'We can’t keep doing this’: PC government speeds ahead with Bradford Bypass; advocates say process lacks proper scrutiny
Feature graphic from The Pointer/Image from Bill Foster/FROGS

'We can’t keep doing this’: PC government speeds ahead with Bradford Bypass; advocates say process lacks proper scrutiny

The first president of Greenpeace called them “mind bombs”. 

In 1970, the late Bob Hunter believed electronic media could be used to deliver messages that “explode in people’s minds” and allow them to view the world in a different way — viral messaging before “going viral” was even possible. From photographs, to rock concerts, to the infamous “Don’t Make a Wave” slogan used in the fight against the United States nuclear bomb testing campaign in the atolls of the Pacific Ocean, Hunter used this tool to push the underground messages of the fledgling environmental movement into the mainstream. 

And they worked. Images of Greenpeace advocates sailing ships into nuclear test zones, or long-haired environmentalists standing tall on zodiacs (a rubber dingy with a small engine) as massive whaling ships bore down on them in the open sea helped the general public understand the gravity of these significant issues and helped generate the momentum necessary to force powerful government institutions to change tact. 


Bob Hunter (left) sailing into the U.S. nuclear test zone around Amchitka island in protest of the environmental destruction the bomb tests were causing.

(Photo from Greenpeace / Robert Keziere)


Those currently campaigning against the Bradford Bypass through the Holland Marsh wetland complex are searching for a mind bomb of their own. 

If a major highway proposal through an incredibly sensitive natural area sounds familiar to you, it should. The PC government under Premier Doug Ford is attempting to do the same thing along — and in parts through — the Greenbelt’s southern edge with the widely publicized and highly controversial GTA West Corridor, or Highway 413. The Bradford Bypass is very much the shunned cousin, but detractors say it really should be considered Highway 413’s evil twin.

While shorter in length, advocates have laid out a similar laundry list of devastating environmental impacts that could arise to both the Holland Marsh — where the 16-kilometre route currently intersects — and the broader Lake Simcoe watershed. 


The proposed route of the Bradford Bypass

(Map from the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition)


Government officials and local politicians claim the highway is necessary to solve traffic congestion issues today and to support future growth. Advocates have pushed back against the claims and have shown that solutions can be found elsewhere, without sacrificing vital green space and further compromising the province’s battle to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Highway 413 saw extensive public backlash, followed by the federal government stepping in to impose potentially stricter environmental studies, but the Bradford Bypass has not received the same attention. No amount of messaging about the environmental impacts appears to be getting through to some residents and key decision makers in the area, advocates say. 

 “The majority of people who live in Bradford probably do support it, unfortunately,” says Sylvia Bowman, a resident of East Gwillimbury for the last four decades, and conservation director with the York Simcoe Nature Club. “We haven’t been able to convince them otherwise.” 

Changing people’s minds can be difficult, especially when it comes to a long held belief. In the case of the Bradford Bypass, the potential for a new east-west highway in the area has been lingering for decades. A proposal for a highway south of Lake Simcoe was first proposed in the 1970s, and a highway route that would cross the Holland Marsh was given approval in 1981 (before being shelved several years later). In short, the idea for the highway has been around for decades, and if people initially thought it was a good idea many years ago, it could be hard to shake that belief now. 

Messaging from provincial and municipal officials continues to remind residents that the highway is a much needed addition. 

A 2016 poll conducted by the Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury showed 85 percent of residents supported the project. There is no reference to the initial phrasing of the question in the Town’s press release that generated this result, but only 600 of the Town’s approximately 35,000 residents were polled. 

“We’re trying to make life easier for our current residents and we see this as an important piece of infrastructure that will save time,” Bradford West Gwillimbury mayor Rob Keffer tells The Pointer. 

“York Region and Simcoe County are forecasted to experience significant population growth in the next two decades, and our government is taking the necessary steps to help alleviate congestion before it gets worse for commuters and the environment,” Natasha Tremblay, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation states. 

Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney, and Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks David Piccini, did not respond to requests to be interviewed, but instead answered a list of emailed questions. 

Local advocates push back against these assertions, claiming the Province’s time-savings estimated by connecting Highway 400 and Highway 404 are exaggerated and it will do little to solve the congestion problems of the area — MTO projections appear to back up this claim, in part. 

Mitigation measures are proposed to limit the impacts on the Holland Marsh wetland, and the threatened and endangered species that lay in the highway’s path, but experts claim the negative effects will ripple out from the Holland Marsh into the entire Lake Simcoe watershed, and threaten to harm Lake Simcoe, which is already on the brink of collapse as a result of ongoing urbanization. 

