The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada announced last week it will not revisit its decision to deny a Federal Impact Assessment designation for the Bradford Bypass.
The request to review the decision was initiated by three local groups, Forbid Roads Over Greenspaces (FROGS), the Concerned Citizens of King Township (CCKT) and Stop the Bradford Bypass.
Federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault agreed with the agency’s recommendation that since “there have not been any material changes to the Project,'' there is no need to revisit the decision.
While it is not standard for the federal government to get involved in provincial projects unless they meet certain criteria, the groups believed the decision was deserving of reconsideration, after citing many changes that have occurred since the initial Environmental Assessment was undertaken 20 years ago, and even since a previous petition was submitted.
One of those changes? Public opinion, said Claire Malcolmson, executive director of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition.
"Local media finally started reporting both sides of the story, once we had secured investigative reporting from national and provincial media outlets. There were endless letters to the editor and media coverage on the topic," she said.
A previous petition on change.org received more than 9,150 signatures asking for federal intervention by means of a Federal Impact Assessment of the proposed bypass, but it was not accepted in its initial format by the federal government. The petitions were started due in part to the provincial government placing an exemption on the Environmental Assessment (EA) report released two decades ago.
"We thought the conditions had changed quite dramatically," said Malcolmson about the reasoning behind the second request.
However, she said, "Turns out none of this was enough to counter bureaucratic inertia. It would be precedent-setting to overturn a prior refusal to order an Impact Assessment designation. We wanted precedent-setting. I guess the bureaucrats didn't. It's just infuriating."
“I am very disappointed with this outcome,” said Tricia Hulshof of the Stop the Bradford Bypass group, “but I am most disappointed for neighbours along the route who were hoping that they would have more time before their homes are expropriated. However, the resolve against this highway continues and is growing stronger. People are concerned about the cost, the harm to the Holland Marsh Wetland and Lake Simcoe. We will continue to speak out for them. Our future generations, our communities and Lake Simcoe have been abandoned by every level of government.”
In a press release from the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition, Bill Foster, founding director of Forbid Roads Over Green Spaces (FROGS), said, "We are going in blind now," because of the decision.
"We don’t have a budget; we don’t have engineering studies; we don’t know what it’s going to do to Lake Simcoe and none of that will matter. Build now, pay the price later. It seems no level of government cares enough about the known impacts - water contamination, loss of endangered species habitat, loss of fisheries, destruction of ancient heritage sites, increased carbon emissions - to do what they were elected to do," said Foster.
"This will only embolden the speculators who are already buying up huge amounts of farmland around the bypass to convert into sprawl. It seems no level of government is particularly concerned about how we will feed ourselves or ensure our water stays clean," Foster said.
Concerned Citizens of King Township (CCKT) Chair, Bruce Craig claimed the wishes of seven Lake Simcoe watershed municipalities for an Impact Assessment on the Byass project are not being respected by the provincial government, "and now the Federal government has shown that they won’t support local priorities either. This is no way to protect Lake Simcoe."
But Bradford West Gwillimbury Mayor Rob Keffer noted that the project has gone through all the proper channels and assessments required.
“We need to tell the truth about this project, which has been in the works for over three decades. It has been supported by provincial governments of all party stripes, and the subject of growth plans, official plans, master transportation plans and an environmental assessment was completed and approved by cabinet. The conditions of that assessment are being fulfilled under all modern standards through over 15 studies," said Keffer.
The mayor addressed concerns from opponents of the highway regarding the 'exemption' that is currently in place, through provincial regulation.
"This exemption to move forward early works is in place solely to enable the Ministry of Transportation to sync up interchange work with Simcoe County's upgrades to County Road 4 (Yonge Street), saving millions of dollars and demonstrating cooperation and coordination between levels of government," he insisted.
The environmental assessment for the County Road project was completed in 2014.
Mayor Keffer reiterated that the project is not something the Feds should be involved in.
"The federal government has clear standards for when it can intervene into a provincial highway project, and the federal government has now made clear for a third time in under a year that there is no legal justification to do so in the case of the Bradford Bypass," he said. "In fact, they have affirmed that the provincial processes underway are ‘sufficient’. I want to be clear about this: federal intervention is not a routine or normal request, and the federal government cannot be firmer that it is not warranted for this small highway."
Bradford West Gwillimbury Ward 2 Coun. Jonathan Scott who supports the highway project noted, "Although the Federal Government has determined it's not their role to review this provincial highway project, I am hopeful the Federal Government will use its 2022 budget to honour their commitment to significant funding for projects that help restore the health of the Lake Simcoe watershed."
Scott and Georgina Coun. David Neeson have both lobbied all levels of government for the construction of the Holland Marsh Phosphorus Recycling Facility, which would reduce phosphorus runoff from the Holland Marsh basin into the Holland River and Lake Simcoe by up to 85 per cent, removing an estimated 2.5 tonnes per year.
Minister of Transportation and York-Simcoe MPP Caroline Mulroney said in 2018, driving the Bradford Bypass project was her top priority.
"It's been a critical move
"The support for this project spans political party lines, with NDP and Liberal York-Simcoe candidates proudly backing the Bradford Bypass during the 2018 election. We are moving full steam ahead with the Bradford Bypass and other critical infrastructure projects in every corner of this province and I couldn’t be more proud of the work we are doing," said Mulroney.
"The Bradford Bypass will alleviate gridlock for drivers across York-Simcoe, making life easier for families, workers, and farmers. The project-specific assessment of environmental impacts in accordance with Ontario Regulation 697/21 is currently underway and is expected to be completed in December 2022."
The area groups say they won't give up in their fight against building the bypass.
Margaret Prophet, executive director of the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition, said the Coalition was hoping the federal government would reconsider due to the current global climate crisis and for the sake of Lake Simcoe.
The announcement last week shows "that status quo highway building that pollutes our air and water will continue unabated by the federal government or the province," she said. "Now it will be up to the people who want better, including our youth, to keep pushing for the change we need, not the change that some deem politically possible."
Prophet promised, "We will continue to speak for them and the seven municipalities and local leaders who are equally concerned about this project. We won’t stand idly by while neighbours are being forced from their homes, ancient burial sites are destroyed and endangered species’ habitat is bulldozed. This is an agenda to destroy the Ontario we know and love. Now it's only people that stand in the way and up to them to demand better."
In the coalition's press release last week, it stated "almost 50 per cent of people in the region don’t want this highway."
When asked how that number was calculated, Jack Gibbons from the Lake Simcoe Watch group provided findings from a telephone survey done in November 2021 by Oracle Poll Research Ltd. The survey included answers from 900 residents 18 years of age or older from Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte, Barrie/Innisfil and York-Simcoe ridings.
In one of the questions, residents were asked:
“The government of Ontario is planning to build a 16 km, four-lane Holland Marsh Highway to link Highways 400 and 404. The proposed highway would increase phosphorous and road salt pollution to Lake Simcoe, endanger fish spawning habitat, eliminate 23 acres of provincially significant wetland, and eliminate 81 acres of wildlife habitat. Do you support construction of this highway?"
Forty-eight per cent of residents responded 'No'.
Despite the survey results, Mayor Keffer insisted Bradford residents "want this highway and want it built properly".
"They (residents) have made their voices clear through our democratic processes and expect governments to deliver on election promises," he said. "The minority who oppose the highway have the right to voice their opposition, but as Mayor of Bradford West Gwillimbury I have to insist that those opposed to the highway speak truthfully and stop disparaging the reputation of our town."