Ontario blames Ottawa for potential delays to Highway 413 construction

The Ford government is blaming its federal counterparts as the prospect of a lengthy assessment of its key highway pledge threatens to delay the project.

Provincial officials and the minister of transportation believe that the blame for future delays to the construction and creation of its Highway 413 project lies in Ottawa.

The route has been a key promise of the Ford government and would run for roughly 52 km from Highway 400 in Vaughan to Highway 401 near Milton. The province has argued it is a key project to connect communities and reduce gridlock.

Advocates and opposition parties have opposed the highway and promised to cancel it. They argue it would increase congestion in the long-term, pave over farmland and have raised questions about who will benefit from home building along the route.

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“If we didn’t have to do this work with the federal government, we’d have been able to get shovels in the ground much sooner,” Caroline Mulroney, Ontario’s minister of transportation, told reporters at Queen’s Park on Monday.

In May 2021, the federal government took the historic step of designating Highway 413 under the Impact Assessment Act.

When it designated the project, Ottawa cited the fact the highway “may cause adverse direct or incidental effects on federally listed species at risk.”

As a result, all construction on Highway 413 — including early works such as moving utility lines — has been frozen. The Ford government will be unable to re-start any physical work on the project until Ottawa decides it is satisfied.

Mulroney’s comments came on the same day the province released a sharply-worded letter sent to federal Liberals complaining about comments made by Steven Guilbeault, minister of environment and climate change.

“As Ontario has engaged with the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada to work through the initial steps of the Impact Assessment process, the agency has chosen to expand the scope of the review, risking further delay,” Ontario’s deputy minister of transportation complained in the letter.

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One Progressive Conservative insider told Global News they believed the delays to the project and its assessment were as a result of inexperience on the part of the federal government, which has never designated a highway project before.

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A spokesperson for the federal government said they could not estimate a timeline for construction to begin on the highway.

“The Agency is not able to estimate the time required to complete impact assessments as there are many varying factors, such as the nature and quality of information provided by the proponent,” they said.

Click to play video: 'Ontario budget 2022: Bethlenfalvy outlines investments in Hwy 413, other projects'
Ontario budget 2022: Bethlenfalvy outlines investments in Hwy 413, other projects

The Impact Assessment Act requires Ontario to submit a report called an initial project description.

That document will lay out how the province plans to address Ottawa’s concerns, particularly around the endangered species that live along the highway’s proposed route.

The province has exchanged draft versions of that document with the federal government but has not yet submitted its final work.

An internal deadline of the fall has been set to send Ottawa a final version of its initial project description, an Ontario Ministry of Transportation source with direct knowledge of the project told Global News.

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Once that document is submitted — and accepted — a legislated timeline begins.

The federal government will have 180 days to decide if the province is free to continue building Highway 413, or if an impact assessment is required.

If an impact assessment is required, Ontario will have up to three years to complete the studies and information required by Ottawa.

Once that information is submitted, the federal government will have 300 days to complete its report. Up to 30 days later, an official decision must be issued.

The fact that Ontario has not yet completed its initial project description means the timeline for the federal assessment has not started.

The Ford government — which made the project a central part of its re-election platform, even kicking off the 2022 campaign along the route — has said that moving federal goal posts are to blame for its slow submission.

“There’s a lot of ambiguity around how the act would apply,” Mulroney said.

She pointed to a previously released letter in which the federal government suggested that, based on the information it had received in 2020, Highway 413 would not need to be assessed. She said that “months before the last federal election” that decision was changed.

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“Despite that, we have been working with them, trying to answer their questions,” Mulroney said. “Perhaps they’re trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole and (we’re) trying to help them through that.”

Ontario’s complaints about Highway 413 come as tensions between the Ford and Trudeau governments rise over environmental issues.

Guilbeault and Ontario Premier Doug Ford have exchanged public barbs over environmental issues, including Ontario’s decision to remove 7,400 hectares of land protected land from the Greenbelt for development.

“Collaboration is impossible,” Guilbeault previously said of working with the province to understand the effects of development on the Greenbelt and the park.

“There is zero desire. I think the government of Ontario has been very clear: no desire for public consultation, no desire for transparency, and no desire to understand what the environmental impacts and the health impacts to Ontarians would be of going ahead with these developments.”

Ford for his part called Guilbeault a “real piece of work” at a press conference in Hamilton.

“That guy’s a real piece of work, isn’t he?” Ford said. “We’re doing everything we can. Matter of fact I will put our record on the environment against any government in the history of this province or right across the country.”

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The war of words stands in contrast to an apparently close relationship between the two governments on a range of other issues, particularly on a push to foster electric vehicle manufacturing in the province.

— with files from The Canadian Press

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