PC government’s $28B highway budget criticized for ignoring emissions reduction & congestion solutions
“Misaligned finance is holding back progress.”
Those were the words of Christopher Trisos, a researcher and director of the Climate Risk Lab at the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town and one of the authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) AR6 Synthesis Report.
It provided a “final warning” for humanity, pointing out that capital exists to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, encouraging nations to strengthen their emissions reductions targets.
Misaligned funding by governments with diverging priorities is one of the biggest barriers.
Doug Ford was the target of frustration voiced last week by federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, who addressed Ford’s latest attack on Ottawa’s carbon tax, saying his criticism was “incredibly rich coming from a premier who has no plan to fight climate change.”
A day later, on Thursday, Ford shot back during a press conference in Hamilton, calling Guilbeault a “real piece of work.”
He highlighted investments in the Ring of Fire, to extract minerals needed to make electric vehicles, “to make sure we take cars off the road.” He also claimed that his government is “building the largest transit system in North America to get people out of their cars and get them onto the transit system. We’re doing everything we can.”
The facts and figures do not support Ford’s claims in the face of the Environment Minister’s criticism of the premier’s policies.
After taking control of the provincial legislature in 2018, Ford immediately cancelled the electric vehicle subsidy, which resulted in sales plummeting by more than 50 percent (they have since partially recovered), and his move to build the 413 Highway and another one just south of Bradford was in direct contrast to the existing transportation planning for Southern Ontario, which focuses on alternative modes such as regional commuter train lines, light rail transit through cities and bus rapid transit to connect municipal systems.
While the 2023 budget allocates funding largely for projects that are already underway or are needed within the existing transit infrastructure model, its almost $30 billion for highways runs counter to the research that began to shift transportation thinking a couple decades ago.
In 2013 the C.D. Howe Institute released research that showed highway congestion across the GTHA cost as much as $11 billion each year, from lost productivity, shipping delays and associated social costs.
The impact of highway gridlock on individuals and families, who lose time with each other and often suffer from anxiety and stress related to commute times that can reach four hours a day, is hard to measure.
Transportation makes up the greatest proportion of emissions in Ontario — 35 percent according to the Canada Energy Regulator. The Ford government has never hidden its love of highways for single-occupancy cars to travel from place to place in a driver’s utopia. In reality, across Ontario, major 400-series highways have become chronically congested, significantly contributing to longer commutes and a dramatic increase in emissions.
A 2019 study by business to business research consultancy Expert Market, based in the UK, used seven data points to rank the best and worst cities in the world for commuting. Toronto was the worst in North America and was only better than five of the 74 global cities studied, using criteria such as average commute time (96 minutes, the longest on the list), average journey distance (10 kilometres) and average number of hours spent in congestion over 240 commuting days (47).
The urban app Moovit, used by transit riders and other commuters around the world, published its Global Public Transport Report for 2022 last year. It found GTHA residents struggle with the longest average transit commute in North America, 12.29 kilometres per trip, and each individual trip from point A to B took 56 minutes.
The biggest issue, according to transportation experts, is Ontario’s under-funding of transit and over-reliance on highways, which, according to research, create more and more congestion due to the reality of “induced demand”. Increasing road space does not alleviate gridlock, it just creates more volume over time which makes congestion even worse.
Instead of moving away from highway capacity (which the province has been addicted to for a century), at the expense of smart transportation design, Ontario has continually invested in its major roads.
The Gardiner Expressway was built in the ‘50s to alleviate traffic in downtown Toronto. When it became overused, the 401 was extended to alleviate gridlock and now represents the epitome of gridlock in North America, with the infamous designation as its busiest highway. Enter the 407, the toll route built to relieve parking lot traffic on the 401.
Less than six months after the 407 was built in 1997, its toll charges led to a sharp decrease in use, and continued congestion on the 401. The PCs’ solution is the 413, repeatedly claiming it will save drivers up to 30 minutes per trip.
