Highway 400 runs through the Holland Marsh. Image credit: Floydian/Wikimedia Commons.

This is part one in a two-part series on the Ontario government’s proposed development on the Greenbelt.

The Doug Ford government has a highway obsession, as it plans to spend more than $21 billion on highway infrastructure over the next decade.  

Of that huge figure, between $800 million and $1.5 billion or more will be spent to build the proposed Bradford Bypass (also known as the Holland Marsh highway), which has become a huge flashpoint of contention in the region.

The Bradford Bypass is a proposed four-to-six lane, 16-kilometres highway that would create an east-west link between Highways 404 and 400 and cut through the Holland Marsh — part of the protected Greenbelt that contains provincially significant wetlands and some of the best agricultural land in Canada.

The Holland Marsh is central to Ontario’s food security, with some 200 farmers growing more than 30 vegetable crops. About 60 per cent of the Holland Marsh is agricultural land, while 40 per cent is wetlands. 

Jack Gibbons, chair of Lake Simcoe Watch, said in an email that the highway would not only contribute to loss of wetlands and wildlife habitat, but also would increase phosphorus and salt pollution in Lake Simcoe.

A recent report from the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition states that the Bradford Bypass would negatively impact 22.1 hectares of high-quality woodlands; 17.2 hectares of Holland Marsh (designated environmentally sensitive area); 9.5 hectares of designated provincially significant wetlands; and 32.7 hectares of significant wildlife habitat.

This report was based on a four-lane highway, not the six lanes that the government now says will be necessary by 2041.

However, proponents of the Bradford Bypass claim it would cross into the Holland Marsh wetlands at their narrowest point and impact only about 10.75 hectares of the total marshlands.

Given these arguments, Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner has nonetheless recently stated that the Bradford Bypass “would create an additional 87 thousand tonnes of climate pollution per year” because “more highways means more cars on the road — that’s how induced demand works.”

Schreiner also noted that paving over of wetlands would contribute to flood risks in the region. 

Saving commute time?

Essentially, the Bradford Bypass would provide a short-cut for York Region and Simcoe County commuters hoping to decrease their commute time in the GTA. But even that claim is contentious.

While proponents of the Bradford Bypass insist it would cut about 35 minutes from their commute, they have provided no evidence or studies to support their claim. 

Meanwhile, Laura Bowman, a lawyer with Ecojustice has said that given the time savings on other similar highways, the likely savings in commute time would be “marginal…60 to 80 seconds”.

The Bradford Bypass could also be a toll highway. When asked this question, Minister of Transportation and York-Simcoe MPP Caroline Mulroney answered vaguely:

“We are still working out the details with respect to new infrastructure but I am pleased that we are moving forward with it. It’s something that people have been looking forward to for a long time.”

Paying a toll to save 80 seconds on one’s commute time does not seem particularly attractive, but this has become an ideological battle. One side wants to open up the Greenbelt for development and growth, while the other side is adamant about protecting the Greenbelt and preventing urban sprawl.

Environmental assessment?

Those hoping that an environmental assessment of the Bradford Bypass will deal fairly with the issues may be sorely disappointed.

Lake Simcoe Watch was one of 20 organizations that asked the federal government in February to conduct an environmental assessment of the highway project, given that the latest assessment was conducted in 1997 — 24 years ago. Their letter to Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, written by Bowman, stated that the 1997 assessment “did not consider cumulative effects, climate change, or detail the impacts on natural heritage, migratory birds, fisheries, First Nations or discuss air pollution.”

But in a letter from Wilkinson dated May 3 and addressed to Bradford-West Gwillimbury mayor Rob Keffer, he wrote that the Bradford Bypass project does not warrant a federal assessment under the Impact Assessment Act.

     Wilkinson wrote:

“In making my determination, I considered that existing federal, provincial and municipal legislative and regulatory processes, along with the application of mitigation measures will address the potential adverse effects and public concerns associated with this project.”

That leaves the environmental assessment of the Bradford Bypass in the hands of the Doug Ford government.

In a May 3 news release from Ecojustice, which represents environmental and community groups, Bowman stated:

“The provincial process lacks credibility due to the gutting of environmental assessment laws and policies in recent years. Our clients will continue to hold the province and the federal government accountable to protect fish, wetlands, wildlife and species at risk under the remaining laws. It remains to be seen if the public will ever get access to key information about whether the bypass is needed and the full extent of the environmental impacts that could occur.”

Not only have provincial environmental assessment laws been gutted, but now the province is doing some “streamlining.” 

As Mulroney stated during that May 31 interview:

“We are fully committed to the environmental assessment process which was always intended to protect the environment and so, while we are streamlining the [assessment] process, that doesn’t mean we are changing the outcome. I want to be clear, we aren’t relaxing any environmental protections, we are just looking for ways to update the [environmental assessment] process that will remain protective of the environment but ensure that we can get this vital piece of infrastructure finally built.”

“Streamlining” the assessment process to “ensure” the building of the Bradford Bypass sure sounds like stacking the deck to most. That may be why support for the project is starting to decline. In recent weeks, both Barrie and Innisfil voted against motions that would have declared support for the project.

Gibbons said “only East Gwillimbury, Bradford-West Gwillimbury, and the Region of York have endorsed [the Bradford Bypass].”

As we shall see, the province is working hand-in-glove with AECOM — one of the most powerful corporations in the world — to get the Bradford Bypass built. Apparently, the opportunities for future development in the region were just too enticing for the global giant to pass up.

Canadian freelance writer Joyce Nelson is the author of seven books. She can be reached via www.joycenelson.ca

Image credit: Floydian/Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note, June 23, 2021: A previous version of this article stated that Ecojustice lawyer Laura Bowman said the actual savings in communite time with the Bradford Bypass would be marginal. More accurately, she said it was likely that the savings in commute time would be marginal, based on similar highways. The article has been updated. 

Joyce Nelson

Canadian freelance writer Joyce Nelson is the author of seven books and many hundreds of articles and essays published by a variety of magazines and websites. During more than 30 years as a full-time writer,...