It was a rough week if you’re a fan of the environment and want to see fewer reasons to drive around Ontario. In the last seven days, Premier Doug Ford cancelled tolls on two provincial highways, and cancelled licence plate renewal fees, but there’s still a chance to stop the construction of at least one more highway in Ontario. At least that was the hope of Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner this Friday afternoon.
“The Holland March highway, or as some like to call the Bradford Bypass, is a climate and economic disaster,” Schreiner said. “It would slice through the Greenbelt, and pave over 42 acres of the Holland Marsh destroying 96 acres of wildlife habitat and 25 acres of provincially significant wetlands.
“We’ve already paved over 75 per of the wetlands in southern Ontario, it would contaminate groundwater and would further pollute Lake Simcoe which is already extremely fragile, and at severe risk,” Schreiner added. “It would increase flood risk and would pump 87 million kilograms of climate pollution into the air each and every year at a time when we’re facing a climate emergency.”
The Bradford Bypass connects Highways #400 and #404 through Bradford just south of Lake Simcoe. The project was shelved by the former Liberal government in their first term, but it was resurrected by the current Progressive Conservative government after they were elected in 2018. Funding was committed to the project in the economic statement last November, but the project remains highly controversial, especially with area residents and environmental activists who are worried about unchecked sprawl in this sensitive area.
“Some people may just see this as another highway project, but for the people of Simcoe and York Region, and those who love Lake Simcoe, it is representative of a project that lacks vision, evidence and steals hope that our tomorrow will be better than our today,” said Margaret Prophet, executive director of the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition, who joined Schreiner for Friday’s media availability.
“In 37 years, it is estimated that Lake Simcoe will have toxic salt levels. The main source is urbanization and roads,” Prophet added. “We want to ensure that our local economy, which is highly reliant on tourism and recreational fishing, has a fighting chance. A highway within the source waters of the lake will spew salt into sensitive wetlands and diverse habitat, and will only add unnecessary stress to a lake that is ailing. That’s a concern for many in our region.”
In 2019, the World Wildlife Fund published data maps of the Golden Horseshoe showing salt contamination reaching dangerously high levels in the Great Lakes. Among the areas with the highest chloride levels is around Lake Simcoe including Barrie where contamination was between 125 and 775 milligrams per litre as of 2016.
“While healthy levels for aquatic life should be less than 120 milligrams per litre, our maps show some areas in southern Ontario currently have levels greater than 1000 milligrams per litre year-round,” said Elizabeth Hendriks, the WWF’s vice-president of freshwater. “Ontario is over salting its parking lots, sidewalks, and roadways. A small pill bottle or salt shaker is all that’s needed to melt the equivalent of a city sidewalk slab.”
Prophet said that her group, and people concerned about the highway’s construction, are also worried about the more literal costs of the project saying that the government needs to provide hard numbers about the construction budget and full studies about the potential environmental impacts.
“We need a full study of this highway and budget right now,” Prophet said noting that money spent on another provincial highway could go to other pressing projects. “We are going in blind without a budget, without full studies, and without any consideration for our climate and for Lake Simcoe or any alternatives. There is no hope in this highway, just destruction costs, and that isn’t a vision we want.”
In terms of the politics, Schreiner said that the table is being set right now for an election about the future of Ontario; while all the opposition parties support putting the Bradford Bypass back on the shelf, only the current premier stands as the singular voice of political support for the project.
“There’s going to be a stark choice in the next election,” Schreiner said. “There’s going to be Doug Ford’s destructive highway agenda that’s going to make life less affordable for people because it’s going to force them to commute longer distances to be able to find affordable place to live. And then there’s the Green Party’s vision, where people can live a more affordable, and, quite frankly, a higher quality of life in the communities they want to live in.”