‘Build what makes sense’: Does the Liberals’ highway pitch ask too much of voters?

OPINION: To paraphrase a historical Liberal, Steven Del Duca is telling voters “highways if necessary, but not necessarily highways”
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 09, 2021
Liberal leader Steven Del Duca remains open to the Bradford Bypass while reiterating his opposition to Highway 413. (Chris Young/CP)

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If it wasn’t already clear before last Thursday’s fall economic statement, highways are going to feature prominently in the 2022 election. And not just highways in general, but two highways in particular: the Doug Ford government is pitching voters on both Highway 413, which would run through York and Peel Regions, and the Bradford Bypass, which would run east-west to connect the existing 400 and 404 Highways.

Both proponents and opponents of these highways have an interest in talking about them as a pair, so be prepared to be bombarded by arguments for and against the 413andBradfordBypass, as if it were impossible to have one without the other. Proponents, including the Ford government, want to lump all opposition to either project into the category of “knee-jerk opposition to the idea of highways” regardless of the specifics of a project. For the opposition, it’s easier to portray the Ford government as a bunch of asphalt-mad sprawl-mongers and, honestly, getting into the details of the different highway projects is more effort than political communications demands.

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So it’s notable that, on Monday, Liberal leader Steven Del Duca tried once again to split the difference: remaining open to the Bradford Bypass while reiterating his and his party’s staunch opposition to the 413. To paraphrase a different Liberal from a time long, long ago: highways if necessary but not necessarily highways.

“There are a couple of small distinctions,” Del Duca says. “One is that there’s a lot more municipal support — it’s not universal, and it’s not across the board — but there’s a lot more municipal support for the Bradford Bypass, and that’s why I want the conversation to continue.” 

But the primary purpose of Del Duca’s event on Monday was to announce that his party would, if elected, match an announced federal funding commitment to enable two-way, all-day service on the Milton GO rail line. Unlike most of the other train lines operated by Metrolinx, the Milton line isn’t directly owned by the transit operator — it rents access to the tracks from Canadian Pacific. This makes adding trains complicated, because CP wants to ensure that passenger traffic won’t disrupt one of its primary freight services into the heart of the GTA.

In one sense, Del Duca’s announcement was a bit of a non-event: everyone agrees it would be great to improve service on the Milton line; indeed, the Ford government is, at the moment, seeking a clear, unambiguous dollar-figure commitment from the feds, in writing. The Tories would be very unlikely to turn down a large federal infusion of cash for a project that would be extremely popular in the very same 905 ridings they’ll need to hang on to in the next election. And they probably won’t let a billion-dollar price tag get in their way, either.

That said, if the substance of his announcement wasn’t terribly novel, the way he framed the choice he’s offering voters is worth paying attention to.

“We know that Doug Ford has listened to some people, and he’s decided to re-start a project that I don’t think will provide people with real relief from gridlock, and it will take 10 years and a minimum of $10 billion to build. I don’t think it’s the right solution,” he says, adding of the Milton-line improvements, “We’re going to continue to build what makes sense, where it makes sense.”

Smart-growth policies, broadly defined, were politically helpful for the Liberals throughout their 15-year stint in government. The Greenbelt remains extremely popular (even small incursions into it spark massive firestorms of opposition for the Ford government), transit investments started by the Kathleen Wynne government are starting to (finally) reach fruition, and it makes sense that the Liberals would want to remind people that they have some credibility on this file.

But it’s not just about burnishing his party’s own reputation; Del Duca is also asking voters to embrace a little — just a little — bit of complexity in terms of the kind of regional transportation options they support. He’s making the choice explicit: the Milton line or the 413. Transit or more highways forever to the horizon.

As I said last week, it’s not obvious that voters are so in love with transit that they’ll opt for what Del Duca’s selling. And one possible hitch is that Ford is lavishing historic sums of money on transit. Nevertheless, it would be quite the commentary on the rest of us if Del Duca’s proposal — “instead of doing the dumb expensive thing, let’s do the less-dumb, less-expensive thing” — didn’t get a fair hearing.

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