The PCs do not want to hear from you–but so-called consultations on mega-highway projects continue
In fall 2020, the provincial government heard from 2,200 people in the Greater Golden Horseshoe on what Ontario’s top priorities should be over the next three decades.
Two thirds of respondents, 66 percent, wanted Doug Ford’s majority PC government to make transit as convenient as driving, and 50 percent said they wanted transportation to be healthy for people and the planet. More than a third of participants (40 percent) also wanted the Province to use existing road and railway infrastructure more efficiently and 35 percent said they wanted it to be easier to travel between work and other places.
These priorities showcase an Ontario public that is increasingly concerned with the very real need to create greener transportation in a world that is undergoing profound environmental change due to human activity.
From temperatures and levels of humidity the human body can not cope with, to the devastation of our oceans and all the visible symptoms of an unhealthy planet in between, more and more of us are tired of inaction on climate change.
Why Ford and his PC colleagues choose to ignore the public desire to scrap the GTA West Highway, pushing forward with plans for both the GTA West Corridor and the Bradford Bypass, is unclear, especially when neither project has proved its transportation benefits for the province. The developers who stand to make hundreds of millions in profits are the most obvious answer to the PC fixation with these projects that will both cause irreversible harm to provincially protected greenspace critical in our ongoing battle against climate change.
The latest public consultation session in regard to Highway 413 highlights just how far the Province is willing to go to create the appearance that it wishes to hear from residents; when in reality it’s clearly not interested in what they have to say.
The most recent public information session on Wednesday was more of a lecture than a chance for citizens to exercise their decision making input in a supposedly democratic process that usually gives the final say to those who will be directly impacted.
That’s not how it was billed:
“The Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) is in Stage 2 of the GTA West Transportation Corridor Route Planning and Environmental Assessment (EA) Study. To further meet the public’s needs and address community questions, the GTA West Project Team is hosting a Community Engagement Webinar where the public and stakeholders can understand more about the project and have their questions answered. You are invited to attend the Community Engagement Webinar hosted by the GTA West Project Team on July 28, 2021 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. The GTA West Project Team will provide a brief overview of the project followed by a question & answer period. Expert panelists from a variety of disciplines (e.g. noise, air quality, fisheries, archaeology, etc.) will be in attendance to answer your questions.”
That’s far from what unfolded.
Attendees could not be seen or heard throughout the two hour “consultation”, consultants appeared to cherry pick questions from an unviewable list and there was no chat function to allow residents to engage with one another.
The highway’s corridor was approved last summer and will see the new 400-series roadway run from Milton to Vaughan via northwest Brampton and south Caledon if constructed. The Region of Peel and the City of Mississauga — along with almost every municipality that has jurisdiction along the route — voted to oppose the highway’s construction, while Brampton and Caledon backed calls for Ottawa to step in to assess the plan.
In May, the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Jonathan Wilkinson, confirmed he would designate the project to qualify for a federal assessment, making a federal takeover of the crucial environmental assessment mechanism increasingly likely. The Province is currently working on materials to show the federal government it is able to mitigate its concerns about issues such as species at risk. This came after Ecojustice and Environmental Defence asked the federal government to take over the assessment in February. The two groups cited concerns about the chosen route and how it could impact federally protected species and climate targets, while causing irreversible destruction of watersheds and crucial ecosystems in the path of the proposed major highway.
The proposed route of the GTA West Highway.
(Map from Environmental Defence)
The consultation on Wednesday was the first of two public meetings planned where residents can try to get a better understanding of the project. There is an engagement meeting with Indignous communities and a public information session scheduled for later this year.
Wednesday’s session started with moderator Glenn Pothier, head of public relations firm GLPi, introducing various Ministry of Transportation (MTO), WSP consultants and AECOM employees who could only be seen briefly when their names were called.
Participants could not see other attendees or use any online tools to communicate during the two-hour presentation. They had no space to turn on their camera or microphone and were not able to see all the panelists. Pothier claimed approximately 400 people attended, but The Pointer is unable to verify the figure. He also said local officials were in attendance but no names were provided.
