Pouring on the asphalt

by Matthew Sylvain

TORONTO, Ont. – To boldly roll where no rigs have rolled before.

That in essence was the message Mike Harris’ government conveyed through a massive plan to expand southern Ontario’s highway network to meet its population and economic needs over the next 15 years.

The plan, the details of which were provided by Minister of Transportation Brad Clark on Mar. 1, tie together several loose policy ends, observers say.

The “Smart Growth” plan includes a shopping list of road extensions: Hwy.s 404, 407, and 427. As well, the Niagara Peninsula may get a second highway, or at least see the Queen Elizabeth Way, running from Toronto to the U.S. border, widened.

But one of the most intriguing parts of the proposal is the possible laying of an entirely new highway, yawning east-west over the northern limit of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) like an umbrella.

As Clark explained at the media launch of the plan, “this may be one of the more long-range of the province’s transportation planning initiatives. However, we are protecting the land needed for vital highway corridors as early as possible – to ensure that the provincial highway network can respond effectively to Ontario’s growth in the future.”

How much all of this will cost is anybody’s guess for now, admits Clark. He noted that many of these projects are in the early stages.

“We won’t be putting shovels in the ground tomorrow. Before we build any new highways, Smart Growth transportation planning will require full needs and full environmental assessments,” Clark says.

Those assessments are under way for all of the projects, except for the east-west corridor. The results of many of those studies are expected by the end of this year. Some however, won’t be completed for several years.

“These are our long-term plans, these are our visions for the transportation infrastructure for Ontario. We’re confident that if we look for alternative partnerships we’ll be able to find them,” Clark says.

When government says partnerships, that really means tolls, says the Ontario Trucking Association and the group’s manager of government relations, Doug Switzer.

“While the province was somewhat coy about whether or not they will be using tolls to pay for this new construction, I think it’s relatively fair to say that … the private sector doesn’t get involved unless there’s profit somewhere.”

Noting that, “obviously we’re very pleased that the province is again paying attention to the need to build strategic highway corridors,” Switzer says the association is watching cautiously for how the plan plays out.

Applauding the Conservatives for drawing together and discussing all these loose ends (almost none are genuinely new ideas, Switzer notes) under one coordinated strategy, the first government to do so since the 1950s, he adds, “I think it’s important to be realistic about what the announcement meant. It’s a nice announcement, but from conception to shovel-in-the-ground it’s probably 10 years before any of these things will actually be under construction and even longer than that before anybody drives on them.”

Switzer doesn’t object to tolling out of hand, “it’s not the end of the earth,” but the association will be critical of how the government turns policy ideals into construction plans.

Smart Growth, the philosophy governing the infrastructure rollout, is the Conservative government’s new catch phrase, born out of a digging-in of economic heels in light of the surprise blow-out of the U.S. economy.

According to an Ontario government document, Smart Growth involves managing growth and development in existing urban and suburban communities, allowing the economy to grow and prosper, while improving the quality of life and preserving the environment.

“Let’s be clear. We have highway congestion, we have gridlock. Quite clearly the development continues in all the municipalities across the way and the entire Smart Growth philosophy shows that you have to look at the future, we have to do our planning now.”

The Conservative’s announcement was sniped at from the usual corners. Both New Democratic Party critic Marilyn Churley, MPP for Toronto-Danforth, and Liberal critic George Smitherman, the MPP for Toronto Centre-Rosedale, echoed each other’s concerns over continued urban sprawl. n

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