Finally, proponents of the highway claim it is smart planning based on population projections for the area — numbers that not even new transit options will be able to support. However, urban planning experts, and former senior provincial officials tell The Pointer building new highways is not the way to fix congestion issues, especially as the world stares down accelerated impacts of global temperature increases and must begin transitioning away from a reliance on vehicular traffic. 

“Unfortunately, when we get into these topics, it’s like, ‘this is a highway, it will be good for us,” says Margaret Prophet, executive director of the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition “Everybody just readily accepts that highways are good.”

“Definitely some sides of the story are not being told. It’s been very one-sided,” says Jennifer Lloyd, a Bradford resident. 

It may take more than one mind bomb to break this issue apart. 



For local councillors in the Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury, a town of about 35,000 on the southern tip of Lake Simcoe, the Bradford Bypass is a long-awaited gift from above. The provincial government has been promising the project for years, and now it is the PCs and local MPP Caroline Mulroney — also the Minister of Transportation — who are finally delivering on this decades-long promise. The project has widespread support from many of the local municipalities, including East Gwillimbury, York Region and Simcoe County. The Pointer requested an interview with East Gwillimbury mayor Virginia Hackson but no response was received.



Bradford West Gwillimbury Mayor Rob Keffer with local MPP Caroline Mulroney, Minister of Transportation.

(Photo from Rob Keffer/Twitter)


During an appearance by MTO officials at a Bradford West Gwillimbury town council meeting in April, councillors had glowing words for a presentation that laid out the updated status of the project and the ongoing studies which the Province says will serve as an update to the more than two-decades-old environmental assessment completed in 1997, and approved in 2002. 

“Go ahead and do it,” said Councillor Gary Lamb, adding he had full confidence the government would be doing all it could to “save the turtles and all that stuff.”

“The province is looking for our communities and others to grow, so this is a responsible transportation route that allows that to happen,” said Councillor Mark Contois.

The majority of councillors expressed no concern that the project could potentially cause catastrophic environmental damage to the area, with many sharing the sentiment of Councillor Lamb that the provincial government would study the potential environmental degradation carefully and implement proper mitigation measures. None seemed concerned that the PC government’s track record on the environment, from gutting Conservation Authorities as part of Schedule 6, or its widespread use of MZOs on sensitive lands, limited its credibility on matters of environmental preservation. 

“When it comes down to the environmental part, we know that you guys are looking after that, we know that it’s being looked at thoroughly,” said Councillor Peter Ferragine. “In regards to the Holland Marsh that constantly keeps getting brought up, I know that the farmers are in favour of this, this is going to help them move product.”

It’s not surprising that local officials will go to great lengths to celebrate this project coming to fruition. Not only does it appear at the top of the priority list for this term of Bradford West Gwillimbury council, but the completion of this project is baked into many of the Town’s future plans, including its Official Plan (approved in 2002, the same year as the Bypass EA). It means if the Bypass doesn’t become a reality, there will be a ground-shift in Bradford planning that could take years to recover from.

This clear dependence on a dated project has councillors even believing it could be good for the environment. 

“Think about this for a moment, idling cars, in Bradford, on agricultural land that is the prime agricultural land in Ontario. What is more detrimental to the lands, an idling car or a car that is passing through momentarily? I think this is responsible,” stated Councillor Contois. 

This is a dated refrain from highway supporters across North America, and one that has been debunked in countless academic studies. New highways may reduce congestion temporarily, but they also open up the road for more drivers — a concept known as induced demand — and will lead to more cars on the road; therefore increasing the amount of GHG emissions pumped into the atmosphere. The MTO’s own traffic studies show the Bypass will be congested by at least 2041, a reality not mentioned by any of the Bradford West Gwillimbury councillors. 

“In the long run, capacity-based congestion improvements within certain speed intervals can reasonably be expected to increase emissions,” reads one American study. 

This is not to say that real traffic issues do not exist in the area. With a growing population and limited routes between the nearby municipalities of East Gwillimbury and Newmarket, an accident on any major roadway, combined with the pressures of GTA residents heading to cottage country, can potentially lead to hours of delays for commuters. 

“I am confident that it will take a lot of the traffic off of the rural roads and other secondary routes,” Mayor Keffer tells The Pointer. “It will take a lot of that traffic from our downtown streets and make life easier for our residents that are walking on the sidewalks and just don’t have that noise and the vibration and the peace of mind I guess of not having as much traffic through their town.”