One suggestion made by critics of the proposed GTA West Corridor/Highway 413 to alleviate traffic on the 401 is to remove transport trucks by using 407 transponders for each vehicle.
“We’re building new highways, like Highway 413 and Bradford Bypass because without them, already intense gridlock will more than triple within as many decades,” Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said in the opening message to her government’s Transportation Master plan which came out in February 2022.
Ford and his PC government claim the solution to gridlock is the paving of new highways and the widening of existing ones, announcing in the 2023 budget a staggering $27.9 billion for highway projects over the next decade.
The Pointer reached out to the provincial transportation ministry in July and again this past week to find out how the government concluded 30 minutes would be saved per trip on the 413. Responses did not provide an explanation. An expert panel commissioned by the most recent Liberal government found the highway would only save between 30 and 60 seconds per trip, according to its detailed analysis.
Nonetheless, the PCs are committed to invest $27.9 billion over 10 years for the construction or rehabilitation of highways across the province, a move that has many transportation and environmental experts shaking their heads.
“They're spending billions on what we know are unnecessary highways, but then they can't make financial commitment to necessary infrastructure,” Jennifer French, MPP for Oshawa and NDP Transportation and Infrastructure Critic, said.
The construction of more highways will see more people using personal vehicles opposed to other forms of transportation, in turn leading to more congestion, gridlock and emissions.
Gideon Forman, Climate Change and Transportation Policy Analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation, called the Highway 413 project a “waste” and an example of “inappropriate spending”, warning the impact will stretch much further than the highway itself contributing to massive sprawl across the southern reaches of the Greenbelt.
The environmental organization, which has been a prominent advocate in the fight against the 413, is launching a new ad campaign that highlights the cost of the transit project, displaying posters on TTC and Brampton Transit asking “what else could that money buy?”
The answer? A lot.
On October 1, people from across Ontario gathered at the Brampton Fairgrounds, then walked along the proposed route of Highway 413.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Research from the David Suzuki Foundation found Highway 413, if built, will cost approximately $8 billion and move about 7,000 people per hour at peak times. In contrast, $7 billion could be invested in advancing public transit systems that will move between 22,000 and 29,000 people per hour for less cost.
“There's a whole range of things that we can do in short order, that would move a lot more people on public transit,” Forman said.
He told The Pointer he would like to see this money put toward advancing crucial public transit infrastructure. The 2023 provincial budget briefly mentions a transformation of Go Transit infrastructure but does not give details on what this will look like or specific costs for projects. Forman said the $8 billion allocated for the 413 could easily be swapped to fund transit in the same areas like the Milton Go line, the Kitchener Go line, and developing a Go line to Bolton — a project Caledon council, in particular Mayor Annette Groves, who was the former regional councillor for Bolton, has been pushing for years.
Research from the David Suzuki Foundation found the highway funding could also be used to better deal with many other pressing problems facing Ontarians. Instead of building the 413, 11 hospitals could be built; or 20,000 nurses could be hired; or 40,000 affordable housing units could be created.
“They talk a lot about housing, but we don't we certainly don't see it in this budget. We need to be getting back into the business of publicly funded affordable housing and building it,” French said.
With Bill 23 and the removal of certain parcels of Greenbelt land for development — which will create more sprawl — unnecessary major highways will only increase the value of land developers have already assembled for suburban-style subdivisions.
“We're also really concerned about [Highway 413] being a sprawl accelerator,” Forman said. “So not only is it harmful paving farmland and the Greenbelt, but it also increases and vastly expands the whole thrust towards sprawl.”
Urban planners and environmentalists are increasingly sending warnings about the environmental impacts of sprawl. As development encroaches closer to sensitive ecosystems, there is an increased risk of contaminants entering crucial waterways and other natural habitats, harming crucial flora and fauna.
A previous investigation by The Pointer found 29 endangered, threatened and species of concern that had been spotted along the proposed path of the 413. Twenty-one of these species were found in the areas where proposed interchanges would be built.
