We want roads, but not on escarpment

Oct. 7, 12:45 EDT

Joan Little
The Hamilton Spectator
The province's public relations program surrounding its mid-peninsula highway (MPH) proposal is not going well. It might better be labelled a disaster, judging from comments coming in from the public.

Burlington public information sessions on the proposal have drawn huge crowds, far outnumbering those in other areas. In our city, the Niagara Escarpment, designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1990, is threatened by a huge swath of asphalt. The highway is intended to take pressure off the crowded Queen Elizabeth Way and surrounding fruit lands, by moving a highway to the top of the escarpment. It would run from Fort Erie to Burlington, likely hooking up with the 407 toll road.

Lest provincial mandarins be in doubt, our escarpment is treasured by the public. Throughout the meetings, the escarpment and environment have been the issues du jour.

Internationally recognized wildlife artist Robert Bateman, now of Salt Spring Island, B.C., lived on Britannia Road on the escarpment in north Burlington for 26 years, a scant kilometre or two from the proposed highway. Many of Bateman's paintings depict unspoiled escarpment habitats.

Bateman was a provincial appointee to the first Niagara Escarpment Commission, which crafted the unique and envied escarpment land use plan. Today, he is widely sought as a speaker on environmental issues, and accompanies world eco-tours as a leader and resource person.

His voice has been added to the disbelieving many that a multi-lane highway could be plopped down into the escarpment area. Hectic as his speaking and travel schedule is, he found time last week to address a press conference at Spencer Gorge on the escarpment in Dundas, decrying Ontario's "19th century mentality" regarding development.

The Dark Ages mentality of bigger highways to carry more trucks and cars -- "same old, same old" provincial philosophy -- was loudly espoused at the public session last month, attended by about 250 people. Many urged the province to pursue other options, such as public transit and railways as enthusiastically.

Hamilton and Burlington had joined forces to commission a peer review of the province's approach. Responding to the review, the province listed all the reasons a highway was still necessary, and why peer-review criticisms were invalid.

Speakers questioned truck usage of toll-route Highway 407. Consultant Doug Allingham replied that 407 use is increasing, and commercial vehicles now account for 7 per cent of vehicles on that road. (Seven per cent: Any driver on the "free" QEW, 403 or 401 knows where the other 93 per cent are!)

Allingham said the issue of tolls had not been decided yet, but "it's likely to be tolled." Provincial representative Fred Leech added that could mean private or public tolls, the highway could be design/build, design build/operate, or any other partnership. The 407 has siphoned about 15 per cent of traffic from Highway 403, people were told.

The province hasn't worked hard enough making public transit viable, critics said. If commuter transit went where people needed to go, ridership would jump. Allingham explained that it takes 50 people per hectare to make transit viable. How many, he asked, would be willing to live with those densities?

Oil shortages and costs had not been adequately addressed, speakers added, and it had been assumed people's travel habits in 30 years would mirror today's. The province was urged to work hard with the federal government to increase rail use. Rail is under federal jurisdiction, Allingham noted, and NAFTA agreements, which prohibit subsidies, make the shift difficult.

For those who wonder if our young people get involved, the answer is a resounding yes. And kudos to parents who stimulate that community interest. To loud applause, 15-year old Diana Luce, an M.M. Robinson High School student, captured the public's frustration. Her Burlington home is two kilometres from the proposed highway, she said, but she had attended all the meetings.

"Some of the answers don't answer the questions we ask," she said. "We want straight answers." She urged the ministry not to scrap the option of a bridge across Lake Ontario from the Niagara Peninsula.

Isabel, her 12-year old sister, prompted appreciative laughter when she noted they live close to the "functional point" at 407 (ministry jargon for an inexact spot on the proposed highway corridor map).

In a later interview, Diana explained that they discussed the proposal, and her mother had driven them to see the approximate location in north Burlington where the highway would cross the escarpment. "It's wrong for a highway to be there," she said.

What a joy to see these two articulate young women so passionate about our city and countryside.

Consultants and engineers can be amazingly creative. If their mandate had been: "Find a solution to transportation problems and gridlock without building a new highway," would they have conceded defeat, or would the proposal be different?

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.

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