The traffic benefits are at the core of the proponents' push for the highway, and why not? It’s good marketing. Nobody likes sitting in traffic. But will the new four-lane, 16-km highway through the provincially significant Holland Marsh wetland really do what it says on the tin?

The MTO has shared the results of a traffic study, including a set of maps that depict traffic levels in the area with, and without the bypass in the year 2041. 

The benefits outlined do not appear to match the exorbitant $800 million price tag claimed by Minister Mulroney, and are even further from the $1.5 billion estimate published by the Toronto Region Board of Trade. According to the MTO, the construction of the bypass will save drivers 35 minutes when driving between Highway 400 and 404 and relieve congestion on local east-west roadways. However, according to their own congestion mapping, the benefit appears negligible with congestion relief on a small number of roads. 





Two main thoroughfares in downtown Bradford will see relief, along with certain east-west roadways on the eastern side of the Holland River such as Queensville Sideroad. Limited benefits are recorded in Newmarket, and limited relief on Davis Road into the Newmarket city centre. 

The bypass itself is expected to see similar congestion levels to Highway 400 by 2041, and it will do absolutely nothing to solve congestion issues on Highway 400 and 404, in fact, congestion will actually get worse on these major highways by 2041, even if the bypass gets built. 

It raises serious questions about the travel benefits claimed by the province. 

“Building a big new highway is clearly not the answer, it’s just going to expedite and extenuate the problems that create these problems in the first place,” says Victor Doyle, a former urban planner with the Province of Ontario who oversaw the creation of regional planning in the Greater Golden Horseshoe for decades, was the architect of Greenbelt Plan and was instrumental in the creation of the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan and Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, among others. Doyle resigned in 2017 in a much publicized feud with the Ontario government who was attempting to open up areas of Simcoe County for urban sprawl, despite regulations in the Greenbelt Plan and Growth Plan. 

Doyle’s report, “The Greenbelt Plan and the Growth Plan: Setting the Record Straight” laid out a public planning sector infested with developer influence. 

“Elements of the development sector have invested significantly and intensively in mounting a multi-faceted communications campaign to undermine the Growth Plan and Greenbelt Plan,” Doyle wrote. He stated that for years, developers were pushing the narrative that these two plans were responsible for the rising home prices across the GTA as a result of restricting available land, something Doyle noted was based on “incomplete, selective and/or inaccurate information”.

The provincial government found him to be in a conflict of interest for releasing the report. A claim that was eventually quashed at a Grievance Board hearing vindicating Doyle. 

Doyle says the development lobby is still very active, and very powerful within Queen’s Park, pushing for new legislation and policies designed to weaken those put in place to protect the environment. It is this background lobbying, and not a desire to alleviate traffic congestion that is at the heart of this push for the Bradford Bypass, detractors say.

“It’s really serving not much benefit time-wise and for a very small group of travellers, either commuters or recreationalists going the other direction. I think that’s another reason it really shouldn’t go there,” he says.  “It’s completely misguided and contrary to any sound planning principles to start building highways in areas where you’re facilitating sprawl at densities that will never support transit thereby again letting the air out of the $50 billion transit plan we [the Province] have been developing.”

A similar narrative exists in the story of the GTA West Highway, which would open up large swaths of land for development directly adjacent to the Greenbelt. After municipalities all along the proposed route pulled their support for the project, it became clear that those who stand to gain the most from the highway’s construction are the developers, many of whom are PC party donors with connections to Premier Ford. 

Mayor Keffer says this is not the case with the Bradford Bypass. 

“It’s not developer driven, I think that’s one thing that's been put out there. I think that as a council we realize that it’s important to have a well planned town as far as growth policies, have a strong urban boundary, stick to it, but then as the Greenbelt plan intimates and says, you’re still able to have infrastructure through the Greenbelt so it’s able to connect municipalities,” he says. “I can understand that is one of the opponent’s concerns that highways do lead to sprawl and yet it’s up to the growth plan and the official plans of each municipality to make sure that they’re building their community in a way that doesn’t promote sprawl.”

Doyle, one of the architects of the Greenbelt plan confirms that it allows for the construction of infrastructure through its protected areas, including highways, but he disavows those who are using it as a justification for 400-series highway through these sensitive lands, stating that is not what the exemption was put in place to facilitate. 

