Doug Ford’s trip to the north represents a dramatic reversal of fortune for one of the most important pieces of infrastructure for Ontarians, right in the middle of their biggest city. The Ontario government previously allocated the lion’s share of the funding for the project at $1.2 billion, about 63 per cent of the estimated $2.3 billion total.
But the newest provincial budget allocated just $87 million for the project, and Mr. Ford promptly announced that a new expressway would be built to connect Kingston to St. Catharines, bypassing the Lake Superior Bypass’s idyllic waterfront skyline. The budget that was used to allocate the funding for the construction had been prepared under the previous government.
The debate over the purpose of the road will likely be much harder to resolve when the official project budget is announced. Former Infrastructure Minister Sean Miller suggested to The Globe and Mail that the highway is a necessary sacrifice to pay off the province’s debt. Ford has compared the highway’s construction to the route of the National Highway System as a defining moment in the expansion of Ontario. From there, though, the connection between the main projects becomes tenuous.
In this case, the logic for building the highway is quite thin. Drive up from St. Catharines and try finding a stopping place within 30 minutes of the Kingston city centre. I got it wrong the other day, and spent 20 minutes and 14 miles to find it. You could probably drive to Kingston from Kingston to Windsor within one hour and a half. Unfortunately, you’ll never leave Toronto on this route.
While we don’t yet know the plan, speculation has already begun about the anticipated route. Among the most logical theories is that the highway will use one of two existing segments of Highway 401.
Under this plan, Highway 401 would be elevated to high altitudes in order to avoid the beautiful landscape which makes the area surrounding Lake Superior so attractive to so many of us, as well as the many waterways that border the north shore, giving us tremendous access to fishing and the outdoors.
But the other thing that makes Highway 401 and the other Canadian sections of I-401 so appealing is how well it is used by everyone on the system. My commute from Mattawa to Toronto averages 25 hours a year. In the last two months, the road has logged over a billion kilometres travelled. Compare that to the ongoing daily traffic during rush hour on the eastbound stretch of route 401 from Toronto to Ottawa, which moves 12,000 vehicles.
Speaking to the Toronto Star, several witnesses who drive the road had mixed reactions to Ford’s plan. “We’re all tired of politicians yelling at each other,” one driver told the Star. “We’ve tried everybody else. Let’s see what this new guy has to offer.” Indeed, there have been a few jokes that Ford should continue his campaign against public-transit alternatives, but also noted that, should Ford eventually regret his plan, he could always invoke something like the provincial Sales Tax.
But a part of the Highway 401 that would be elevated isn’t an optimal option — contrary to popular belief, taxpayers pay for highway improvements across the country through the Canadian transportation act. And you can see how the public would be aghast to see taxpayers’ dollars used to construct a highway that offers little public benefit to anyone other than those who live and work along its route.
Still, if Ford lives up to his assurances that his budget would help build our public infrastructure with limited private sector involvement, I’m sure he’ll feel justified in attacking this plan.