Local environmental groups and some provincial politicians are calling for the cancellation of the Bradford Bypass following an investigative report in a Toronto newspaper revealing confidential information about plans for the 16.2-kilometre route that would connect highways 400 and 404.
A joint Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition and Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition news release accused the provincial government of "clandestine decision-making" and stated that the highway poses no net benefit to surrounding communities.
"Instead of being transparent with its decision-making and laying all facts on the table, the government has chosen instead to favour more clandestine decision-making by exempting this project from the Environmental Assessment Act," they said.
They also stated, "A project that will cost almost $1 billion should stand on its merits in order to proceed. Instead, we have internal government documents and publicly released studies that show there is no case for this highway beyond increasing profits for speculative developers."
The Toronto Star article published this week states the province recognized as early as 2014 that there were alternative solutions to building the highway, but suggested that developers have heavily speculated on land surrounding the future bypass.
The article also suggested a link between a change to the proposed route in April 2021 — originally crossing a portion of Silver Lakes Golf Club in Holland Landing — and a meeting with Minister of Transportation and York-Simcoe MPP Caroline Mulroney at the club co-owned by John Cho, whose son is Associate Transportation Minister Stan Cho.
An Ontario NDP news release Tuesday claims that the meeting influenced the rerouting south of the golf club.
“This reeks of a special deal for a buddy,” said NDP finance critic Catherine Fife. “Stan Cho hosted the minister responsible for this decision at his dad’s golf course. And, boom, the golf course is spared. It looks sketchy. It looks like, once again, Doug Ford is willing to do anything for a pal, no matter what it costs the rest of us.”
When asked for comment, Mulroney's office responded it is shameful that the NDP would make that claim.
Minister Mulroney’s visit was in her capacity as MPP to show support for local businesses during the incredibly difficult COVID-19 pandemic. It’s shameful that the NDP would instead use this as an opportunity to attack a true Canadian immigrant success story."
Mulroney's team said decisions regarding the route for the Bradford Bypass predate the Ford government.
"As with any project of this magnitude, route refinements are made, and allow us to balance the technical needs for the highway with potential environmental and property impacts. In this instance, the proposed adjustments to the Bradford Bypass alignment were made to minimize impacts to the Holland Marsh and to avoid an archeological site. At no point has there been direction, pressure or suggestion from Minister Mulroney, Associate Minister Cho, or political staff during this technical process.
"We expect a decision to be made on the revised route in fall 2022, following input from the public and the conclusion of further technical work.”
According to the article, the province is building a business case for the bypass to be a toll highway.
In an interview last spring, when asked if there are plans to make the new highway a toll road, Mulroney said the province was still working out details.
Environmental groups have expressed their concerns about the impact the project will have on the surrounding communities, Lake Simcoe, and the Holland Marsh wetlands, and have been highly critical of a decision last month to exempt the Bradford Link from further environmental assessment, a decision announced by the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.
Andrew Kennedy, a spokesperson for the Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, stressed that an environmental assessment was completed for the project in 2002.
"The Ministry of Transportation has already undergone an individual environmental assessment for this project, which is the most stringent on record," Kennedy said. "As such, the potential impacts of the project and how to mitigate them are well understood. The purpose of this new regulation is to remove requirements that duplicate work that has already been completed in the initial environmental assessment."
He confirmed that additional environmental studies and consultation are still required for the project to proceed and will continue as early work begins.
Green Party leader Mike Schreiner is calling on the Ford government to cancel the project and pushing for alternative options to meet the region's transportation needs.
Schreiner said the Bradford Bypass plan "doesn't make any sense."
"We’re in a climate emergency and need to drastically reduce emissions — not increase them. More highways is not the answer. The answer is investing in transit and protecting nature," he said in a news release.
An east-west highway link to improve connectivity and alleviate congestion has been discussed for decades. Studies for the current Bradford Bypass began in 1997, but the project was abruptly shelved in 2003 by the Liberal government of the day.
Mulroney has said the bypass will be part of the province's COVID-19 recovery plan, bringing jobs to the area and supporting economic development in Simcoe County and York Region.
There has been strong support for the bypass from Bradford West Gwillimbury council, residents and the Holland Marsh Growers' Association, while Innisfil and Barrie councils remain undecided on their support.
"The Bradford Bypass is a necessary piece of infrastructure for the economic prosperity of our county and region," said BWG Mayor Rob Keffer. "This is definitely not developer-driven, and I have had no indication that it will be a toll road. The highway is necessary to make the lives better for our current residents."
Local environmental groups remain unconvinced.
"Just because it has a legacy does not mean it is a worthwhile project. In fact, in the context of a changing climate, more flooding, and an ailing Lake Simcoe, we believe that a project this big, this expensive, and this old needs a refresh," the groups stated.