“It was a limited view of infrastructure. The language is, it’s intended to connect communities on either side of the Greenbelt,” he says. “The Bradford Bypass is a bad idea and the Greenbelt plan was not meant to facilitate that type of shortcut.”

In the case of the GTA West Highway, experts have repeatedly told The Pointer that the negative impacts of driving a highway through such an environmentally sensitive area will have domino effects that will impact the entire watershed. The Bradford Bypass is no different, and many of these damaging impacts were outlined in the initial EA completed in 1997. However, after more than 20 years of urbanization in the area, local residents, wildlife advocates, and environmental stewards all fear the damage could be much worse, not just for the Holland Marsh, but could lead to Lake Simcoe becoming completely uninhabitable for many wildlife species who depend on it. 


Bill Foster has been fighting the Bradford Bypass for over 20 years. 

The four-lane highway will run along the southern edge of his property near the Silver Lakes Golf and Country Club in East Gwillimbury, cutting through farmland and dense woodland. 


The Holland River East Branch (top) and the wooded wetland, both in path of the Bradford Bypass

(Photos from Bill Foster/FROGS)


In the early 1990s, Foster helped launch the advocacy group FROGS (Forbid Roads Over Green Spaces) which fought the Bypass the last time the government attempted to get the project off the ground. While many of the members have passed away, Foster has not lost the fight, and restarted the defunct organization to fight the highway a second time. 

He has little faith the PC government will take the time required to study the environmental impact of the highway or that it will be able to truly mitigate the damage. 

“They are producing all sorts of soothing communications and everyone thinks ‘well because they’re doing all these studies they are going to mitigate or protect the environment because of this’,” he says. “What they’re really saying is we’re going to go through and find all the issues that are there, but that doesn’t mean we are going to mitigate them.”

Laura Bowman, a lawyer with EcoJustice, the law firm that attempted to have the federal government intervene with the project, agrees with him, telling The Pointer portions of the initial EA read like no other she’s studied. The EA pointed to a number of issues, but in some cases, proposed no mitigation measures, stating they would be figured out at a later date. 

“It’s rare that I see an EA like the Bradford Bypass EA, which essentially said we’re predicting stormwater and groundwater contamination and we’ll figure it out at detailed design,” Bowman states, noting if they knew how to fix the problem, they would have said so. “That signals to me that mitigation is going to be very challenging.”

In large part, the Province is already aware of the potential devastation the highway will cause, a snapshot of which was captured in that 1997 EA Bowman referred to. Along with the loss of crucial spawning habitat for fish by crossing 28 different waterways, the highway would destroy 22.1 hectares of “higher quality woodlands”, 17.2 hectares of the Holland Marsh, 9.5 hectares of provincially significant wetlands, 32.7 hectares of wildlife habitat, 190.37 hectares of “higher capacity mineral soils”; and 154.3 hectares of active agricultural production. The highway will also “severely impact” the quality and quantity of surface water and groundwater. It means about 800 football fields of valuable environmentally sensitive land will be either completely destroyed or degraded by the highway. 

“I could give you lists and lists of species that live in there that would be affected,” says award-winning naturalist Bob Bowles, who has served as an expert witness in numerous hearings at the Ontario Municipal Board, now the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal, on environmental impacts of different developments, and teaches the Master Naturalist Program at Lakehead University in Orillia. Bowles says the previous EA is not worth the paper it’s written on. “That whole EA is of completely little value because it was done 23 years ago when there were fewer species at risk and we know more about the species we’re losing today than we ever did before.”


Master Naturalist Bob Bowles

(Photo from Master Naturalists Program/Lakehead University)


The previous EA identified very few species at risk in the area, naming only the Louisiana Waterthrush and Red-shouldered hawk. However, the province’s own Natural Heritage Information Centre shows there are many more that now rely on the area. 

An analysis by The Pointer has found 11 different species at risk in the path of the Bradford Bypass, including six threatened species, two endangered, two listed as special concern and one “restricted species”. These species are those that are either sensitive to commercial exploitation, like trophy hunting, or their habitat is so threatened, that their locations are kept secret from the general public as to avoid disturbance. There are also six different nesting colonies for a variety of water and wading birds directly in the highway’s path. This is by no means a definitive list. Expert sources have told The Pointer the number is more than likely much higher as animals move through these green space corridors, of which the Holland Marsh wetland complex is one of the most significant in the area. The Bradford Bypass would essentially be a four-lane highway cutting it in half. Many of these species, particularly threatened and endangered turtles, like the blandings turtle which has been spotted just north of the route, are extremely vulnerable to road mortality, with provincial documents noting it is the most serious threat to these animals. 


