COPE awaits Liberals' decision on environmental studies for highway

Kevin Werner, Special to the Flamborough Review
Sep 1, 2006

A Burlington-based environmental group opposed to a new super-highway from Fort Erie to Burlington wants the provincial government to conduct a full environmental assessment on the controversial project.

" I hope the Liberals stick to their guns," said Copetown area resident Sue McMaster, vice-chair of Citizens Opposed to Paving the Escarpment.

" The pressure from Niagara and Hamilton politicians is pretty continuous to accelerate the process."
Hamilton mayor Larry Di Ianni, along with other Niagara mayors and Erie-Lincoln Progressive Conservative MPP Tim Hudak, met with recently-appointed Transportation Minister Donna Cansfield this week, to press the government on fast-tracking the $1.5 billion, 130-kilometer project.

Since the Liberal government assumed office in 2003, the project, now officially called the Niagara-GTA Corridor, has been deliberately placed on the back burner because of local opposition and significant environmental impact, say Niagara and Hamilton officials.

" They are hiding behind the studies," said Hudak. "We've lost three years of time."

The previous Transportation Minister, Harinder Takhar, only in June approved the environmental terms of reference for the project's environmental assessment. Hudak says there has been no timetable scheduled by the Liberal government as to when the environmental assessment will be completed.

Di Ianni, who has said the highway will be essential to Hamilton's economic viability, said city officials are concerned construction won't begin until 2021.

The group proposed to the minister that the government use the information from the 2001 needs assessment study conducted on the project to accelerate phase one of the environmental process. The assessment will look at whether or not there is a need for the Queen Elizabeth Way to be expanded and where to link the new highway at its western terminus.

Hudak says the Liberals have avoided identifying where the Niagara-GTA Corridor will link up in Hamilton because of the opposition in Burlington.

Hudak also requested that the public be included in any decision on where the highway will end in Hamilton and to establish time frames as to when the assessment will begin and end.

The Minister, said her spokesperson Neal Kelly, assured the Niagara politicians the highway is "on the government's radar" and that Cansfield supports it.

Is the government hiding behind studies?

" Absolutely not," said Kelly.

He said because of the new environmental reality, highways can't be constructed as stand-alone projects. All aspects of the project and its implications have to be considered, including rail and port transportation, environmental issues and demographics, he said.

" It's the only way to build a highway with linkages. It doesn't make sense now to build a highway in isolation anymore."

McMaster said the argument the previous Progressive Conservative government made about the new highway relieving traffic on the QEW towards Toronto is flawed.

" There will still be gridlock," she said.

Another crucial aspect to the project is economics, she said. Three years ago gas prices were between 40 cents to 50 cents a litre, now they are hovering near the $1 mark.

" Economically, we have to look at these things," she said. "The impacts of highways are becoming more tangible."

Cansfield has agreed to create a working group of politicians to monitor the highway's progress, Kelly said.

Kelly expects the group to be operating by the end of this year.

As for COPE, members will continue to watch closely what the Liberal government does.

" We're in waiting status to see when the EA process comes down,"said McMaster.

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