The Pointer asked MTO why certain functions of the electronic meeting — like the ability for participants to see and interact with one another — were disabled.
“This is consistent with in-person ministry project events, where attendees at in-person events are not asked to publicly disclose their name or the specific questions they have for the project team,” an MTO spokesperson said. The spokesperson did not say why those who wished to share their names and ask questions were kept from doing so, directly during the meeting.
While there are vast differences between consultations done in-person and online, the overall goal is generally to deliver the same outcome — useful engagement and discussion, with a good will effort to answer all questions from the public. This is even more significant for major projects like Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass, both of which will require billions of taxpayer dollars, and could have environmentally devastating consequences if built.
In pre-COVID consultations, participants would be in the same room, physically able to see all the panelists, understand the feeling in the room and ask questions out loud. There is a need for some restrictions to keep members of the public safe during a pandemic, but these are not to be used to strip taxpayers of the right to understand how their money is being used, and the scope of key projects that could have a direct impact on local stakeholders.
Basic planning principles grounded in the Province’s Planning Act, are designed to ensure the public is fully informed of major projects and gets the final say.
“It's really concerning, because it's almost like they're taking advantage of the pandemic,” Rahul Mehta, a local environmental advocate, told The Pointer.
Mehta attended various discussion groups related to other topics throughout the pandemic, none of which prevented him from participating. Throughout the pandemic, council meetings would not have the chat function enabled, but viewers were still seen on screen while delegating and could see others as well. In short, meaningful engagement has persisted online throughout the pandemic, so why is the Province doing only the bare minimum?
Within the first 10 minutes of Wednesday’s consultation, it was clear to participants that their pressing questions would not be answered. The Province says over 100 questions were sent in before the meeting and more than 150 were asked throughout. However, those questions that were never addressed can not be identified.
“If there's hundreds of questions, why can't we see what people have asked and understand what their concerns are?” Mehta questioned.
Throughout the meeting an MTO employee would poll those in attendance, ask questions about key aspects of the project. The first few were typical, asking those participating where they lived and their main concerns about the highway.
As the presentation went on, the polling questions morphed into the Province testing the knowledge of participants and debunking certain concerns that have been reported about the highway.
Some of the polling questions were misleading, leaving out key facts that provide necessary context. For example: one question asked attendees how much agricultural land they believed would be impacted by the highway — 50; 170; 1,000; or 2,000 hectares.
According to the polling, 44 percent believed 1,000 hectares of agricultural land would be impacted by the highway. The MTO employee said this is incorrect, and pointed the blame for this at the Toronto Star and a story it published in January 2020. According to the Province, updated modeling shows only 170 hectares of land would be impacted. It’s not clear how the province came up with this figure, no in-depth research was provided, and the claim was not accompanied by any readily available mapping breakdowns of the corridor to prove only 170 hectares will be impacted.
The MTO staffer failed to explain what broader impact the highway will have on surrounding lands outside the immediate corridor. It is possible the highway and its various easements would cross through only 170 hectares, but building it would require movement of goods in and out of the area, not to mention all the inevitable development that will be triggered in the surrounding areas. It was like claiming the 401 only impacted the specific land the asphalt covered, without accounting for the tens of thousands of hectares around the massive corridor which completely transformed farm land into suburban subdivisions and huge commercial centres.
Staff also failed to account for the disruption to underwater aquifers and increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These factors have direct impacts on agricultural land near the highway.
On top of losing more food production capacity, complex ecosystems home to some of Canada’s protected species will cease to exist.
A recent investigation by The Pointer found nearly 30 at-risk species lie within the approved corridor for the highway, many of which would face serious adverse impacts.
The investigation confirmed 29 species either listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern have been spotted along the highway’s route in the last 6 months, 21 of them inside the areas where proposed interchanges could be built, transforming valuable habitat into a hub of automobile traffic and human activity.
This includes 6 species listed as endangered, 7 as threatened, and 8 species of concern. In many cases, the species are named on both provincial and federal government at-risk species lists, meaning their habitat is usually protected under government legislation. While species of concern don’t receive such protection, they are closely monitored as they could become threatened or endangered.