Species at risk in the path of the Bradford Bypass


As cities have grown at exorbitant rates since the early 1980’s, they have turned what previously were large swaths of forest, marsh and open fields, into a jigsaw puzzle where the lines connecting the pieces are deadly strips of concrete. Habitat fragmentation is now one of the top threats facing many species at risk in Canada. It’s estimated there are approximately 14,000 wildlife collisions on Ontario roads every year, accounting for 10 percent of all vehicle collisions. 

“More highways not only impact on plants and wetlands and reptiles and amphibians, but the whole ecosystem. It’s a barrier for movement corridors. Species, mammals especially, but birds and other species have these movement corridors, green lands, (and) we’re losing them. We’re losing them to golf courses, to housing development, to factories and aggregate operations,” Bowles says. “Once we lose those areas we can never get them back.”

The red-headed woodpecker and the butternut tree, both listed as endangered, are found along the proposed route. The presence of the red-headed woodpecker along the path of the GTA West Highway was one of the key reasons listed by federal environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson for potentially launching an impact assessment of the project. While the Bradford Bypass was also under consideration by his ministry, Wilkinson decided not to intervene, despite the clear similarities between the two projects, citing trust in the provincial mechanisms to protect the environment and species at risk. 

The lack of attention to the project continues to frustrate advocates who believe the efforts of the PC government will not be enough. 

“We haven’t had the same level of scrutiny on this highway [compared to the GTA West Highway] and the government of Ontario right now is not going to do that. I bet my last dollar,” says Claire Malcolmson with the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition. “This government is hostile to the environment and that should have every Ontarian concerned. Nobody wants the government of Ontario to sink the future and nobody wants to explain to their kids that we just sat idly by while the government of Ontario built highways and accelerated climate change and promoted sprawling growth.”

In the Lake Simcoe watershed, everything flows north into the lake, and the increasing urbanization has taken its toll. 

Chlorides from road salt, and phosphorous loads from agricultural practices and other human activities in the area have put the lake in a precarious position that could see it become a salt water lake in as little as 38 years if activities don’t change. This threat, combined with the ongoing impacts of a changing climate and the threat of invasive species, the lake is in serious need of relief. 

“Enough is enough, you can’t just say ‘love Lake Simcoe’ and allow something like this to go through without question,” Malcolmson says. 

The Ministry of Transportation assures The Pointer the proper studies and mitigation will be completed in order to limit the impacts on the environment and Lake Simcoe both during the highway’s construction and after its completion. 

“As part of Preliminary Design, the Project Team will carefully consider all impacts to wetland areas and will continue to work with environmental agencies, municipalities and other concerned stakeholders to identify principles and recommendations for mitigating the impacts of building the Bradford Bypass,” Tremblay, the MTO spokesperson states. “Protecting the environment remains our top priority as we look to move forward with these important projects for Ontario.”

The Lake Simcoe Watershed

(Map from Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority)


Tremblay states mitigation measures could include: strategic plantings to enhance the performance of proposed drainage and stormwater management measures, erosion and sediment control, restricting construction-related activities to avoid sensitive periods for aquatic and wildlife species during life cycle stages, measures for spill control/containment/contingency plans, and a construction inspection and monitoring plan, including use of qualified personnel, reporting and response procedures.

She adds that any identified impacts on species at risk will also be considered and a permit under the Endangered Species Act will be obtained. 

However, the environmental impacts from previous highway projects in nearby areas offer no assurances that the province will be able to contain the damage. 

Recent studies from the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority show that in the Maskinonge River, a tributary of Lake Simcoe, chloride levels have escalated dramatically since 2014 when the Highway 404 extension was completed. 

Prior to 2014, only 12 percent of chloride tests in a given year exceeded the “chronic” chloride guideline, a level at which long-term exposure can be harmful to wildlife. When fish and other aquatic species encounter high salt levels, their cells begin to lose water to try and adapt. This leads to extreme dehydration and eventual organ failure. Since 2014, 84 percent of tests completed in the Maskinonge have exceeded the chronic guideline level. 

“We still don’t have a plan or a budget to address the phosphorous pollution. We’re going in the wrong direction,” says Jack Gibbons with Lake Simcoe Watch. 

The same can be said for many waterways that are now at the heart of urban centres. The Rouge River has seen chloride and bacteria levels increasing since the 1970s as a result of its proximity to Highway 401 and the ongoing urbanization. The situation is not much better across the GTA. 

