transportation choice, environmental

protection and economic development of Niagara region for the next 30 years.

Like any good businessperson, I think the Ministry of Transport's plan needs to address the competition, i.e. the 'alternatives' to the 'only a highway works' solution.

If you were starting a new tourist attraction in Niagara Falls, for example, you would have to demonstrate that you had a superior understanding of your competitors, the trend in the tourism market, and the unique service you offered, before you would even try to make an appointment to see your banker.

The mid peninsula highway case is no different. Using this standard -- a thorough examination of the transportation alternatives the business case for the highway is incomplete.

For example, I have these four key questions:

Will the proposed highway routes draw visitors away from Ontario's key tourist attraction, Niagara Falls, or route them directly here from our identified key markets such as Toronto and Hamilton?

Will the financial commitment dedicated to the mid pen project defer the Queen Elizabeth Way expansion to eight lanes, which it was designed to carry?

Will that financial commitment defer critical investment in other transportation options, such as regional public transit improvement?

Will a 'scoped' assessment answer all of our longer-term environmental protection goals? Or will it, as critics say, permanently scar environmental treasures and important tourist attractions like the Niagara Escarpment?

Niagara Falls residents care about the protection of our escarpment. A recent poll conducted by Oracle Poll Research for Citizens Opposed to Paving the Escarpment (COPE) shows that over 86 per cent agree with me in calling for a full and comprehensive environmental assessment of the highway's impact on the natural environment.

An overwhelming 91 per cent of us think the Niagara Escarpment should be protected in its entirety. Many of our residents are also concerned about the proposed highway's impact on local air quality and urban sprawl.

I am absolutely sympathetic with any concerns about time delays brought about by unnecessarily complicated 'process.' But unlike some, I see good environmental and economic impact studies as neither frivolous nor time consuming.

They are prudent business investments. Interestingly enough, when the Federal Department of Highways in the U.S. undertook a study to determine what really held up highway approvals, it found that streamlining, or narrowing the scope of environmental assessment caused more, not less, time delay.

I suggest we focus our political and community efforts in our investigation about both the environmental impact of the proposed highway and its perceived economic benefits on these key actions:

We should encourage the Ministry of Transport to broaden, not narrow, the scope of the terms of reference for the environmental assessment of the mid- peninsula highway. It's better that we hear about all of its environmental and human health impacts before we make the decision to invest over a billion dollars in a bad decision that will be with us for at least 30 years;

We should call for a transparent and interactive citizen and stakeholder engage-ment process. As citizens of Niagara Falls know, when residents, community groups and local business interests all get together, we can find common ground terms that satisfy both our economic and environmental interests as opposed to those that merely suggest unreasonable 'trade offs';

We need MTO to make a logical and clear business case -- one that looks beyond its current Needs Assessment Study and incorporates a savvy customer service piece.

A true transportation business case offers choice -- to business, families and visitors, and includes increased goods and passenger movement by rail. As a local government, we have already committed to increasing our transportation budget.

I am confident that a full environment and economic assessment of the Mid-Peninsula Highway will lead us towards proper and reasonable decision-making, ensuring that we can make the correct, lasting decision, both for the environment and our local communities.

Wayne Thomson is mayor of Niagara Falls, Ontario.

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