Subsidizing tolls for trucks on Ontario’s 407 Express Toll Route (ETR) could significantly reduce traffic congestion in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) without sacrificing environmentally protected land to build Highway 413, a new report has found.

The report, titled The Freight Escape, released today by Environmental Defence with input from Transport Action Ontario, was conducted by Eunomia Research & Consulting. It found moving trucks from Highway 401 to the 407 ETR could alleviate congestion for all road users, reduce travel times for truck drivers and potentially save taxpayers around $6 billion. It would also preserve important natural spaces, including 2,000 acres of farmland and 400 acres of Greenbelt, the report stated.

“The Ontario government could make things better by putting trucks on the 407 immediately, but instead is pushing Highway 413 as an expensive, destructive and sprawl-enabling alternative that has been shown by previous studies to save drivers less than 60 seconds,” said Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence. “In fact, the highway would be nothing but another favour to friends of Premier Doug Ford who stand to benefit from sprawl at the expense of the rest of Ontario.”

Public opposition to the government's Highway 413 plan has been mounting, particularly after the recent Greenbelt land swap scandal, which was fuelled by two scathing reports released this fall by the province's auditor general and its integrity commissioner.

The proposed 60-kilometre Highway 413, also known as the GTA West Corridor, aims to alleviate congestion in the fast-growing Greater Toronto Area, connecting Milton and Vaughan. If built, it would cut through 2,000 acres of farmland, cross 85 waterways, pave nearly 400 acres of protected Greenbelt land, disrupt 220 wetlands and impact the habitats of 10 species at risk.

Ford last month reversed his plan to open the protected Greenbelt lands for housing development, however, the premier has since stated he is still committed to the entire Highway 413 project.

Relocating trucks to the 407 ETR would remove 12,000 to 21,000 trucks per day from congested Highway 401, resulting in reduced traffic for passenger vehicle drivers.

Truckers seeking to avoid the $1.42-per-kilometre toll on the 407 now use the 401 to get from Burlington to Pickering. The Ford government has justified building the toll-free Highway 413 to ease pressure on the 401.

The report suggests subsidizing a portion of the toll to make it worthwhile for trucks to use the 407, which has excess capacity.

The report found that moving trucks from Highway 401 to the 407 ETR could alleviate congestion for all road users, reduce travel times for truck drivers and potentially save taxpayers around $6 billion. #Highway413

The tolls are collected by 407 ETR Concession Company Ltd., a private company that leases and operates Highway 407.

Subsidizing a portion of the 407 ETR trucking toll will cost $4 billion over a 30-year period, and has the potential to support Canadian pensions. The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board owns 50.01 per cent of the highway. The rest is owned by Cintra Global and SNC-Lavalin.

According to the report, although the Ontario government has not disclosed the cost estimate for Highway 413, media estimates suggest it could reach $10 billion. Shifting the truck traffic to Highway 407 would also have economic advantages for truck drivers, with Highway 407 expected to reduce journey times by approximately 80 minutes, significantly less than the equivalent trip on Highway 401.

Gray said traffic congestion in the GTHA is a big problem, especially for the trucking and hauling sector. “The trucking industry and the driving public would benefit from less gridlock on the 401 and all of us will be richer — financially and environmentally — if Highway 413 is not built and Highway 407 is used properly,” said Gray.

Travel times are long, wasted fuel costs are high and everybody agrees that action needs to be taken, he added.

“In addition to saving truckers time and money and saving Ontario taxpayers billions of dollars, the 407 trucking option can be implemented almost immediately, resulting in instant relief rather than years of construction,” said Peter Miasek, president of Transport Action Ontario.

Last week, the Ford government announced it is filing a judicial review to prevent the federal government from ordering assessments on crucial infrastructure projects, including Highway 413.

In 2021, then federal environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson ordered an assessment for Highway 413 due to potential impacts on three endangered species.

In a statement shared online, Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey said that legal certainty is essential for advancing critical infrastructure projects throughout the province without delays.

Canada’s National Observer reached out to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.

The provincial government states on its website that Highway 413 is a crucial component of Ontario's strategy to expand highways and public transit in the Greater Golden Horseshoe to serve a significant population increase in the next 30 years.

Investing in infrastructure is vital in Ontario's long-term economic plan, with Highway 413 projected to contribute up to $350 million in real GDP annually during its construction, the government added.

The provincial government asserts that this project will offer opportunities in the skilled trades, with an average of up to 3,500 jobs each year during construction. The highway and transitway are intended to enhance connectivity to major employment centres, attract businesses to the region and foster the creation and sustenance of local employment opportunities, the government website reads.

This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights for the Afghan Journalists-in-Residence program funded by the Meta Journalism Project.

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The part that's never mentioned is that rich people love the 407. The cost is insignificant to them, and everyone else avoids it because it's expensive. This leaves the rich with a congestion free route around the GTA and guess who these people mostly vote for and donate to.