“Currently, 5-year average stream chloride levels across the GTA are in exceedance of the long-term Canadian Water Quality Guidelines of 120 mg/L, the limit set for the protection of aquatic life,” reads a 2016 press release from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. “In fact, chloride levels at approximately 50 stream monitoring stations across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) almost doubled from 2002 to 2012. This trend is consistent with the rising chloride levels observed since the early 1970s, which shows concentrations rising dramatically from the mid 1980s onwards.”

Chloride levels between 1974 and 2013 in GTA waterways.

(Graph from TRCA)


“If you think of the lake like a bowl of soup, we’re sharing it,” says Debbie Gordon, a Keswick resident whose home backs onto the Maskinonge River. While the Bypass will be built south of the lake, it has potential to harm the entirety of Lake Simcoe, and therefore all the municipalities that rely on it. 

Mitigation is easier said than done, and local ecosystems in some cases, can take many, many years to recover from environmental damage. 

Despite provincial assurances, Bowman with Ecojustice has doubts about how detailed the new studies will be, and questions why a new full environmental assessment is not being conducted to update the one completed in 1997. As a condition of that EA’s approval in 2002, it was to be updated every five years. That has not been done because the project was put on a shelf. The PC government says it is undertaking that update process now, but that is not completely true. 

Traditionally, as part of that update process — known as a Group A Class Environmental Assessment — it would involve looking at alternative project options that could solve key issues. That is not being done.

Also as part of any major project like this, a Transportation Environmental Study Report (TESR) is to be completed, which will analyze, among other things:  existing environmental conditions; assessment and evaluation of alternatives within the Study Area; a summary of potential environmental issues and mitigation measures and environmental commitments to be carried forward through future design stages. The TESR is seen by advocates as a significant element in the study process for the Bradford Bypass as the potential for alternative solutions has not been looked at for decades, something that would be done during the TESR analysis.

The website set up by the province to be a one-stop shop for understanding the Bradford Bypass, states quite clearly that this TESR will be completed as part of the study process. Once again, this is not quite true. 

Under regulations proposed last year, the PC government is looking to have the Bradford Bypass and the GTA West Highway, exempt from certain parts of the Environmental Assessment Act. For months, the Province has refused to tell residents and advocates whether the TESR would be part of the process eliminated for the Bypass should the regulations allowing the exemption be approved (there is no timeline for their approval). After repeated questions from The Pointer, Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson with the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks confirmed the TESR would be scrapped if the regulations are approved. 

“To ensure that the proposed regulation to exempt the Bradford Bypass from the requirements of the EAA will not result in any significant environmental effects, the ministry is recommending that the exemption be conditional on the MTO completing a streamlined planning and assessment process,” Wheeler states. It’s unclear whether alternatives would be studied as part of that process. 

The potential lack of proper studies was also concerning enough for the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers to release a statement calling on the Ford government to “properly answer the questions raised through its plan” for the Bradford Bypass. 

“This project is still being considered using an environmental assessment that was conducted by the province 24 years ago (1997), the statement reads.

“These studies are out of date. The EA process and requirements have changed drastically throughout this time frame, and so has the environment. The province should ensure a new robust EA is conducted. Construction should not start without a proper EA in place.”

None of that will matter if the province proceeds with the project before these studies are completed. As part of the same regulations exempting the highway projects from certain critical studies, the PCs are proposing to allow for early works to begin on the Bradford Bypass before studies have even been completed. This includes bridge construction, bridge replacement or expansion and utility relocation. 

It was this possibility that raised concerns with nearby municipalities, which up until this point, have been supportive of the Bradford Bypass project for years. 

Councils in the Town of Innisfil and City of Barrie both turned down a motion from the Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury asking for their full endorsement of the project. The City of Barrie instead approved a motion demanding that all of the proper studies be completed for the project, including a full impact assessment of Lake Simcoe, before any work begins. A similar motion lost on a tie at Innisfil council. 

“If I go back 60 years, my father used to take me fishing on Lake Simcoe and in the middle of summer if you were thirsty he’d say, ‘well, have a drink.’ You got a cup and you drank out of the lake. No one ever got sick. If you did that today you’d probably wind up in a hospital and that’s not because that came naturally, that’s because we did it,” stated Innisfil Councillor Bill Van Berkel during the May 26 town council meeting. “We’re doing all of these things at what cost? What cost to our future? What cost to our children? What cost to our grandchildren? Herein lies my problem.”

