Highway 413 environmental impact studies have cost more than $35 million — but gaps mean Ford government will likely have to spend millions more

The impact studies originally began under the Liberals in 2007. New documents obtained by the Star show Ford government did not look at carbon emissions and other factors and is now scrambling to fill in the gaps.

By Paul Webster Special to the Star

Clarrie Feinstein Business Reporter

Sat., Feb. 25, 2023

Ontario has spent more than $35 million over 16 years assessing the environmental impact of the proposed Highway 413 project, according to documents obtained by the Star under freedom of information law.

But despite the cost, the assessments performed by the current government did not analyze the project’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, its impact on some local endangered species, or the larger environmental impact of future development around the highway.

The proposed 59-kilometre highway, stretching from Milton to Vaughan, was revived by the current Ontario government in 2019 after the previous Liberal government scrapped the plan. The Ford government says the highway will accommodate the GTA’s rapidly growing population, saving drivers from long commutes by speeding up traffic, but opponents say it will only induce more car travel, resulting in a surge in greenhouse gas emissions and causing irreparable harm to the area’s biodiversity.

The newly-obtained documents — some first requested by the Star almost two years ago — indicate the Ford government is now scrambling to fill in the gaps with new assessments to avoid a scenario where the federal government steps in to do an environmental assessment of its own.

As a result, Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) has been advised by its consultants to undertake new research into the 413’s climate impacts, the documents reveal, which could potentially cost millions more and further delay the project.

The new areas of study will include estimating the total future greenhouse gas emissions associated with the highway and the impact that will have on Canada’s overall efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

MTO has already commissioned a March 25, 2022, report from the Guelph office of consulting engineering firm RWDI that estimated construction of the 413 alone will release 196,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases.

The report indicates MTO will have to further study how the 413 — and the “land use change” it will spur on existing farmlands and conservation lands — will propel a loss of “carbon sinks” such as forests or wetlands that will deprive the GTA of some of its ability to offset carbon emissions in the future.

“Once a more detailed assessment of land use changes associated with the project is completed, a quantitative assessment of carbon sinks removed and resultant implications for (greenhouse gas) emissions will be done,” the RWDI report explains.

The $35 million total cost for the environmental assessments includes the cost of an assessment launched in 2007 by the Liberal government under premier Dalton McGuinty. However in 2018, the Liberal government under Kathleen Wynne decided not to proceed with the project based on recommendations from an independent expert panel.

In 2017, Dufferin-Caledon MPP Sylvia Jones disclosed that the Ontario Liberal government spent a total of $14.5 million on assessments since 2007, suggesting the Ford government has spent about $20 million since 2019. (MTO declined to confirm the total amount spent.)

In 2019, the Ford government relaunched the highway project, and in 2020 MTO and the Ministry of Environment, Parks and Conservation (MECP) initiated a legal process to allow the assessment to be “streamlined” in a way that would limit further environmental research and allow “early works” on the 413 to begin in 2022 before the assessment was completed.

Those plans appeared to change in May 2021, when the Trudeau government designated the 413 as a possible candidate for an additional environmental assessment at the federal level, which, if performed, could delay or kill the project.

Documents show MTO subsequently contacted one of the environmental consultants on the project, Dallas-based infrastructure firm AECOM, and issued “change orders” in July 2022 requesting that the firm increase the scope of its assessment to include a regional cumulative impact assessment, carbon sink research, and greenhouse gas emission estimates for the 413 once it is in use by thousands of drivers daily.

The fact that the initial assessments did not look at carbon emissions and other major impacts is alarming, said Irene Ford, Vaughan-based co-ordinator of the long-running Stop the 413 citizen group.

Ford, who has pressed numerous municipal and regional governments across the GTA to pass resolutions opposing the 413, said the gaps in the environmental assessments, despite the millions spent, are an affront to taxpayers in the province.

