The federal government’s decision this week to review the environmental impact of Ontario’s Highway 413 has delayed the project — but long term, the controversial project’s fate is unclear.

In the months ahead, the federal Impact Assessment Agency will weigh what the scope of its review should be. But it’s unclear how rigorous that process will be, how long it will take, and what it might mean for the future of the 413.

“I think it's a bit of a wait and see,” said Laura Bowman of Ecojustice, an environmental group that has opposed the highway.

The Ford government had been seeking to fast-track its environmental assessment for the 413, also known as the GTA West Corridor, arguing that the highway is needed to address congestion in the fast-growing Greater Toronto Area. Running through farmland, waterways, wetlands and Ontario’s protected Greenbelt, the project would connect the Toronto suburbs of Milton and Vaughan.

Ecojustice and several other environmental groups asked Ottawa to intervene in February, using a mechanism under a recently updated set of rules that allows citizens to request a federal assessment. On Monday, federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced he had decided to step in, citing concerns for several endangered species.

“Canadians expect their governments to make decisions based on science and evidence that support environmental protection and economic growth,” Wilkinson said in a statement Monday.

Because the federal rules are so new, there isn’t a lot of precedent for what happens next. But it’ll take several months at a minimum and could last years.

Ontario must now send an initial report about its plans for the 413 to the Impact Assessment Agency. Once it does, that starts a six-month timeline for the agency, which must figure out whether or not a full review is required.

Though the agency did recommend that Wilkinson step in on the project, it’s technically possible that it could rule a full review isn’t warranted ⁠— a report by agency staff released this week found that many of Ottawa’s concerns about the 413 could be addressed through other federal and provincial processes.

The agency must also consult the public on its next steps.

A decision is expected to come this fall or winter, said Natasha Tremblay, a spokesperson for Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney, whose ministry is spearheading the highway. Until then, the project remains in limbo.

What happens next with Ontario’s Highway 413? The federal government’s decision to review the project's environmental impact will slow it down by several months at least. But in the long term, the controversial project’s future is unclear. #onpoli

“We don’t know what the scope of a federal impact assessment would be, or whether a full impact assessment is needed,” Tremblay said in an email.

If the agency does decide a full environmental assessment is needed, that process can take a few avenues. If the agency conducts the review, that process can take up to 300 days. Wilkinson can also refer it to an independent panel, which could take up to 600 days.

Another possible avenue: The Ontario government could choose to challenge Wilkinson’s decision in court. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has done just that, arguing that the federal impact assessment process is an overreach.

“(Ontario) may decide to do that, and wait and see what the Alberta Court of Appeal says,” Bowman said, referring to the possibility of a court challenge. “Who knows?”

Tremblay didn’t respond when asked whether the province is considering that route.

“The federal government has newly found concerns about the potential impacts this project would have as it relates to the western chorus frog, red-headed woodpecker, and rapids clubtail,” she said.

“We’ll work with them to address those concerns.”

Last 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 highway's planned route, raising questions about why the Ford government resurrected the project and who will benefit if it’s built. The previous Liberal government cancelled the 413 after studies found it would have a serious impact on the environment and save drivers less than a minute.

The joint investigation also examined ties between the developers and Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives. Many are connected to the Ford government through party officials and former Tory politicians now acting as registered lobbyists, and most are prolific PC donors.

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