Councillor Alex Waters, shared similar concern for Lake Simcoe, and questioned whether the impact of the highway on the lake was fully understand. 

“In continuous reports, one of the largest threats to Lake Simcoe is salt and they say by 2050, Lake Simcoe could be officially dead because the salt levels in this lake will be too high to support any type of habitat,” he said. “Good neighbours sometimes have to speak the truth and I think here, this is an old project that has been on the paper, and they want to get it done and they haven’t done a proper environmental assessment.”

“You don’t build a house on a foundation that’s not yet complete,” said Councillor Kenneth Fowler. 


Lake Simcoe among the Great Lakes.

(Photo from NASA)


The Province is convinced that without the Bradford Bypass, many of the main roadways surrounding Lake Simcoe will become congested disasters as the population continues to grow. The amount of growth the area can expect to see is a point of contention for many in the area. The Province says York Region and Simcoe County can expect to see “significant population growth in the next two decades”. According to Growth Plan projections, York Region is forecast to grow from 1.1 million to anywhere between 1.9 million and 2.1 million by 2051. Simcoe County is expected to grow by 300,000 people by 2031. 

“We believe that a robust highway network, in addition to investing in transit, is necessary to relieve the congestion that already exists,” Tremblay, the MTO spokesperson tells The Pointer. “We are a pro-transit government, but transit alone is not the solution. We must also be able to rely on a robust highway network.”

Doyle, the former senior planner with the Province, tells The Pointer that the Bradford Bypass goes against Ontario’s stated mandate to construct “complete communities” and will only set up the area to continue the type of development that has dominated many parts of the Greater Golden Horseshoe for decades — sprawling residential development.  

 Many advocates are attempting to convince residents to look beyond this single project. The Bradford Bypass has been lingering in the area for so long, many would just like to see a final decision, whatever it is, but it’s a decision that comes with extreme ramifications for the future communities that will be built in the area. 

“It is not sustainable to assume that the way Southern Ontario is going to work is that people from Peel work in Peterborough and that people in Barrie work in the GTA and that people in East Gwillimbury work in Barrie. We actually need to do what the Growth Plan set out to do, which is protect the features that help protect our natural heritage, water and air, and secondly to build complete communities,” Malcolmson with the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition states. She also holds a masters degree in urban planning. “I think that if the province fails to recognize that that is at the core of this, then this problem will not go away.”

Apart from the planning, the Bradford Bypass also connects to one of the world’s most prominent threats, that being the looming impacts of our changing climate. The heat wave that suffocated much of the province last week has direct links to climate change, experts say, and will only become more common the longer we hold off from meaningful mitigation measures. What those mitigation measures look like is debated — a recent report outlined the increasing vital role of our natural spaces in the fight against global warming and the need to preserve wetlands, woodland and farmers fields, all of which the Bypass will destroy — but it’s clear that change needs to happen quickly.  A recent United Nations report shared the troubling reality that many of the more serious impacts of temperature increase will hit many parts of the world earlier than expected, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been saying for years that municipal officials carry a large responsibility for building greener, more sustainable cities of the future. 

Bowles, who worked as an electrical engineer in the Muskokas for much of his career, slowly watched as development crept into one of Ontario’s most cherished natural treasures, between 1980 and 2000. 

“It’s a beautiful area to work, but I saw the environment being pushed out by more and more development,” he says, chalking it up to a failure on the part of subsequent generations. 


With more people reconnecting with nature as a result of the pandemic, can it lead to a groundswell of support for the environmental movement?

(Photo by Joel Wittnebel)


“My generation failed, the generation after that failed, very few people my age actually understand or care about the environment,” he says. “These younger people are starting to realize what they’re losing, that their children will not see some of these species that we are going to lose. They don’t want that and they are going to be the politicians of tomorrow. I see a light at the end of the tunnel for when they get there, but what are we going to lose or what are we going to leave for them?”

The Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury does not have a climate change master plan, and therefore no goals for emission reduction or similar targets to reduce its carbon footprint. Mayor Keffer is confident the Province will mitigate all environmental aspects of the highway. 

“We realize that we want it done right and we don’t want it to harm Lake Simcoe, but at the same time we’re confident that it can be done and not lead to further degradation,” he says. He is also in favour of the Province moving ahead with its exemption process should it decide to do so. 

“I think that we’ll just have to wait and see what the provincial government decides, but I guess a lot of my residents want the highway built as soon as possible,” he says, adding that the Province must still be able to mitigate the environmental risks. 

