Ottawa will carry out its own environmental assessment of Highway 413

·4 min read
Environmental groups have critiqued the proposed highway, while boosters say its necessary to ease congestion in a rapidly growing region.  (File Photo - image credit)
Environmental groups have critiqued the proposed highway, while boosters say its necessary to ease congestion in a rapidly growing region. (File Photo - image credit)

The federal government says it is stepping in to do its own environmental assessment of a controversial proposed highway in the northwestern GTA.

Highway 413, which would run through Vaughan, Caledon, Brampton and Halton Hills, has drawn criticism from environmental advocates, municipal councils and some residents, who argue that it is unnecessary and will take a heavy environmental toll.

Worried about an insufficient provincial assessment of the road's full impact, many of them have been calling on federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson to take action.

On Monday, he agreed, writing in a statement that the the federal impact assessment agency, along with other departments, have identified "clear areas of federal concern related to this project."

Speaking to CBC Toronto Monday afternoon, Wilkinson said in particular, there was "significant concern around the number of federally-listed species at risk, and the potential impact on their critical habitat."

The province has maintained that the 400-series highway is necessary to serve the growing Greater Golden Horsehoe Region — predicted to have a population of 14.8 million people by 2051 — and cut down congestion.

The province's preferred route for Highway 413, running from Highway 400 in Vaughan and curving west to where Highways 401 and 407 meet in Halton.
The province's preferred route for Highway 413, running from Highway 400 in Vaughan and curving west to where Highways 401 and 407 meet in Halton. (ontario.ca)

The Ford government is already in the midst of its own "robust" environmental assessment, says Ontario Transport Minister Caroline Mulroney.

"It is unclear what the scope of a federal impact assessment would be, or whether a full impact assessment would be warranted," Mulroney wrote in a statement on Monday after Ottawa released its decision.

She went on to write that her government believes in "one project-one assessment" and "will work with the federal government to address their newly-found concerns around the potential adverse effects on the Western Chorus Frog, Red-Headed Woodpecker and Rapids Clubtail."

Environmental groups applaud move

Sarah Buchanan, Ontario climate program manager with Environmental Defence, said her group was "very pleased" with the update, and expected that the new assessment will put a significant pause on the project's progress.

"We're hoping that both governments get a much better understanding of the potential impacts of this highway, and that the province decides to spend their billions of dollars elsewhere," she said.

Buchanan also said the decision from Ottawa doesn't mean the project will be cancelled — especially given that she's already seen the concept killed under the Wynne government and resurrected under Doug Ford.

"We've seen it rise from the dead before," she said. "It's ultimately in the hands of the provincial and federal governments."

LISTEN | Highway 413 could make congestion worse on GTA roads, critics say:

Tony Malfara isn't letting down his guard either.

Malfara, who lives in Kleinburg, is one of many local residents who have been vigorously organizing against the highway — in fact, he received Monday's news while waiting in a queue to make a deputation against it at a Markham committee meeting.

"We all have full-time jobs, we all have things to do, and its easy to get complacent and say, 'Wow, that's a victory,'" he told CBC Toronto afterwards.

"Until they shut the door, and they put the files in a closet and say this isn't happening anymore, this is going to be a continuous journey."

A number of councils, including Toronto, Mississauga, Orangeville, and Halton Hills, have all passed motions voicing their opposition to the highway's construction.

No federal assessment for Bradford Bypass

Meanwhile, the federal government declined to do its own environmental assessment on a nearby proposed highway that's also raised concerns among environmental groups.

The Bradford Bypass, also called the Holland Marsh Highway, is an an east-west thoroughfare between Highway 400 and Highway 404.

Wilkinson told CBC News the project doesn't merit a federal review in comparison with Highway 413, which is called the GTA West project in government documents.

A view of the Holland Marsh near part of the proposed route for a yet-to-be built Ontario highway.
A view of the Holland Marsh near part of the proposed route for a yet-to-be built Ontario highway. (Jeff Laidlaw)

"The fundamental difference was, while there are certainly still some potential impacts on areas of federal jurisdiction, they did not rise to the same level as the GTA West project," he said.

Environmental Defence and other environmental groups take particular issue with the province's plan to use an environmental assessment of the Holland Marsh highway that dates from 1997, rather than start fresh.

"We're disappointed," said Buchanan of Ottawa's decision not to look into the environmental repercussions itself.

"This highway will also have some devastating impacts. It also was revived around the same time, it's another zombie highway that was previously shelved and then brought back."