Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Hwy. 407 — a road cut short

Hwy. 407 is littered with jackknifed political promises.
Now, its extension to Hwy. 115/35 has become a highway of headaches for Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne after her government abruptly announced earlier this year that it would stop just 19 kilometres east of Brock Rd. at Simcoe St.
Vehicles exiting the public toll highway extension can go south through downtown Oshawa to Hwy. 401 or north past the tiny Hamlet of Columbus that the locals describe as a golf-course-sized community with about 120 houses.
Many of the 330 or so residents of Columbus feel betrayed by the change in plans — and they’re not alone.
Peterborough’s peeved. Oshawa’s outraged.
All along the planned route somebody’s got something to say about Wynne’s decision to build the extension in stages with no set date for the completion of the project all the way to the Hwy, 115/35 junction.
The mayors for Peterborough, Clarington, Oshawa and Scugog, and Durham Regional Chairman Roger Anderson voiced their opposition at a meeting with the minister in November, saying the new proposal is “not viable and simply not fair” to the whole region, their communities, the Hamlet of Columbus and Kawartha Lakes.
Oshawa is encouraging residents to come out and support the full extension at a public meeting on Jan. 12.
On the other side of the road, Transport Action Ontario says building the project as planned will bulldoze through thousands of hectares of prime agricultural land and two provincially-significant wetlands. That organization wants the road to stop at Simcoe St. permanently.
Wynne said the government still intends to build the project when it can find the money to finance the project.
”There was a commitment made to extend the 407 to 35/115. We’re still committed to doing that which is why we’re buying properties between the end of the 407 now and 35/115. We’re buying properties on both stages of the extension,” she said.
“Going to Simcoe St. at this point is ... it’s a function of how you build a big project like this. The first part of the 407 was built in stages. But also because we’re coming out of an economic downturn and just in terms of available money, this is the decision that was made.”
Simply getting the extension built as far as Simcoe St., given the state of the economy, is a victory, she suggested.
As unveiled by the former Ontario NDP government of Bob Rae, Hwy. 407 was to be a tolled alternative to the ridiculously congested Hwy. 401.
The Ontario Conservatives essentially sold it in 1999 with a 99-year lease to a consortium of private companies, plugging a hole in their budget just before the provincial election despite a Common Sense Revolution promise to apply the proceeds of asset sales to the provincial debt.
The Ontario Liberals campaigned on a promise to roll back the tolls — despite all evidence that it was impossible — and sure enough the courts decided that a contract was a contract.
It had been envisioned from the beginning that Hwy. 407 would go all the way to Hwy. 115/35, but in March 2007, seven months before a provincial election, the Dalton McGuinty and Stephen Harper government teamed up to set a date for completion of the project — 2013.
“You’ll be able to zip down the 115/35 and take the off-ramp to the 407 going west,” Liberal MPP Jeff Leal told the Peterborough Examiner at the time.
It was earlier this year in the Peterborough Examiner, the Toronto Sun’s sister paper, that most residents and regional politicians learned the project would be going only as far as Simcoe St. in Oshawa for the foreseeable future.
The provincial promise to build the entire extension by 2013 hit a serious roadblock — the recession.
The first 19-kilometre stage of the proposed 50-kilometre extension now isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2015.
Of the two 10-kilometre links from the extension to the 401, only one near Lakeridge Rd. will be built in the first phase of the project.
These aren’t the only highway projects that are giving the Ontario government grief.
Folks in Halton Region are upset that the province is insisting that a route for the toll Niagara to GTA Corridor highway — previously the Mid-Peninsula Highway — be pencilled in through environmentally-sensitive lands protected under the area’s proposed official plan.
Similar local complaints exist with the GTA West Corridor project, which would cut through Halton Hills.
As the government tries to build a long needed network of highways around Toronto, it’s being driven around the bend by those who don’t want them and those who wanted them yesterday.
Those planned highways cut through choice provincial seats that can turn a party leader into a premier.
Whitby-Oshawa MPP Christine Elliott said the federal government agreed to provide financial help for the province’s plan to build a subway to York Region in exchange for a firm commitment that the extension would be built to the 115/35.
“As far as I’m concerned, or as far as the people of Durham Region are concerned, a deal is a deal,” she said. “We’re treating this as the government reneging on a deal. They should have put the money aside for this. They shouldn’t have signed it if they didn’t have the money. I’m sure at the time they did have the money but they’ve since allocated it to other priorities. And it’s not fair.”
Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has said that he’ll build the entire extension if his party gains government in next October’s provincial election.
Elliott predicts some riding races will be won or lost on this issue.
”I think it’s going to be absolutely the most important election issue for a lot of us, certainly it will in my riding because they’re proposing to end it at Simcoe Street and Columbus,” the PC MPP said. “It’s going to be disastrous and the people of Columbus are absolutely up in arms about this.”
Rosemary McConkey, a resident of the Hamlet of Columbus, said it would be wrong to view this as just a story that affects her hometown because the impact is on the whole GTA.
In addition to raising safety and traffic concerns for those people who live near the Simcoe St. terminus, the ending of the extension near Columbus means stalled economic plans for the entire region, she said.
“It should be a Toronto bypass. That was its intention,” she said.
On top of that, $3 million was just spent last year to reconstruct roads in that area that will have to be widened, and regional and local governments are already warning their residents that their property taxes will go up to pay for capital improvements needed to accommodate the end of the extension north of Oshawa, she said.
Ajax resident Tammy Flores, who is currently embroiled in a plate denial battle with the private consortium that runs Hwy. 407, said she’s joined up with the Columbus group because they have “overlapping issues — that being public accountability in decisions that are made that impact our lives.”
Flores said the public deserves to know if the current Hwy. 407 operators will get the contract to oversee tolling on the extension, which will remain in public hands.
“Are people going to have two bills or are they going to sell off the billing to the current operator?” Flores said. “I live in Durham Region and I know that my property taxes are going to go up probably about 10% as the result of the construction of this highway. Are you building a highway for the elites or are we actually going to be able to afford to drive on this highway”
Wynne said final decisions on how the road will be tolled have not been made, but she wants a seamless system along the entire length of the highway.

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