The loss of widespread support did come as a bit of a surprise for Keffer, who suggested that those councillors who voted against fully supporting the project had only seen one side of the story. 

“The general residents of both Innisfil and Barrie I think realize the importance of it because they’re the ones that are going to utilize it,” he said. 

The project has also started to receive pushback from other political parties at Queen’s Park. 

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner called the Holland Marsh Highway a “bad highway that needs to go.” 

“We definitely don’t need more highways that run directly through the Greenbelt, pave over the Holland Marsh, and threaten the already at-risk Lake Simcoe,” Schreiner said in a released statement. “The Toronto Region Board of Trade estimates the highway will cost at least $1.5 billion. That’s money that could be spent on transit, and building more affordable and livable communities. Yet the Ford government seems to not be considering alternative options and is pushing ahead with the highway with plans to start construction in the coming months — all based on an outdated environmental assessment from 1997.”

Similar concerns were raised by the Ontario NDP who have also vowed to scrap the project should they be elected to form government next year. 

“Andrea Horwath and the NDP are committed to cancelling the Bradford Bypass and Highway 413, and ensuring any future transportation plans responsibly meet the needs of communities across the province,” Jennifer French, the NDP’s critic for transportation and highways told The Pointer in an emailed statement. “The environmental assessment and plan for Bradford Bypass was done decades ago – before the Greenbelt plan or the smart growth policies of Places to Grow – and before Canada signed international agreements on fighting climate change. This project was conceived during the last century, does not work in the 2020s, and can not be justified. The Ontario NDP does not support this project.”

However, Liberal Leader Stephen Del Duca, who vowed to cancel Highway 413 along with the Greens and NDP, did not make the same commitment with the Bradford Bypass. 

"The Bradford bypass is supported by all local municipalities; it will address a very real congestion problem in Bradford. It is needed so that commuters can get home from work and farmers can get their goods to market,” Del Duca said in a statement to The Pointer.  “This is very different from the growing opposition to Highway 413. A project with a roughly 8 billion dollar price tag that clearly benefits Doug Ford’s friends which needs to be stopped, and Ontario Liberals will make this happen if elected next year. Expanding highways is important, but only where and when they make sense.”

Del Duca added that it is “vital” that all environmental due diligence is completed and residents have the opportunity to comment on the updated studies and the viability of alternatives.

“We cannot have this Ford government bypass the local process,” he stated. 

The loss of green space will not only trigger the loss of climate change mitigating lands, but it will also cost the municipalities money.  The Lake Simcoe Protection Plan estimates that the average annual value of land within its watershed ranges from a low of $440 to $629 per hectare for intensive and non-agricultural lands, to a high of $8,000 per hectare for wetlands and other environmental sensitive landscapes. The value provided is generated from a range of regulating services (water filtration, carbon storage, water cycling), cultural services (recreation, education) and support services (soil formation, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling.)

“In 2010, LSRCA estimated the average cost of purchasing land for the purpose of protection, based on fair market value and confirmed by a certified land appraiser, was $3,000 per ha. This suggests that a one-time investment in $3,000 per ha can yield an annual flow of benefits in many cases exceeding $3,000 per ha. In other words, this public investment is likely to pay for itself within one year in the form of public benefits measured by improvements in well-being and avoided costs,” the Lake Simcoe Protection Plan reads. 

It means destroying these lands is costly both environmentally and financially. 

“All of these things are a drain on the public purse and they’re a drain on the personal purse,” Adam Ballah, a Barrie resident with the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition states. “If you build communities where people are able to live with easy access to work and play, and school and  all these things where they don’t need to rely on a car, you’re supporting equity. You’re supporting that element, and you’re reducing the strain on the public purse by reducing the externalities associated with cars.”

All of these questions for future growth must also now be viewed in the light that is rising at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic tunnel. As governments across the world begin to turn their minds to recovery, environmental advocates globally have been calling for a “green” or “just” recovery that takes into account the value our natural heritage plays in keeping us healthy — something that became abundantly clear during the pandemic as many turned to the natural world for support and an escape during lengthy lockdowns. 

“If your focus is to be much more green moving forward, building freeways is not really the thing you should be doing,” Bowman says. “I think it is the antithesis to a green and just recovery.”

“We can’t just keep saying oh well we can build another factory here, a warehouse here, a golf course here, a housing development, a shopping mall,” Bowles says. “We can’t keep doing this.”



Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @JoeljWittnebel

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