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Ontario’s Multi-Billion-Dollar Highway Expansion is Shortsighted, Columnist Says

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s continuing push to solve transportation issues by expanding highways is a lost cause, says a Toronto Star columnist.

“The solution to traffic and gridlock is not more roads,” writes Shawn Micallef. “Public transit, particularly rail, is the key to getting people out of cars and moving vast amounts of them around a region.”

That was the vision that Conservative MPP Sir Adam Beck tried to instill in 1915 when he envisioned an electric rail network for the area, Micallef says. But more than a century later, highways throughout the Greater Toronto Area suffer from chronic traffic gridlock. In response, Ford’s cabinet is currently planning to expand highway capacity by spending billions of dollars to develop a new Highway 413, reports the Toronto Star.

Micallef says that plan will only result in “induced demand”, where residents increase driving habits in line with expanding road capacity and perpetuate congestion issues. “Has the endless project of adding lanes to the wide beast that is the 401 through the GTA kept it from being routinely jammed?” he asks. “Drivers can answer that.” 

And not only will a new highway fail to solve the problem, Micallef adds: It will also destroy sensitive environmental areas and “unleash the kind of development that just puts more cars on roads.” A notable result of more cars and more driving is an increase in the emissions from transportation, which already account for a quarter of total global emissions.

But expanding road infrastructure is not the only way to address transportation problems. Micallef looks back to the “radial” electric rail systems that once accommodated the region’s transportation needs. Though electric rail was abandoned in the 1930s as automobiles grew in popularity, the system offered efficient, reliable transportation throughout city areas.

Far from a fringe idea, electric rail infrastructure was the subject of a recent Toronto Region Board of Trade report that “makes recommendations to address the challenges cities face in enabling anywhere-to-anywhere + anytime travel,” he adds. In the report, the Board calls for a standard, 10-minute service frequency across the region so commuters can “just turn up and go.”

Along that route, commuters would forget phrases like “the QEW is a parking lot,” says Micallef.

Residents’ preference for cars won’t go away anytime soon, and will continue to be a significant determinant of lifestyle, Micallef adds. But that only points to the need for huge investments in rail infrastructure—rather than highway expansion—so people can see that “other transportation options offer a better lifestyle.”