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Guiding city expressway actions

Feb 05, 2018

Hamilton councillors should be paying close attention to a major evaluation of Ontario’s climate actions released late last month by the province’s environmental commissioner. It underlines in great detail the commitment of Queen’s Park to fundamental change and suggests what Hamilton can and most likely will be required to do in the same direction.

Commissioner Dianne Saxe is blunt about the severity of the climate crisis. Noting current projections of a 2.4 metre sea level rise this century, she declares “it is therefore much too late to just talk about the climate; all that really counts now is action.”

Overall, she concludes real action is underway in a province that has launched over 90 individual measures to reduce carbon pollution and has collected nearly $2 billion in revenues to fund them from the first year of its cap and trade initiative. She also makes clear that Ontario and the rest of the country have a long way to go. Within the OECD industrialized countries, “Canada is the second most carbon-intensive country (after Estonia) and the fourth-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.”

While praising Ontario’s climate actions, Saxe notes the province has also now given municipalities “the power to adopt by-laws dealing with climate change” and that cities “manage most of Ontario’s infrastructure including roads, transit, water, wastewater and waste.” She emphasizes that climate change must be “a central part of all government decision-making, spending and regulating.”

More specifically the report has strong recommendations related to key issues already facing Hamilton councillors. These include whether to widen the Linc and Red Hill parkways or perhaps alternatively how to deal with the heavy truck use on these municipally-funded expressways. Provincial dollars will be crucial to city measures on both irritants.

Lowering transportation emissions is at the top of the Queen’s Park agenda. While overall carbon pollution is down more than eight percent since 1990, vehicle greenhouse gas emissions are up 34 percent. And pollution from freight trucks is up a stunning 117 percent.

In response, Saxe has multiple recommendations starting with road tolls which she describes as “a quick, powerful, and proven tool to decrease trucking demand for road capacity, especially during peak traffic hours.” Roadway expansions, on the other hand, are strongly rejected in the report as something that will create more emissions specifically in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area.

“Opening new road capacity in busy areas briefly reduces congestion, which encourages more people to drive and to drive farther; this increases traffic until congestion chokes it again,” explains Saxe. “Even if they could permanently reduce congestion, new roads increase transportation greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions because they allow more people to drive and to drive farther. This far outweighs the transportation GHG-reduction benefits of cutting congestion.”

The report is equally blunt about road tolls. “The provincial government should strongly encourage and support municipalities to implement local road pricing systems,” says Saxe. She contends this would reduce private vehicle use and the proceeds could be used by cities to match federal transit grants.

She points to a Ministry of Transportation “multimodal transportation plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe” as further evidence of provincial commitment to climate action. It would guide Ontario’s investment in road, rail, transit and cycling infrastructure.

These are ideas that haven’t been clearly articulated around Hamilton’s council table, but may gain support and even inevitability. Finding a funding source to match transit grants is already a big issue, and on the parkways city staff have made clear that widening is a non-starter unless the province expands the 403 and QEW.

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