Hurry Up and Wait: Ford’s Commitment to New Highways Should Pump the Brakes
Perhaps it’s time for Doug Ford’s Government-That-Always-Says-Yes to learn the power of no.
In its rush to curry favour with voters, provincial Conservatives have committed themselves to a series of projects so wrong-headed and out-dated that even the base must be getting tired of being played for fools.
That came clear last week when Ford’s finance minister Peter Bethlenfalvy reiterated his regime’s support for Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass, scary reminders that Ontario Tories have become the party that time forgot, the living dead of provincial politics.
The fact the announcement came when COP26, the planet’s “last best chance” to save itself, was in full session is an irony utterly lost on Ford, Bethlenfalvy, and their fellow dinosaurs. Crisis? What crisis?
Not that we don’t all love dinosaurs, but it’s time to grow up and accept that things have changed. When Bethlenfalvy smugly asserted that paving thousands of acres of the Greater Toronto Area will reduce congestion and promote “growth” he revealed a level of disingenuousness once considered unbecoming in a member of the provincial cabinet.
Neither plan will reduce congestion let alone eliminate it. Indeed, anyone with a passing awareness of how traffic works and an understanding of the law of induced demand knows that the 413 will exacerbate an already bad situation, condemning countless commuters to wasting even more of their lives trapped in gridlock and the subdivisions that will follow the highway wherever it goes.
The only growth that Ford and Bethlenfalvy’s plan will promote is sprawl. Undoubtedly there are still enough believers in the suburban dream to make a difference at the polls, but whether we realize or not, elections are about the future, not the past. Given that the global climate crisis has long since reached these parts — as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the United Nations Climate Change Conference last week, Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world — it would behoove the provincial Tories to govern accordingly.
That’s asking a lot of a political party lost in an imagined yesterday, but it is crucial; failure is not an option. Not unless Ford and Bethlenfalvy hope to be remembered as the leaders who turned Ontario into the Louisiana of the Great White North.
Their task is not to increase congestion and sprawl but to help Ontario transition to an economy that is smarter, greener, more efficient, and sustainable. The transportation sector is responsible for 25% of CO2 emissions. Even the finance minister seemed aware of this when he released Build Ontario, the 198-page prelude to the government’s full annual budget.
“We’re going to continue to focus on lowering carbon missions,” he insisted with a straight face. “One of the ways you do that is by building public transit and getting cars off the road.”
Well, he got it half right. For millions of Ontarians, however, there are few alternatives to the car, which means endless congestion. But, experts tell us, Ford’s asphalt expansion would decrease travel times on average by no more than 30 seconds. Even this may be an exaggeration. Certainly, the premier’s claim that the 413 would cut congestion by half an hour is not to be taken seriously. After all, even on empty mornings and afternoons at the height of rush hours, the highway would extend just 59 kilometres from Halton to York regions.
Even if Ford’s misguided promises were to be fulfilled and these new highways built, they will do nothing to reduce the number of cars on the road or enable traffic to move faster. Despite Ford’s assertions to the contrary, the results would be more of the same. And let’s not forget the destruction of vast swaths of the Greenbelt that will follow at the hands of the sprawl-makers who donate so heavily to Conservative coffers. They are impatient to send in the bulldozers to clear the land that will yield such a rich financial harvest.
When the Liberals considered the 413 some years ago, they decided against it after an expert study reminded them how little it offered, especially given its estimated price tag of $6 billion.
If the Tories really wanted to relieve commuter hell, they would look at strategies such as road tolls, congestion pricing, gas taxes, and the like. If it also hoped to prepare Ontario for life in a time of unprecedented climate change, it would curb sprawl and protect the increasingly precious Greenbelt and the critical natural processes it enables.
But that costs money. When it comes to a choice between time and money, pay now or pay later, long-term gain versus short-term pain, Ford has made his decision. The message is simple: hurry up and wait.