The federal government is expected to announce this week whether it will take over the environmental assessment processes for two controversial Ford government highway projects.
The planned Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass would loop around the outer reaches of the Greater Toronto Area, cutting through portions of the ecologically sensitive Greenbelt. The federal government’s decision could have major implications for the future of both projects, which the Ontario government has sought to fast-track amid increasing backlash.
In February, a coalition of environmental groups asked Ottawa to step in, citing impacts on the environment from the construction and the increased emissions from traffic on the highways. Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson is required to respond by Tuesday with a decision, which many believe has the potential to kill one or both of the projects.
The federal regime is more rigorous than the provincial one, said Laura Bowman of Ecojustice, one of the environmental groups who wrote to Wilkinson. Not only does it take longer, she added, such a review can also uncover environmental issues that make it difficult for a project to go ahead.
“It really is a more transparent process that ensures issues can’t simply be glossed over,” she said.
“I think the question is really whether these projects could withstand the scrutiny of a federal (assessment) and whether the province is willing to do the work to get them to a place where they could withstand that scrutiny.”
If built, the 413 — also known as the GTA West Corridor — would carve a 60-kilometre route from Highway 401 near Milton to Highway 400 north of Vaughan. Along the way, it would cut through 2,000 acres of farmland, cross 85 waterways, pave nearly 400 acres of protected Greenbelt land, disrupt 220 wetlands and carve through the habitats of 10 species-at-risk.
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Earlier this month, a National Observer/Torstar investigation found that eight of Ontario’s most powerful land developers own thousands of acres of prime real estate along the planned route of the 413. The investigation also delved into ties between the developers and Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives, who revived the project after it was shelved by the previous Liberal government.
In recent months, municipalities along the route have either turned their backs on the project or backed the request for a federal environmental assessment.
Though a previous study found the 413 would save drivers less than a minute on average, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation has said it could shave half an hour off the length of the route. It has also said the project is necessary to accommodate all the drivers expected to be on GTA roads in the coming decades, and is seeking to streamline its assessment process.
“There is a strong case for moving forward with Highway 413,” Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said earlier this week.
The Ontario Liberals, NDP and Greens have said they would cancel the project if elected.
The Bradford Bypass is a shorter route, drawing a 16-kilometre path across York and Simcoe counties to connect Highway 400 with Highway 404 to the east. Like the 413, it would run through ecologically-sensitive land: the proposed route of the bypass would cross the Holland Marsh, an area of wetlands and fertile soil that’s part of the Greenbelt.
Unlike the 413, the municipalities along the route of the bypass support the project. And opposition parties have stopped short of calling for it to be scrapped, instead saying the plan needs a full environmental assessment.
The bypass last received such a review in 1997, before policies aimed at protecting the Greenbelt existed in Ontario. That assessment also predicted the highway could cause severe water pollution, and did not examine the climate impacts of the project.
The Progressive Conservatives are working on studies to update their plans for the bypass, but have proposed to exempt it from the provincial environmental assessment process.
The Transportation Ministry has previously said the government is working to minimize impacts on the environment, and that the project would save drivers 35 minutes.