No end of the road
TORONTO - Even as public transit is loudly touted as the best weapon in the battle against gridlock and urban sprawl, planners are quietly looking at encircling Greater Toronto with expressways.
Work is to begin later this year on the first leg of a major extension of Highway 404, which now stops in Newmarket.
The 404 extension, expected to reach Queensville in three to five years, is one of the driving forces for construction of 10,000 homes that will turn the village into a city of 30,000.
Just north of Queensville, a four-lane bypass is planned linking the 404 to Highway 400 near Bradford.
A needs assessment is nearing completion looking at Highway 427 - which now stops at Highway 7 near Brampton - to decide whether to take it north.
A 427 extension would roughly parallel the 400 before turning east to connect with it near Bradford.
These are all in addition to a recently approved extension of toll Highway 407, which is slated to eventually reach Peterborough.
Put the pieces together and you have a horseshoe-shaped expressway loop that would heavily influence development patterns as the region grows by 2 million people over the next 20 years.
It's a horrifying thought to Jim Robb, who's fighting against the extension of Highway 407 into Durham Region.
``Study after study shows that within five years of building another lane of highway, that highway lane is clogged up,'' says Robb, a tree surgeon who has degrees in forestry and ecology.
``In this case, development will move from both sides, from the south and the north, on to the (Oak Ridges) Moraine.''
Proposed new roads have a history of remaining mere lines on a map, but what's changed today is the possibility of tolls. The 407 has shown that roads can get built quickly if there's a buck to be made.
Would the private sector be interested in taking a look?
``Absolutely,'' says John Beck, chairman of Armbro Construction, who worked with the consortium that built the 407.
``They all have some toll revenue possibilities, but maybe not enough to cover the whole capital costs. In that case, it could require some government funding as well.''
There's no better example than Queensville to support the notion that roads and development go hand in hand.
``It's a requirement that the transportation links have to be in place before they can get started,'' says York Region chair Bill Fisch.
The $337-million, 70-kilometre Bradford bypass and extended 404 - running past Keswick and the south shore of Lake Simcoe - will also be of interest to cottagers, says Al Duffy, Queensville's project director.
``Cottage country traffic would be able to move on the top of the city rather than through the centre, on 401 and 407,'' Duffy says.
Peel Region is getting a $68 million, nine-kilometre northerly extension of Highway 410, but Brampton Mayor Peter Robertson says that's not enough. His residents, he says, also need an extended 427.
``If you want to illustrate gridlock, come out at 8 a.m. and park at Highway 50 and Highway 7. You'll see why the 427 does not function the way it should.''
Robertson's ambitions don't stop at 427, not by a long stretch. He wants to see planning start on a Son of 407 - dubbed the 413.
``We're at the stage in our history to talk about the 413,'' he says. ``It's basically a road that runs parallel to the 401, parallel to the 407, but it's sort of the next jump up.''
Robertson worries that development could preclude a new east-west expressway unless the route is picked out now.
``I'm red-flagging that if we don't start talking about it sooner, we won't be able to designate it. We're saying, `Let it not be said we weren't visionary. Let's say this needs to be done '.''
York Region's Fisch can see the need for a 413 running southwest to Niagara, connecting with the proposed mid-peninsula expressway atop the Niagara Escarpment to the U.S. border.
``We've met with the chairman of Hamilton-Wentworth and the chairman of Niagara,'' he says. ``We thought we'd like to do something connecting into our area, across Peel, across York and into Durham.''
Fisch and Robertson are key players on the Greater Toronto Services Board, which is pushing for a major busway in the Highway 407 corridor and expanded GO Transit.
Outgoing board chair Alan Tonks favours giant park-and-ride lots along the 407, linking 905 commuters to an extended subway system.
Tonks says the road ambitions of Fisch and Robertson run counter to the strategy of pushing for federal and provincial funds for transit.
``I thought everyone was in agreement that the highest priority is transit,'' Tonks says. ``I still believe that a sustainable plan has to have the emphasis on transit.''
A car-based strategy is the wrong fork in the road to take, he says.
``More people are going into cars and less into transit, which is the very direction we don't want to go. We want to get massive changes in behaviour not only from the present population but the 2 million people coming in.''
It's worrisome that the province, which would initiate major road projects, is not collaborating with the services board, he adds.
``I have said to the minister on a couple of occasions that because this plan is so interdependent, we should be working together very closely.
``If we build the roads system, it not only sucks up money but it tells the development industry who are holding on to their properties that that's where we're going.
``And they're going to build according to the style that they have thus far, and that's automobile-oriented. And agricultural lands and environmentally vulnerable lands will fall by the wayside.''
Protecting these lands is a hard fight to win, says Robb, whose activism helped bring about the Rouge Park in northeast Toronto.
``Highways and (sewer and water) pipes are the biggest reason for urban sprawl. Once the highway and pipe is there, the urban sprawl follows.''
Robb fears that completion of the 407 east to Highway 115/35 near Peterborough will spur building of subdivisions stretching north to the moraine through Durham Region.
``It will take up some of the best food land remaining in Canada.''
Environmentalist Gord Perks says transportation experts have documented that new roads simply fill up with new traffic.
``You can say build 407 and 401 runs smoother, but that's not what happens. The 401 stays full, you build 407 and it fills too. The 407 creates a new bunch of traffic rather than doing anything for the old bunch of traffic.''
And congestion worsens, said Perks, of the Toronto Environmental Alliance.
``In total, the loss to Toronto's economy because of congestion will go up because of Highway 407; you'll have more people sitting in their cars longer.''