Species at risk that will be impacted by the construction of the GTA West Highway.
(Graphic from The Pointer files)
Environmental advocates told The Pointer the entire format was unhelpful in answering their questions.
“There's just no transparency whatsoever. Frankly, they dominated the entire evening. It was two hours of MTO and AECOM,” Jennifer Le Forestier, federal Green Party candidate for Dufferin-Caledon said.
According to an MTO spokesperson, the framing of the questions was done in a way to test whether “key messages” were getting across to residents.
“The polling questions were used as an ice breaker at the event and to give attendees an opportunity to engage in an interactive way with the project team and to see if the key messages the ministry is striving to get across are understood by the public and stakeholders,” a spokesperson told The Pointer.
The Province also took aim at the findings of an independent review of the project in 2017 that led to the previous Liberal government scrapping the Highway 413 project. That study concluded the average Ontario commuter would save approximately 30 seconds with the construction of Highway 413. The PCs contend the number is closer to 35 minutes. It remains unclear how they have come to this number. No evidence was provided and no modelling to compare to the detailed work of the 2017 panel was offered.
The highway projects have generated significant opposition among Ontarians across the province.
(Image from Twitter)
At the meeting Wednesday, an MTO employee explained the previous study averaged out trips from across the Greater Golden Horseshoe, including trips from Oshawa to Whitby or from Niagara to St. Catharines.
“So will the GTA West corridor make a significant difference for someone traveling from Hamilton to Niagara? Of course not. But for the people who live, work or travel to the western portion of the GTA, there's going to be a huge impact,” the MTO employee said. It remains unclear what evidence the Province is relying on to make this claim.
The 413 consultation is not the only meeting leaving participants in the dark. The Bradford Bypass is being planned for the area south of Lake Simcoe. The east-west corridor will run 16-km, connecting Highway 400 and Highway 404, plowing directly through the provincially significant Holland Marsh wetland complex. The Bypass is strongly supported by local and provincial politicians who claim it will solve the area’s traffic congestion problems.
A public consultation on the Bypass held earlier this year had eerily similar execution to Wednesday’s meeting on the 413.
“They made a PowerPoint presentation, and they just put the question up, and they answered it. And they did that a few times with a few questions. So there was no opportunity for follow up questions or clarification,” Claire Malcolmson, executive director of Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition said.
Like this week’s 413 meeting, there was no way for participants to see one another or get answers to their questions.
Malcolmson previously attended the York Region consultation for the municipal comprehensive review over a Zoom meeting. It allowed for a live question and answer session, where questions were visible to everyone and all attendees could be seen or heard.
“It's not impossible to do consultation in a way that is acceptably transparent using Zoom,” Malcolmson said.
There has been immense pushback on both projects, mainly from environmentalists and key progressive advocates. More technology has allowed public transportation to become safer, more accessible and faster. Recent polling from the Ontario government confirms more people would like to see more transit projects.
The Bradford Bypass would directly impact the Holland Marsh and have consequences for the already stressed Lake Simcoe.
(Map from 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. The MTO’s own traffic studies show the Bradford Bypass will be congested by 2041.
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 413 consultation touched on the subject of induced demand; the panelist said, “people make transportation choices based on what is available.”
If constructing a massive highway will make more people use it, then wouldn’t investing in more convenient public transportation also induce demand for smarter options?
The GTA West Highway would be a multi-billion-dollar taxpayer funded project that still doesn’t have answers to many important questions. Constituents don’t know if the highway will end up being a toll highway like the 407, there is no updated information on how much it will reduce traffic on the 400 series highways and there is no updated price tag since the Liberals scrapped the project in 2017.
The amount of carbon it will send into the local airshed has not been mentioned, the impact on at-risk species remains unanswered and the direct effects on crucial local watersheds, which advocates say could have devastating consequences, have not been detailed by the PC government in its rush to get shovels in the ground before next year’s election, when it might be too late to turn the plan around.
Advocates are uncertain about how meaningful consultation will be in the future or if the pandemic has given developer-influenced politicians a convenient way to bypass the required public consultation process, while claiming taxpayers are being properly served.
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