CALEDON, Ont. — Ontario Premier Doug Ford doubled down on his support for another controversial Greater Toronto Area highway project that’s mired in environmental concerns and uncertainty over its economic and social benefits.
Ford was in Caledon, Ont., on Wednesday for a campaign-style stop at the site of the proposed Highway 413.
He touted the route as necessary to relieve traffic congestion in the regions of Halton, Peel and York that he said are expected to grow in the coming years.
“We’ll be delivering the much-needed 413 highway,” Ford said. “Real action needs to be taken to fix what’s broken.”
It was his Progressive Conservative government’s second event this week in support of a planned highway in the growing Toronto area, infrastructure they argue will benefit commuters and the economy.
Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said Wednesday that Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass will not be tolled roads once completed.
It’s unclear exactly when construction will begin. Public information sessions on Highway 413 are to be held next month, and the government said Indigenous communities and other residents will have more opportunities to give input.
But the project has drawn criticism from political opponents and environmental advocates, who are concerned it will pave over farmland and environmentally sensitive areas, including the protected Greenbelt.
The provincial New Democrats and Liberals have both said they will not go through with it if elected next June.
Meanwhile, the former federal environment minister designated the highway for an impact assessment last spring, citing findings that it could have adverse effects on species at risk.
When asked Wednesday about the highway’s impact on the Greenbelt _ which was created to protect environmentally sensitive land from development _ Ford said his government considers it critical infrastructure.
“It’s an absolute critical highway that we need to build for the influx of immigration that we’re going to see,” he said.
“What we’ve heard is we’re in desperate need of this highway and we’re going to build it.”
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He also accused previous governments of failing to tackle traffic congestion.
The Progressive Conservative government set aside $2.6 billion in its fall economic statement for highways and bridges this year, including unspecified funds to advance Highway 413.
But the government hasn’t provided full price tags for the projects, drawing alarm from opposition politicians.
The Ontario New Democrats on Wednesday asked the province’s auditor general to review the Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass projects in order to get full financial estimates.
NDP finance critic Catherine Fife wrote in her letter to Bonnie Lysyk that she’s concerned over the lack of transparency and whether the projects will mean cuts to other planned infrastructure.
She also noted concerns that the highways will benefit Ford allies and not reduce commute times to the degree Ford’s government has claimed.
“I believe Ontarians deserve to know exactly how these projects have been proposed and prioritized over so many important infrastructure investments this province desperately needs,” she wrote.
The Liberals also wrote to Lysyk asking for an investigation into recent government talks with managers of Highway 407, amid reports that the province didn’t request a toll reduction on that route.
The party and others argue such a move would be another option to provide congestion relief without spending billions of dollars on the 413.
Ontario Green Leader Mike Schreiner said the highway won’t save commuters enough to justify creating more pollution and other environmental impacts.
“Highway 413 is a climate and financial disaster,” Schreiner stated. “It needs to be cancelled.”