An Update on Ontario’s Highway 413

In August 2021, we published a 2-part article on the legal, ethical and ecological irresponsibilities associated with the proposed Highway 413. Access Part 1 here and Part 2 here. This article will include an update on the project and its approval.

Building Ontario

On November 4, 2021, Ontario’s Minister of Finance Peter Bethlenfalvy released the 2021 Ontario Economic Outlook and Fiscal Review: Build Ontario. This fiscal review provides an updated economic outlook, laying out how the provincial government intends to build a foundation for recovery. The review is split up into 3 main sections: 

  • Protecting our Progress
  • Building Ontario
  • Working for Workers 

The section ‘Building Ontario’ is our focus for this article, with the section centring around how the government will “build the foundation for Ontario’s recovery and prosperity by getting shovels in the ground on critical infrastructure, attracting increased investment, and restoring leadership in auto-manufacturing and other industries.” 

According to this plan, the provincial government aims to expand and repair Ontario’s highways and bridges, create jobs and trigger economic growth through the Ontario Highways Program. So far, the government has invested about $2.6B in funding for 2021/2022 in support of the program which features over 580 construction, expansion, and rehabilitation projects. As part of this program, the province has committed funding to build and advance both the Bradford Bypass and Highway 413. 

Congestion & Traffic

Figure 1 – GTA Highways

According to Build Ontario, these projects are vital to the province due to issues of traffic, gridlock and delays. This has been the primary argument for the construction of Highway 413 since they were initially proposed. However, the government is incredibly vague on the details, and according to a recent Toronto Star article, by the government’s own estimates, the new Highway 413 would hardly be congestion-free. By 2041, at its busiest times, the 413 is expected to have an average travel speed of 55km/h. 

Decade’s worth of research and real-world experience indicate highway expansions have a limited ability to reduce congestion to a phenomenon called “induced demand.” What does this mean? Traffic volumes tend to quickly increase, filling up the newly available road space and gridlock can return in a matter of years. Experts suggest the province has not adequately accounted for this in their pitches for Highway 413. 

Anthony Downs, a late American economist who specialized in public policy and administration, argued throughout his career that expanding highway capacity does not eliminate congestion, but can actually make it worse. As Downs and other traffic scholars have made clear over time, if you build or enlarge it, they will come. This means that the benefits of highway expansion should be seen as temporary at best. In a 2004 essay, Downs stated

“If [an] expressway’s capacity were doubled overnight, the next day’s traffic would flow rapidly because the same number of drivers would have twice as much road space. But soon word would spread that this particular highway was no longer congested. Drivers who had once used that road before and after the peak hour would shift back into the peak period. Other drivers who had been using alternative routes would shift on to this more convenient expressway. Even some commuters who had been using the subway or trains would start driving on this road during peak periods. Within a short time, this triple convergence onto the expanded road during peak periods would make the road as congested as it was before expansion.” 

The primary argument for expanding the existing road network is traffic congestion, which is expected to increase as the population grows. However, with the population in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) expected to climb from 7 to 10 million by 2046, there is bound to be gridlock. The unfortunate truth is that Ontario could be completely paved over and turned into a series of highways, and congestion would still be an issue. The real impact of Highway 413 will not just be on the 39 or so hectares of wildlife habitat but also on the inevitable spread of sprawl. 

Video 1 – Urban Sprawl GTA

While this is a terrifying idea to environmentalists, Indigenous peoples and other opposition groups – it is an exciting prospect for Doug Ford’s development buddies, as this stretch of highway will open up large portions of land for low-density subdivisions. As a result, this will worsen congestion and lead to the demand for even more highways. 

Investing in Transportation

Instead of investing in more highways like Highway 413, the province should be working towards further investments in public and shared transportation options, such as GO Transit trains and buses and local subway or streetcar infrastructure. There is no doubt that changes need to be made to our transportation infrastructure in our province, with many Ontarians being cut off from the rest of the province due to a lack of local transit options. While larger cities like Toronto have more established public transit infrastructure and options for transportation (e.g., the TTC, Go Transit, Uber/Lyft and other car-sharing options), others are essentially non-existent.

For instance, I lived in Lindsay, ON in the Kawartha Lakes for approximately 6 months while completing my post-graduate program in planning and development at Fleming College. In the end, the biggest lesson I learned while living there related to transportation and accessibility.

In Lindsay, there is no subway or streetcar system, only a local bus system made up of a handful of small school buses. These buses can be very unreliable and are only scheduled to come about once an hour. This means that no one really uses them in the end. Due to this, the government stated there was no use in improving the system or increasing the number of buses. Unfortunately, I had late classes that went beyond the schedule for the local bus, and without access to ride-sharing services such as Uber, I would have to call a cab to campus and wait until it arrived. Sometimes this could take up to an hour, as the availability of cabs was limited.

Then, when it came to travelling outside of Lindsay, I had only one option, and it was only available to students. Due to Fleming College having a handful of campuses in the region, a scheduled bus would go from campus to campus twice a day. I would have to take this bus to Peterborough, where I then would take a GO bus to Oshawa. From Oshawa, I could then take the GO train into Toronto, where I could then take the subway and a local bus to get to my parent’s house. This trip in a car would take about an hour and 45 minutes, while the trip taking transit would take me anywhere from 3 to 6 hours, depending on my timing.

Figure 4 – Lindsay to Toronto

With a lack of infrastructure and capital for municipal or regional transportation, townships are unable to provide adequate alternatives to driving for their people. As such, it makes sense that some of the more Northern areas of Ontario have shown interest in the establishment of Highway 413 and other projects of its kind. Instead of investing billions upon billions of dollars into another highway, the province should focus on improving accessibility within and between municipalities. This could improve connectivity in the province in addition to paving the way for the creation of more complete communities.

Keep your eyes out for more updates on Highway 413 as they become available.

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