With the NDP, Liberals and Greens at Queen’s Park promising to either quash or extensively review the Bradford Bypass if elected, Premier Doug Ford and his PCs are taking steps to ensure that doesn’t happen.
If they don’t secure another majority government a boondoggle will likely unfold after expensive work has already begun on the project, prematurely, handcuffing those opposed to the plan ahead of the June 2 election.
Last week the provincial government awarded a contract to Brennan Paving & Construction, a subsidiary of the Miller Group, to design and construct a bridge along the route of the future bypass. The construction, expected to begin in “late 2022” according to a provincial press release, is allowed to move forward without the proper studies which have yet to be completed for the entire project. An exemption the PCs approved for the Bypass last year allows “early works” to move ahead before necessary studies are completed. The PC government is mostly relying on an Environmental Assessment (EA) completed over 20 years ago to inform work on the bypass.
This rush ahead comes despite concerns from a number of local municipalities that have requested further study of the Bypass before shovels hit the ground, as well as the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OPSE).
“Infrastructure projects should not be politicized. They should be based on evidence and reported to the public and stakeholders transparently,” the organization stated in a June 2021 press release, which criticized the EA completed in 1997. That has not stopped the PCs from relying on it to guide the construction and environmental mitigation efforts for the proposed highway, which was already controversial due to its route through sensitive wetlands and research that shows it will not help with traffic flow through the area.
“These studies are out of date. The EA process and requirements have changed drastically throughout this time frame, and so as the environment,” OPSE states. “The old assessment did not consider whether the province could help congestion issues by increasing public transit or improving existing roads. Engineers believe the government must study other options, so as to ensure Ontarians’ tax dollars are used wisely.”
The PCs are moving ahead with the Bypass without revealing how much the entire project will cost taxpayers. Estimates have suggested the price could be anywhere between $800 million and $2.2 billion if the 16-kilometre corridor of concrete and asphalt through the provincially significant Holland Marsh Wetland Complex is completed.
At the low end, the Province of Ontario could be paying approximately $50 million per kilometre. In November, the PCs announced the 2022 budget would fully fund the project—part of a $2.2 billion investment in new highways and highway refurbishment—but the cost of the Bradford Bypass itself has not been released. Opposition MPP Catherine Fife (NDP-Waterloo) has requested auditor general Bonnie Lysyk investigate the PC government’s handling of the Bypass and Highway 413 (GTA West Highway) projects to determine a full cost estimate, and who is really benefiting from these massive investments.
“These two highways are not expected to substantially reduce commute times or congestion, yet they are expected to have massive financial benefit to people who have donated to Doug Ford’s party,” Fife wrote in a November 2021 submission to Lysyk.
The Ministry of Transportation declined to provide cost estimates when asked by The Pointer, only stating “the Ontario government is committed to fully funding the construction of the Bradford Bypass”.
Follow up questions about the cost estimates for the early works contract and the full build-out of the bypass were not answered.
“We are in the sixth wave of the pandemic and our healthcare and education systems are in dire need of investment. A destructive highway through the Greenbelt that will pollute Lake Simcoe, a regional economic driver, is a wasteful and dangerous way to spend limited tax dollars,” Bill Foster, founder of Forbid Roads Over Green Spaces, one of the many local groups that have mobilized to fight the Bypass, told The Pointer. “We could save a very small portion of the province a few minutes in driving time or we could provide better healthcare, more nurses, better senior care and more childcare spaces. The fact that two Greenbelt highways—the Holland Marsh Highway and Highway 413—are Premier Ford’s major election planks, speaks volumes about his priorities to me.”
Prior to the tender approval for Brennan Paving, the Province released a report outlining the work to be completed and the justifications for moving ahead prior to construction on the main bypass. The Early Works Report included studies of things like the hydrogeological setting, the drainage and hydrology, as well as the terrestrial ecosystems.
Studies on snow drift, human health impacts, fluvial geomorphology and air quality have yet to be completed. The Province is relying on the studies to be completed as part of the greater Bypass project. However, the early works will be completed ahead of those studies, so they are effectively useless in informing any impacts from this part of the project.
There were also a number of concerns raised about the quality of the studies that have been completed in such a short period of time, particularly as it relates to wildlife and species at risk. Only three migratory bird surveys were conducted, during the spring and summer months of 2021, these three surveys consisted of two, 10 minute periods. The survey, unsurprisingly, only identified 12 different species.