“I have to ask what they spent all that money on, if not doing the basic environmental science,” said Ford, who on Jan. 12 met with MTO officials who deferred answering her questions about the environmental impact of the highway until another meeting now in planning. “I have to conclude that they just don’t care about the environment.”

Asked about the need for further research into the 413’s impacts on climate, endangered species and GTA regional environmental conditions, Jordanna Colwill, director of communications for Ontario Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney, said in an email that “all of the elements you reference are considered in existing provincial regulatory processes to build highway infrastructure, and we are following these processes.”

Colwill added that “a potential federal impact assessment does not replace the provincial environmental assessment that is already underway for the project.”

Highway 413 “is a key part of our government’s plan to build Ontario. As part of this plan, we are fighting gridlock and supporting good jobs,” Colwill wrote. “We will not repeat the mistakes of the last Liberal government, who spent millions assessing transportation projects — Highway 413 included — only not to advance them.”

Last September, Lina El Setouhy, an environmental planner with Montreal-based WSP, retained by MTO to provide environmental consulting services, noted the rationale for further study in a memo to the ministry.

El Setouhy said the environmental assessments undertaken since 2007 did not take into consideration how the highway would impact the entire region, adding that the project’s cumulative effects — such as ongoing air pollution and loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity — should be assessed going forward.

One of the cumulative effects that should be studied, El Setouhy told the ministry, is “induced development” across the region adjacent to the proposed highway, which includes undeveloped farmland and conservation areas.

“If the induced development is certain or reasonably foreseeable, it should be considered,” El Setouhy told the ministry, according to the documents. To do so, the project team will rely extensively on stakeholder and Indigenous consultation and will take into consideration the mitigations suggested to reduce potential cumulative effects, she added.

(WSP did not make El Setouhy available for an interview.)

In a May 21, 2020, meeting between the two ministries, WSP and AECOM, Megan Eplett, a biologist with the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP), confirmed the 413 is proposed to run through areas that may be occupied by two endangered species: the Redside Dace minnow and the Rapids Clubtail dragonfly. Eplett called on MTO to study the impact of the highway on those species further.

“It was noted that the existing conditions and impact assessment work should be completed early in the environmental assessment process and follow the MECP development guidelines,” she said, according to the meeting minutes.

(Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks did not make Eplett available for an interview and referred all comment to MTO.)

During that meeting, Toronto Regional Conservation Authority (TRCA), senior manager Sharon Lingertat also said that the proposed Highway 413 route “appears to impact three watercourses that converge in this location along the Humber River,” and expressed concerns about “how the structure will be built over such a sensitive ecological area.”

Lingertat urged Ministry of Transportation officials to consider the impact of road “salt and sediment loading in the Humber River and the managing of water quality and quantity.”

(Toronto Regional Conservation Authority did not make Lingertat available for an interview.)

“Should the provincial (environmental assessment) be approved in the future, the province has committed to working with TRCA at the detailed design stage,” TRCA spokesperson Crystal Lee said in an email. “Regardless of next steps, TRCA expects to be re-engaged as the project moves forward.”

Eric Miller, research director for the University of Toronto travel modelling group, which studies GTA traffic and highway infrastructure issues, said he thinks the Ford government relaunched the 413 not because it makes good transportation planning sense, but because the highway will result in a surge in real estate development north of the existing urban perimeters of Mississauga, Brampton, Vaughan and Markham.

“It’s just bad, bad policy. It’s a development play,” says Miller. “We’ve seen this with the Greenbelt announcement as well. The only people who benefit from this are the developers who are making a whack of money with low-density suburban housing who own this land. That’s not the way we should be planning the region.”

However Murtaza Haider, professor of data science and real estate management at Toronto Metropolitan University, supports the 413 and said the project is needed due to emerging development patterns in the regions the highway would traverse.

“The region has increased significantly in population over the past four decades, which ultimately requires an increase in the expansion of infrastructure,” he said in an email to the Star. “Public transit is neither efficient nor reliable in parts of the region where this highway will be passing through.”