MPPs from the Ontario Green, Liberal and NDP parties gathered in downtown Toronto at the end of January to voice opposition to Bill 23 and development of the Greenbelt.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Environmental consequences of the construction of the highway will put significant financial pressure on the government. The Financial Accountability Office, which conducts independent analysis on financial and economic risks across the province, estimated in an emissions analysis the costs to deal with roads, rail and bridge repairs alone, over the rest of the century, could cost approximately $171 billion. This medium emissions scenario is optimistic and, at the rate Ontario is moving, it would more likely experience a high emissions scenario which could see costs as high as $322 billion.
The Province’s own transportation master plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, which was published in February 2022, and the Metrolinx Big Move master plan, stress the importance of elevating public transit systems and modes of active transportation to enhance the way people move. With the sprawling communities that will be built under Bill 23 and subsequent changes to the Greenbelt, Ontario will be left with communities that cannot rely on any method of transportation other than the individual car, and the highway projects the PCs plan to spend $28 billion on over the next ten years.
“When we look to safer infrastructure, whether it's for cycling, pedestrian, that's not that's not likely from the government, because certainly it's not the designing we've seen to this point,” French said. “And I don't see any signaling in this budget that they're going to change course.”
Both French and the NDP Public Transportation Critic and MPP for Ottawa Centre, Joel Harden, said the PC budget focuses on fancy new projects as opposed to working on existing infrastructure. French said she was disappointed, but not surprised, to see a lack of funding for maintaining local roads and highways. Despite an increase in funding on paper, the money is not being reasonably or sustainably allocated to the projects that she sees as more important than new highway projects.
“I think transit and transportation planning should be evidence based, that if they're going to focus on transportation, do it properly.”
Harden points out that while some municipalities have seen a return to pre-pandemic transit ridership levels, others are still falling behind, struggling to maintain ridership and service levels. Even Toronto’s transit had to just cut service to 39 routes as ridership losses continue and it becomes unlikely that pre-pandemic levels will be reached in the near future.
While the provincial budget commits $70.5 billion for transit projects over the next 10 years, a $9 billion increase from the previous year, Harden said there is no funding to help municipalities recover from what has been a “death spiral” for transit.
Another source of contention is the nonexistent funding to help electrify local transit systems, which is the best way to decrease transportation emissions. While some municipalities, like Mississauga, are way ahead in electrifying their fleets, largely thanks to federal funding, the provincial government is providing little support.
“You have to constantly water the grass, you have to constantly renew the systems you have,” Harden told The Pointer. “And there was nothing in the budget for that, there was just money in the budget for these glossy trains that don't exist.”
The move toward more sustainable transportation systems represents a dramatic shift. Forman said he believes Ontarians are on board but the government is failing to get behind the idea.
For almost 100 years, transportation has been a largely individual act, people driving in a personal car which has become the most outwardly visible symbol of one’s status.
“The idea that you get in your private car, in your own little box, and move yourself, it's just not compatible with a climate crisis. It’s not compatible with the congestion that we have. It's not compatible with the physical limits of cities,” he said.
Public transportation offers not only climate benefits, but it can also help more people more efficiently while taking up less space. One full bus is the equivalent of 35 to 40 cars on the road.
“Clearly, public transit is just much more efficient. So we need our government to be thinking in terms of that real efficiency, we need to have a government that has a conservation mindset,” Forman said.
Across Canada, advocates are pushing for new transportation policies. Last week, 65 organizations in BC signed a letter calling on the Premier and the NDP government to immediately divert infrastructure funds away from highway construction and expansion into public transit and active transportation initiatives.
French said she hopes this can be an example to governments of how to prioritize funding and finding creative solutions to keep people moving. In Ontario the removal of tolls on Highway 407 has been suggested, instead of building the 413.
Critics have pointed to Ford’s close relationship with the developers who have already assembled land across the 413 route (which will be worth as much as ten times more with a highway alongside future subdivisions) as the real motivation to build right under and through parts of the Greenbelt.
“This, really disappointingly, is not a government that is working with a plan,” French said. “They are working with somebody's wish list, and it's not that of Ontarians.”
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