End highway expansion to stop sprawl, group says

CANADIAN PRESS Dec. 1, 2003 The Toronto Star

The Liberal government should immediately stop major highway expansion in southern Ontario to avoid the staggering environmental and economic costs of urban sprawl, a new coalition said today.

The Ontario Smart Growth Network also called on the government to freeze existing urban boundaries.

"The insidious creep of sprawl is affecting our air and water quality and it's destroying woodlands, wetlands, wildlife habit and farmlands," said Gregor Beck of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, which is among 39 network members.

"We've got to address and curb sprawl."

Urban sprawl is already chewing up about 3,000 hectares a year of prime farm land, says a Pembina Institute report released by the group.

The report cites research that suggests the economic cost of traffic congestion in the Toronto area will climb to as much $4 billion a year in the next 30 years, and exhaust-related greenhouse gas emissions will jump 42 per cent.

Mark Winfield, author of the report, said the Liberal government was elected in part because of its "extensive commitments" to planning and sprawl issues.

He noted the previous Conservative government earmarked about $1 billion a year to highways that could be better spent elsewhere.

"If the government wants to send a very clear signal about changing the direction of public policy, then the reallocation of those dollars from highway building to transit would be a very obvious way in which it could carry through with that," said Winfield.

During the recent election campaign, McGuinty was adamant the Ontario Municipal Board would be given a new mandate to curb uncontrolled growth.

"Intensification is good, sprawl is bad," McGuinty said.

He also promised changes to an existing tax break for new homebuyers so that all buyers of new homes would be eligible - but only for purchases in "priority growth areas."

So far, the only action the Liberal government has taken has been to break a promise to stop construction of homes on the ecologically sensitive Oak Ridges moraine after discovering it would cost too much to do so.

The provincial Transportation Ministry has a "highway mindset" that must change, said Debbe Crandall, who's with Save the Oak Ridges Moraine, an environmental group that's also a member of the new coalition.

"As long as highway construction continues to be subsidized, and as long as there is no rationalization of planning and transportation, there will be no stopping sprawl," she said.

The province's transportation minister, Harinder Takhar, said he had no intention of implementing a moratorium on highway expansion.

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