The controversial Emma-Earl pedestrian bridge has hit an unexpected delay after a citizens’ group wrote to the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks with concerns about the City of Guelph’s environmental assessment process. The Ministry has concurred with the group that there have been “deficiencies” with the City’s environmental review, and the project could now be delayed by a year.
“The ministry has advised the Proponent [the City of Guelph] that the deficiencies have been identified with their Class EA process and documentation and as a result, the requirements for a Schedule ‘B’ Class EA have not been met with respect to Aboriginal and public consultation,” said the letter from the Ministry.
The letter (posted below) was in response to concerns raised over the Emma-Earl bridge project with the office of Environment Minister Jeff Yurek at the end of October. Martin Collier, a transportation consultant representing the group Guelph Residents for a Safe Speedvale Avenue, made a case that the Environmental Assessment prepared by the City for the project was insufficient given the goals and challenges of the project.
“There was no Aboriginal consultation, and this whole thing of dropping 400 pages of reports on us six days before a council meeting to get approval for the notice of completion […] They tried to do the bare minimum, and it’s as if they have a certain disdain for the public,” Collier said to Guelph Politico.
City Engineer Terry Gayman stands by the process the City initiated. “It’s just about providing some additional clarity and information in our reporting to the ministry and that’s what we’ll do, so there are no concerns from that perspective,” he said about the ministry’s notice.
“It’s not unusual for the ministry to review a project and identify additional items the ministry would like to see to ensure that the EA process is satisfied, and that’s what we’re seeing here,” Gayman explained. “They’re asking for additional information, and the City is going to provide that information and resubmit our EA notice of completion when we’re done.”
What’s the difference between the two types of assessments?
A citizen’s guide to EAs published by City of Hamilton outlines the difference between a Schedule ‘B’ and a Schedule ‘C’ assessment. While Schedule ‘B’s are meant for projects with “potential for some adverse environmental effect” like improvements or minor expansions, Schedule ‘C’s are for projects with “potential for significant environmental effect,” like the construction of an entirely new facility or a major expansion of an existing facility.
Collier argues that the Emma-Earl bridge is more a Schedule ‘C’ project, when compared to other projects in Guelph that have proceeded with a Schedule ‘B’ review. “In the letter I sent we compare the Gordon Street expansion down towards Lowes, and that’s a Schedule ‘B’ as well,” Collier explained. “There’s no new infrastructure going over a river, it doesn’t require official plan amendment. [Emma-Earl] has way more effects.”
“We rely on the environmental experts and their professional opinions,” Gayman said. “For the Emma-Earl project, the environmental work that was done demonstrates that the alternative we’re moving forward with has a positive impact to the environment, and that was something we presented to council when we brought the EA forward.”
The EA was unanimously approved by city council in September.
In a media release on Thursday, nearly a month after the letter from the ministry is dated, the City of Guelph announced that they will be gathering more information as directed by the ministry. Specifically, that work will include consultation with Indigenous communities with investigation of treaty rights, more detail about public consultation, and more detail about at-risk assessment of species and the impacts on animal habitat.
“We’re planning on starting work right away, and depending on the time it takes re-posting of the EA, the public process, and all the pieces, we’re saying up to one year to finish the work,” Gayman said.
Work on the Emma-Earl pedestrian bridge began in 2015 with a direction to staff to begin an assessment, but Collier and his group have been trying to persuade the City to proceed with a different option than building a whole separate bridge for pedestrians and cyclists 90 metres south of a main artery.
“We could increase the scope of the EA so that Speedvale can come back in as an alternative to the bridge, as opposed to just the bridge,” Collier said. “They can make this much bigger, but they’re doing the bare bare minimum because they’re doing whatever they can to push [Emma-Earl] through.”
Gayman affirms though what has previous been said in staff reports to city council. “There are physical constraint issues in terms of having enough space on the bridge for bike lanes, which is one of the main reasons why the Emma-Earl bridge is moving forward,” he said.
In the meantime, the City will proceed with the Official Plan Amendment for the Emma-Earl Bridge at city council’s planning meeting on February 8. “The Official Plan Amendment is separate from the EA process, so it is continuing forward and that public meeting on February 8 will happen,” Gayman confirmed.
Collier is planning on delegating again like he did last fall, but given the fact that the Ministry of the Environment has now said that the EA isn’t complete, Collier wishes that the City would pump the breaks. “I totally get it, you want to try to do things in parallel, but what we’re saying is just halt this EA and put the focus back on Speedvale.”
Residents for a Safe Speedvale, which is a loose association of people that live in the area around Speedvale at the Speed River, are hoping again that they might convince members of council to take a second look at expanding cycling and pedestrian access on Speedvale Avenue itself. Renovation work on the bridge over the Speed River is expected to begin in the next couple of years, and Collier would like to see sensible improvements to the street as opposed to what he thinks could be a potentially costly and ruinous construction in a natural area.
“I think the endgame is to make Speedvale Avenue an attractive place for all road users, and for the residents and the businesses along Speedvale to make a place that’s welcoming and that isn’t just a conduit for speeding traffic because it’s not really Speedvale right now, it’s a speedway,” Collier added.