By Mike Anderson

The province’s plan to fast-track the Bradford Bypass, a 16.2-km four-lane highway linking the 400 to 404, could face a new roadblock if the federal government decides to reverse its earlier decision not to subject the $1.5 billion project to a federal impact assessment.

According to a spokesperson for the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, it has received “multiple requests” to reconsider the decision, made by former environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson, not to proceed with an assessment.

“In November 2021, the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada received a letter with a request for the Minister to reconsider the response that the project does not warrant designation under the Impact Assessment Act.

Since then, the Agency has received multiple requests for the reconsideration of the former Minister’s response that the Bradford Bypass Project does not warrant designation under the Impact Assessment Act. The Agency is currently reviewing the information provided in those requests,” said Karen Fish, the Agency’s manager of communications, in an email to The Post on January 21.

In May 2021, despite concerns raised by environmental advocates, local municipal councils and residents, Wilkinson declined to subject the project to a federal impact assessment, even though he had agreed to do so for Highway 413.

The Minister determined that a federal impact assessment was unwarranted because the provincial regulatory review process was sufficient to “address the potential adverse effects and public concerns raised in relation to those effects.”

His decision was also influenced by a report by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, which said the potential for adverse effects would be “limited through project design, the application of standard mitigations measures and through existing legislative mechanisms.”

However, much has changed since last May.

The province’s decision in October to exempt the bypass from the Environmental Assessment Act (EAA), so it could fast-track “early works,” including an overpass at Yonge St. and 2nd Concession, may have backfired, with opponents of the bypass redoubling their efforts, including lobbying the federal government to reverse its earlier decision.

Environmental groups were buoyed by the appointment of a new environment minister, Steven Guilbeault, last October. Guilbeault is a former director of Greenpeace Quebec and a climate activist who scaled the CN Tower in 2001 to draw attention to the issue of climate change.

Jack Gibbons, chair of Lake Simcoe Watch, frustrated with the province’s decision to exempt the bypass — which he calls the Holland Marsh Highway — from provincial environmental legislation, is hopeful that Guilbeault will lend a sympathetic ear and agree to a federal review.

On January 10, Gibbons co-signed a letter to Guilbeault with Claire Malcolmson, executive director of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition, and Margaret Prophet, executive director of the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition, asking the Minister to initiate a federal impact assessment.

They argue the bypass, which cuts across the environmentally sensitive Holland Marsh and would have average daily traffic of approximately 58,000 vehicles, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, adds to phosphorus pollution, destroys wetlands and forests, threatens species at risk, and allows more road salt to flow into Lake Simcoe endangering fish habitats.

Gibbons also argues there is little support for the project around the Lake, pointing to a recent telephone survey of 900 residents in three Lake Simcoe ridings conducted by Lake Simcoe Watch, which shows that only 29 percent of Lake Simcoe voters support the bypass.

“It just doesn’t make sense to proceed with a project which will cost over a billion dollars when it is supported by only 29 per cent of Lake Simcoe voters,” Gibbons told The Post.

“Since Doug Ford refuses to subject this project to an environmental assessment, we’re forced to appeal to the federal minister of the environment to require a federal environmental assessment to determine whether this is an appropriate way to meet our future transportation needs.”

“It just makes absolutely no sense to spend over a billion dollars on this project without determining whether there’s a better way to meet our transportation needs or to determine how the environmental impacts of the project can be minimized. It is just irresponsible to spend over a billion dollars and to threaten the health of Lake Simcoe without doing proper studies.”

Gibbons hopes the feds may force the province to look at alternatives to the bypass, including upgrading local roads, like Queensville Side Rd. and 8th line.

Meanwhile, Liberal MP Leah Taylor Roy, who represents the riding of Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill, has sponsored a petition to have the federal government review the project’s environmental impact and the feasibility of the proposed route.

The petition, which is open until February 6, has received 2708 signatures as of January 24 — this follows a previous petition on Change.org, which garnered more than 9,150 signatures.

Steven Del Duca, the Ontario Liberal leader, has also pledged to stop the Bradford Bypass and Highway 413 until an updated environmental assessment is completed.

“Ontario Liberals are committed to stopping Highway 413, and pausing any further work on the Bradford Bypass until a new environmental assessment can be done in an open and transparent way,” said Del Duca, who, as former minister of transportation in Kathleen Wynne’s cabinet, initially stopped the construction of Highway 413.

“We will not allow shovels to go in the ground unless the impacted
communities have the chance to see an updated assessment that proves it is environmentally safe. We would ensure those assessments look at induced demand, climate change and alternative solutions to deliver infrastructure to the Lake Simcoe region that serves its people and environment today and into the future. If the updated assessments fail to meet this standard, we will stop the Bradford Bypass just like Highway 413.”

Despite growing opposition to the Bradford Bypass, York-Simcoe MPP and Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney remains committed to the project.

Mulroney says the bypass is much needed infrastructure that will reduce traffic congestion and make it easier for local farmers to get their goods to market.

She points to support for the project from municipal councils, like Bradford West Gwillimbury, Georgina and East Gwillimbury, as well as the Holland Marsh Growers Association.

Mulroney also believes that despite the decision to exempt the project from the province’s Environmental Assessment Act, her government will take the necessary steps to mitigate any potential environmental impacts.

“The Bradford bypass already underwent the most stringent environmental assessment process, the individual environmental assessment, and that was done back in 2002. It’s the most stringent kind of process that is available under the Environmental Assessment Act,” she told The Post on January 13.

“We are also updating the environmental assessment process to reflect changes that have occurred since 2002. And there are over a dozen environmental studies, like air quality, hydrology and fish and wildlife impact assessments, that are yet to be completed.”

“We are taking into account changes to regulations, we are taking into account new information about the highway, and we are undergoing a series of new studies that we believe are important before we move forward.”

Mulroney also added that her government is responding to the concerns expressed by local councils and environmental advocates.

“We also take feedback from municipalities and environmental groups very seriously. And the environmental issues that are being raised will be considered and mitigation will be proposed, and then we will determine the right path forward,” she said.

“Our government cares deeply about the health of Lake Simcoe, and we want to make sure that we’re taking the necessary steps to protect it. But we also know this highway is a needed piece of infrastructure for York-Simcoe and the Greater Golden Horseshoe. And as we move forward with it, we are going to move forward in a way that is respectful of the environment.”

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