According to the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Ontario, the area is home to approximately 109 different avian species, including 14 species at risk or species of special concern.
“This is a violation of international standards. It’s widely recognized that when you’re doing an assessment of an initiative you don’t start until you’ve at least measured all of the impacts to the best of your ability so you can make a rational decision. They are clearly violating that,” said Gord Miller, the former Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, during a recent webinar.
The study did look at species at risk that have historically been recorded in the area, determining the probability of them still being found in the area to be low. This includes birds like the bald eagle, the bank swallow, and least bittern; reptiles like northern map turtle and snapping turtle; and the monarch butterfly.
The area was identified as providing suitable habitat for several species of special concern or other rare wildlife. For the monarch, milkweed was found on the site, a plant monarch caterpillars exclusively feed on, and suitable vegetative or nesting habitat was identified for the chimney swift (threatened), eastern wood pewee (special concern), red headed woodpecker (endangered, the report erroneously classifies it as special concern), wood thrush (special concern). An abandoned building located on the site was also identified as providing suitable maternity roosting habitat for a number of endangered bat species, including the little brown myotis, the eastern small-footed myotis, the northern long-eared myotis and the tri-coloured bat. However, “the interior of the property was not investigated due to health and safety concerns resulting from the deteriorated condition of the house.” Acoustic monitoring that could have determined if the abandoned building was home to any bats was also not completed as the house was located “outside the limits of work.” The site will almost certainly be destroyed as part of the large bypass installation.
The study also appeared to cut corners in other areas as well, along with limited surveying of migratory birds, “Fish community surveys via electrofishing were not completed as there was anticipated to be sufficient available background information of the fish community structure in the Study Area.”
It’s clear the highway would cost significant environmental damage to the area and threaten the already sensitive Lake Simcoe ecosystem immediately to the north.
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.
It’s unclear whether the results of any studies would have changed the extent of the early works. The PC government has shown an unwillingness to consider the clear results of studies that have already been completed as part of the Bradford Bypass.
The Ministry of Transportation’s studies of the traffic congestion relief the Bradford Bypass would create have shown the benefits would be minimal and short-lived. However, this has not stopped Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney from espousing the traffic benefits of the bypass. The press release announcing the contract award notes “connecting Highway 400 and 404 in Simcoe County and York Region will relieve gridlock, create jobs and spur economic growth.”
The province’s own graphics show these benefits to be minimal.
Further, the PCs have yet to address the information from dedicated local advocates and historians who have convincingly proven that the current route of the Bradford Bypass will pass directly over the Lower Landing, a historic site that provincial government officials have described as “more significant than 95 percent of all historic/archaeological sites in Canada.”
“Highways are the gateway drug for sprawl and the Bypass is a perfect example,” states Claire Malcolmson, Executive Director of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition. “Developers own over 3,000 acres of land around this highway waiting for the greenlight to destroy more farmland and wetlands. York Region is planning on destroying 24,589 acres of farmland for new development by 2051, and the Bypass would facilitate the worst of this sprawl in East Gwillimbury. Supporting the Bypass is contrary to building compact and affordable housing, a healthy Lake Simcoe, a productive agriculture sector and climate action.”
The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reiterated that climate action can not wait, and everything from land use and transportation systems, to the energy sector must transform in order to draw down our greenhouse gas emissions. The IPCC has made clear that changes to the way our cities grow are critical to mitigating the worst impacts of climate change. Without this fundamental shift, other efforts to adapt or mitigate the impacts of climate change will not be effective, the report states.
“There is compelling evidence to show that continuing along existing development pathways will not achieve rapid and deep emission reductions,” the report reads. “In the absence of shifts in development pathways, conventional mitigation policy instruments may not be able to limit global emissions to a degree sufficient to meet ambitious mitigation goals or they may only be able to do so at very high economic and social costs.”
“The International Panel on Climate Change outlined how important it is to reduce transportation emissions and how urban areas need to lessen their investment in car dependent infrastructure,” says Margaret Prophet, Executive Director of the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition. "Yet… we get a doubling down on a Greenbelt destroying highway that clearly contradicts the spirit of what climate scientists are telling us we need to do. It’s clear there’s no intention here to tackle climate change seriously. We’re still pulling from a 1950s playbook of economic development that created all of this mess to begin with. This highway is destructive and costly and it will lock in a style of development that will negatively impact our collective health forever and decision makers don't seem to care.”
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Joel Wittnebel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer