Transcript: The true cost of new highways | Nov 16, 2021

STEVE:
Welcome, everyone to the
#onpoli Podcast.
I'm Steve Paikin.
JOHN MICHAEL:
And I'm John Michael McGrath.
STEVE:
This week on the pod, the
Ontario government
unveils more details on two new
highways
it wants to build in the
Northwest GTA.
It's also pressing the pause
button
on the last few capacity limits
that were set to be lifted for
businesses.
Blame rising COVID-19 rates.
With a massive surgical backlog
in hospitals all over Ontario,
they're trying something
different in Hamilton
to get people care more quickly.
And Premier Ford said it again
this week,
he thinks you should pay no
taxes at all.
None. Really?
It's Tuesday, November 16 2021.
So, let's get to it.
(Funky instrumental
music playing)
JMM, do you know the most
controversial numbers
in the province of Ontario these
days?
JOHN MICHAEL:
Do tell, Steve?
STEVE:
Well, the numbers are four, one
and three,
as in Highway 413, as in the
very controversial new highway
the provincial government wants
to build
in the north of the Greater
Toronto Area.
It would run east-west,
across Peel and York regions.
And here's how Premier Ford
answered reporters' questions
about why the government was
recommitting to this project,
despite the fact, we have no
idea how much it'll cost
and some local town councils
oppose the 413's construction.
DOUG FORD:
No. The vast majority of the
people in these regions,
they're sitting on the highway
for an additional hour,
they want to get home a lot
quicker.
Unfortunately, people up in this
area don't have the bicycles
that people downtown have,
that they can hop on a bike
and drive from point A to point
B a lot quicker,
REPORTER:
But the local councils, though,
they know that
their people don't they?
Why would they--
why would they oppose it
if the people-- the local
councils--
DOUG FORD:
Again, you're talking a very
small percentage,
very small percentage.
We live in a democracy.
The majority of the people want
this highway,
we're building the highway.
STEVE:
Okay, let's start by having you
layout
who is on what side of this
debate?
JOHN MICHAEL:
Well, as you can guess the
government wants this highway.
Many labour groups also support
it because, of course,
civil construction employs a lot
of construction workers.
A lot of drivers want it and,
you know, groups advocating for
drivers.
There is, however, lots of
opposition, of course,
from all three of the opposition
parties at Queen's Park -
the New Democrats,
the Liberals and the Greens.
But also, as you mentioned,
a lot of local opposition.
Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie
opposes it,
Halton Hills Mayor Rick
Bonnette,
the Brampton city council,
passed a motion opposing it
and proposing a totally
different alternative.
So, you know, while the
government is pushing very hard
for this project, it's fair to
say that it is still, you know,
very controversial, even in the
parts of the province
that would, at least,
theoretically,
benefit most from it.
STEVE:
And what does the government say
is the promise
of this new potential highway?
JOHN MICHAEL:
The government says that
it will save half an hour
on commute times once the
highway is complete, which is,
you know, given how long it
takes to get large projects
built in Ontario, at least,
we're probably talking about a
decade of construction.
It's important to say that there
might be studies
that justify that half-hour time
saving claim,
but we have not seen any made
public by the government yet.
The government also says that,
you know,
the GTA is one of the
fastest-growing
regions of the province.
That is, of course, correct.
And the government argues that
highways like this are necessary
to deal with the growth
that is expected over the next
40 to 50 years.
STEVE:
Okay, that's the plus side.
What are the concerns of the
opponents?
JOHN MICHAEL:
Broadly speaking, environmental
harms.
You know, we're spending
billions of dollars on something
that will not alleviate traffic
congestion in the long-term.
It will-- its critics say, will
simply cause more.
You know, there's a very, very
long history
of transportation studies that
show over, you know,
really not a very long-term at
all, expressways,
the primary effect of a new
expressway somewhere,
is to mostly just encourage more
people
to get in their cars and drive.
So, the congestion effects, if
they exist at all,
they are very short-lived.
And very quickly, you find that
you're, you know,
shiny brand new six lanes of
asphalt
are just as choked as the old
highway was.
It's actually something that,
you know,
some economists have called
"the iron law of roadway
congestion.
STEVE:
Now, the province made an
announcement
about this last week, and in
case you weren't sure,
John Michael, about how much
they are, in fact backing this,
they hauled out a slew of
cabinet ministers
and backbench MPs, presumably to
show how much support
the government has in its
endeavour.
And well, why don't we just hear
from the Premier himself
as to who was invited to come
and who showed up to this thing?
DOUG FORD:
We're joined by members of our
team - Minister Mulroney,
Bethlenfalvy, Jones, Tibollo,
Tangri, Rasheed, and Gill,
as well as MPP Sandhu,
Anand, Kusendova,
Sabaway, and Cuzzetto.
STEVE:
How about that?
Seven cabinet ministers.
Seven cabinet ministers,
five MPPs...
There's an expression in
politics,
you know, when cabinet ministers
or MPPs get invited to attend
these things
and stand behind the premier,
they ask,
"Do I have a speaking role with
this thing
"or am I just meat in the room?"
That's the expression,
"meat in the room."
And this was one of those events
where a lot of politicians were
hauled out
and they drove enormous
distances
to go up north of Toronto just
to be meat in the room.
JOHN MICHAEL:
Except it wasn't a room,
if I remember correctly.
STEVE:
No, it was outdoors.
You're right.
It was just a field with a
backhoe behind.
STEVE:
Yeah, that's right.
(Both laughing)
But they weren't,
of course, the only ones.
Joe Mancinelli from LiUNA -
one of the major construction
unions in Ontario -
was also there.
You know, no real mystery
why he would be there
supporting this project -
there's like a decade's worth of
jobs for his members.
But, of course, for everybody
who was invited,
there were plenty of people who
were not invited.
People like GASP -
Grandmothers Acting to Save the
Planet -
other groups that are opposed to
this,
like Environmental Defence and
other environmental groups,
not on the guest list.
STEVE:
Surprise, surprise.
What do we know about how much
this thing
will actually cost if they ever
do build it?
JOHN MICHAEL:
Not much.
Critics have suggested it could
cost as much as $10 billion.
That's a dollar figure that you
will see, for example,
Steven Del Duca, Mike Schreiner
and Andrew Horvath using
in their criticisms of the
project,
The Residential and Civil
Construction Alliance of Ontario
put out a report last week,
estimating it would cost
substantially less -
between three and a half and
$4.4 billion.
But that estimate doesn't
include the cost
of the actual land the road
would sit on.
So, even that, I think, you
know,
there's definitely some wiggle
room in that estimate.
STEVE:
Let's do some comparisons here
with the last 400-series major
highway
that got built in
the province of Ontario,
and that's going back a few
decades already,
and that's the 407.
The 407, of course, runs
east-west across a broad swath,
north of the Greater Toronto
Area,
sort of mirrors, the old Highway
Seven,
and it does go north
of Whitby and Oshawa.
And on that note, there have
been some experts
who have been suggesting that
there are ways
to make better use of the 407,
rather than building an entire
new highway.
You know, a lot of time on the
407, you can drive that thing,
and because
it's a toll highway -
you got to pay to use it -
it's often you know,
free-wheeling.
There's very little congestion
on it much of the day.
So, is there an opportunity
there, in your view?
JOHN MICHAEL:
Just on the point about how
free-flowing the 407 can be,
I mean, not too long ago,
a plane literally
landed on the 407,
a feat that I would not advise
trying on the 401
during rush hour.
(Chuckling)
But you know, this is a really
interesting question.
And I am-- honestly, I'm not
sure there's a clear cut answer.
I think that the 407 is a
problem, regionally, in the GTA
because you have this single
really tolled freeway in the GTA
that is really buried in the
middle of a highway network
that is otherwise not tolled.
So, the whole network doesn't
move as effectively
as it would if it were all free
or all tolled.
That's obviously a much bigger
discussion to have.
But it's also really not clear
what to do with the 407
in the here and now.
You know, some advocates have
suggested that one measure
might be to subsidize tolls
for freight trucks
to get off of the 401.
You know, trucks are obviously
big and they, you know,
stop and start very slowly.
And so, they have a
disproportionate impact
on road congestion.
That might be one way to make
the 401 move a bit faster.
But there-- there's always
history in this province,
and there's some history on this
one, too.
In 2003, the McGuinty government
was elected, in part,
with a promise to lower 407
tolls,
and they tried and they got
taken to court,
and the government kind of got
laughed out of court.
The lease that lets the 407
Corporation
set these tolls is pretty
ironclad,
which is part of why
it's so frustrating for drivers,
I suppose.
In theory, I mean, it's a
highway in Ontario.
In theory, the province could
try and buy it back.
But that would almost certainly
end up costing
tens of billions of dollars, at
this point is, you know,
the guess at what it would cost
to pay the market price
for the to buy back the 407.
So, you know, by that standard,
building the 413 would be
relatively less expensive.
STEVE:
Well, let's get back to the 413,
then.
Is this, in fact, a done deal?
JOHN MICHAEL:
Well, you know, for the
government, of course.
You know, the Premier does
consider it a done deal.
You know, it's in the budget--
or rather, I should say,
the fall economic statement.
It's a commitment that they are
taking to voters.
But of course, you know, it is
going to take a while to do
and they haven't even really,
you know,
put more than a symbolic shovel
in the ground -
those backhoes that were in the
backdrop
at last week's photo ops.
There is still environmental
assessment
and all sorts of paperwork to
get done
before they can actually start
building it.
So, certainly, this will still
be a live issue
in next year's election.
It's entirely plausible that if,
you know, Steven Del Duca
or Andrea Horvath wins the next
election,
they would cancel the highway.
So, you know, not a done deal in
that sense.
And to keep repeating myself, of
course,
there's history on that, too.
Our favourite premier at TVO -
Bill Davis -
he pulled the plug on the
Spadina Expressway 50 years ago,
even though it had already
started construction.
And of course,
part of that remnant highway
still exists today,
though it never made
its way all the way downtown,
as activists had
feared it would.
STEVE:
Well, that's an interesting
analogy because, 50 years ago,
Bill Davis became premier in
March of '71,
he cancelled the Spadina
Expressway
that you just referenced
in June of '71,
and then he used the political
momentum from that decision -
in effect, showing he was not
only a Red Tory,
but a Green Tory, as
well, big on public transit -
he used that to win a big
majority government
in October of '71.
So, it all took place
over the course
of just slightly
over half a year.
But today, it's exactly
backwards
from those circumstances, right?
JOHN MICHAEL:
Yeah, it's almost exactly the
opposite.
You've got a Conservative
government -
still, I mean, you know,
nominally,
the same party of Bill Davis -
but it is instead pushing
highway construction and,
you know, making this the-- the
wedge issue, you know,
daring his opponents
to cancel these projects.
STEVE:
Okay, let's turn to the pandemic
now.
On Monday, some of the last
capacity limits
for Ontario businesses were
supposed to be lifted,
but, JMM, it did not happen.
Tell us why, if you please.
JOHN MICHAEL:
So, the short version is that
COVID-19 cases
have started climbing
again in Ontario
after several weeks
of falling numbers.
The province's seven-day average
number of daily new cases
had fallen to about 350, just
before Halloween.
Now, it is about 600.
So, a substantial increase.
But from a province-wide lens,
it's not really comparable
to the kind of spikes we saw in
the second or third waves.
Still, it is enough to give the
government pause.
So, the handful of capacity
limits that were in place
are going to stay in place for
now.
This does not affect a huge
number of businesses,
and I'm just gonna say right
out, not a slew of businesses
I was expecting to frequent
anytime soon,
but we're talking about
nightclubs, wedding receptions,
strip clubs and sex clubs.
I have no weddings on my social
calendar,
nor any of the other businesses.
(Both laughing)
They obviously are going to keep
having capacity limits in place.
But the government isn't yet
introducing
any new capacity limits
province-wide either.
STEVE:
Well, there are parts of this
province that are seeing
some pretty serious outbreaks
right now, right?
JOHN MICHAEL:
Yes, and, you know, at the risk
of sounding a bit too
sort of detached from it all,
it's kind of an interesting
phase of the pandemic
because there's been a bit of a
reversal of fortune.
For the first, second and third
waves of COVID-19 in Ontario,
the GTA was really ground zero
for the pandemic.
Toronto and Peel Region
consistently
had the most severe outbreaks
through all of the early waves,
and right now, that's not really
the case.
Two of the most severe outbreaks
in Ontario at the moment
are in Sudbury and Algoma.
And Algoma, in particular, had
really not had a severe outbreak
by provincial standards until
now.
STEVE:
What's their situation at the
moment?
JOHN MICHAEL:
There are more people sick from
COVID-19 in Algoma today
than they've had at any other
point in the pandemic.
Sudbury is almost beating its
own third wave record, too.
Meanwhile, in terms of active
COVID cases,
Toronto, Durham, York, Peel,
Halton and Hamilton are all in
the bottom half
of the provinces 34 public
health regions.
I should be clear that cases are
still climbing in the GTA,
but we're not seeing them climb
as quickly
as we are seeing in the rest of
the province on average,
and they're certainly climbing a
lot less quickly
than those particularly hard-hit
areas,
like Sudbury, Algoma,
and also places like
Haldimand-Norfolk
and the southwest.
STEVE:
So, the fact that the Greater
Toronto Area with,
frankly, nearly half the
province's population,
is doing reasonably well at the
moment,
do we assume that that probably
explains why the province
isn't hurrying to impose any new
province-wide public health
measures?
JOHN MICHAEL:
Yeah, at the moment, they are
letting
the local medical officers of
health
call the shots in their local
areas.
So, in the case of Sudbury,
the local MOH there has
reimposed some capacity limits
on bars, restaurants,
sporting venues there,
that kind of thing.
STEVE:
I guess this is understandable
because,
if we talk lockdown politics
here for a second,
can you imagine any government
beginning to reopen society
and then, a few months before an
election,
having to shut things down
again?
I mean, even if it were
required,
you can imagine how irritating
the electorate would feel,
reacting to that, yes?
JOHN MICHAEL:
Absolutely.
I mean, you know, the voters,
I think, can intellectually
understand that the pandemic
is not like entirely in any
government's control.
But that would not stop them
from either, you know,
being angry with the government
or blaming them,
if another lockdown were
necessary.
And obviously, if you are the
government,
you just want to avoid that at
all costs right now.
STEVE:
Okay, let's talk healthcare more
broadly.
The Financial Accountability
Office of Ontario
reported several months ago
that,
because of the need to treat so
many patients for COVID 19,
there were literally hundreds of
thousands of diagnostic tests
and surgical procedures that had
to be postponed,
and the backlog is so big right
now,
it could cost more than a
billion dollars to clear it.
Now, the province has allocated
a few hundred million to that
task,
but that is unlikely to clear
the backlog any time soon.
Anyway, Hamilton Health
Sciences,
which is the organization
that runs a few of the hospitals
in Hamilton,
has come up with what it thinks
is a clever new idea
to help tackle that backlog.
What's the story there?
JOHN MICHAEL:
This is a really interesting
case of, you know,
innovation in the pandemic.
Rather than having your sort of
traditionally fully-trained,
unionized nurses in every
operating room,
they are going to allow what
they're calling
surgical assistants in there
instead.
A bit of context here -
of course, nursing recruitment
is always difficult
and has become much more
difficult during the pandemic,
thanks to COVID.
Some nurses are being let go or
suspended
because they won't get
vaccinated,
though that's a relatively small
fraction.
But there was already just a
really terrible shortage
of personnel in Ontario's
hospitals to begin with.
So, these surgical assistants
are going to be students
who will pass a 15-week course
at Mohawk College,
and then are going to be sent
straight to work.
It's kind of like boot camp in
wartime.
Obviously, there's a balancing
act here.
These new assistants are not
going to be
as well trained as fully-fledged
nurses.
They are, however, going to be
there,
they are going to be bodies in
the room,
meat in the room reuse
our phrase from earlier,
and sometimes that's what you
need.
And the theory here, at least
for Hamilton Health Sciences,
is that something is better than
nothing.
STEVE:
That's the healthcare angle.
There's also good old fashioned
union politics at play here.
There's always a struggle
between union
and management as to staffing.
And clearly, the union would be
concerned
if good paying union jobs were
suddenly replaced
in a significant way by lesser
paying,
less experienced employees,
who may or may not be
unionized. Right?
JOHN MICHAEL:
Yeah, and you can understand
that this is a really
difficult problem
for hospital administrators to
get through
because we have these enormous
backlogs
that have been caused by the
pandemic,
and they're struggling to figure
out the way out of here.
How do we clear these backlogs,
get these people this necessary
medical care?
And, you know, we can all
remember, many months ago,
Health Minister Christine Elliot
had to confess
that there were people in
Ontario
who are dying prematurely
because they were unable to get
the surgeries they needed
or would have gotten if COVID
had not shut down the hospitals.
You know, it's a tough issue,
and I think you can be
sympathetic to both sides.
But this is what is happening in
Hamilton.
STEVE:
Let's just do a follow up on
this issue.
Apparently, it's not such a slam
dunk,
convincing all long-term care
workers to get vaccinated,
as the province has demanded.
I think something like 98%
of long-term care workers
have been vaccinated once and
95% twice,
but the last few percentage
have been stubbornly holding
out.
And so, the provincial
government
is having to compromise here.
JOHN MICHAEL:
That's right.
The original plan here was to be
fully vaccinated
by right about now or you're
fired.
Now, the deadline is being
extended slightly.
The government is saying this
is, in part,
because of the dose interval
between the first and second
shots.
But they're saying that, in
effect,
people in long-term care are
going to have until December 13
to present the evidence of their
second shot.
You know...
(Laughing)
There's, you know, details that
you could talk about, you know,
whether the government is doing
the right thing here or not,
but I think the reality is that
they just couldn't stomach
the thought of firing,
potentially,
hundreds of long-term care
workers,
given the labour shortages
the long-term care system is
already facing.
STEVE:
One last item for everybody's
amusement here.
Ever wonder how often
politicians
say what they really think and
how often they just parrot words
written for them by somebody
else?
Well, we got a perfect example
of the latter the other day,
when two Conservative MPPs were
asked about
whether there would be tolls on
the new 413 highway.
Whitby MPP Lorne Coe
was asked about it,
and JMM, what did Lorne Coe
respond?
(John Michael laughing)
JOHN MICHAEL:
He said, and I quote,
"Since day one,
"our government has made
affordability
"a priority for the people of
Ontario.
"We are constantly reviewing
opportunities
"to lower the cost of living for
hardworking families,
"and that includes the many
costly policies
"enacted by the Del Duca/Wynne
Liberals."
STEVE:
Uh-huh.
Okay, very interesting response.
And then Transportation Minister
Caroline Mulroney was asked
the exact same question,
and can you tell us what did she
say about all this?
JOHN MICHAEL:
She said, "Since day one,
"our government has made
affordability
"a priority for the people of
Ontario.
"We are constantly reviewing
opportunities to lower the cost
"of living for hardworking
families,
"and that includes the many
costly policies
"enacted by the Del Duca/Wynne
Liberals."
STEVE:
Wow. Well, you look at that.
Now, that is just an incredible
coincidence -
they both said exactly the same
thing, word for word.
Imagine that!
How interesting that they both
independently
gave the exact same answer, JMM.
What are what are the odds, you
think, on that happening?
JOHN MICHAEL:
I mean, it is the season of
miracles, Steve.
(Both laughing)
STEVE:
And we just saw our very own
miracle.
No, we did not. Okay.
I mean, that's--
that is one of the reasons why
people tune politicians out
because that's just--
that's just ridiculous
what we just saw.
Anyway, there you go.
I'll get off my high horse.
We always conclude this podcast
with our favourite quotes of the
week,
and we'll have that immediately
after
we ask you to give us a rating
on Apple Podcasts.
We love your feedback good,
bad or indifferent.
JOHN MICHAEL:
You can also shoot us an email
at onpolitics@tvo.org.
STEVE:
Here now, my quote of the week,
and let's go back to York
Region, north of Toronto,
where Premier Ford and
seven cabinet ministers
and five Tory MPPs met last week
to confirm the government would
move ahead with Highway 413.
Now, the Premier got a question
from CTV's Colin D'Mello
about when he, the Premier,
intended to fulfil his promise
to lower the provincial
portion of the gas tax.
Here's their exchange.
DOUG FORD:
Folks, I've said it over and
over again,
you can spend money a lot wiser
than the municipal,
provincial and federal
governments.
And, you know, that's why I'm
asking, again,
the federal government,
put the 10 cents, match us,
we'll match you dollar for
dollar.
If you want to do more,
we'll match you.
Because it's all about taking
care of the people,
putting money back in their
pocket,
and the worst place you could
ever give money to
is the government.
COLIN:
So, you're eliminating all
taxes?
(Crowd laughing)
DOUG FORD:
You know something, Colin?
If I could do it,
believe me, I would.
STEVE:
Premier Ford using another
opportunity
to burnish his credentials as a
guy who hates taxes,
even though those taxes pay for
about $190 billion worth of
services
that I suspect most Ontarians
actually use and like,
you know, little things like
hospitals, roads, schools,
colleges, universities, museums,
art galleries,
the justice system, GO Transit,
cleaning up the environment,
our provincial parks.
Anyway, you get the idea.
(John Michael laughing)
JOHN MICHAEL:
My quote of the week comes from
Steven Del Duca
on the news that Alberta has now
signed a childcare deal
with the federal government, but
Ontario still has not,
and what that says about the
Ford government's priorities.
STEVEN DEL DUCA:
Look, I don't think Doug Ford
believes
that universal licensed
affordable childcare
at $10 a day-- I don't think he
thinks it's a priority.
You've all witnessed first-hand
for the last number of weeks,
Doug Ford is obsessed with two
things--
well, I'll say three things.
He's obsessed with his own
re-election chances,
number one;
number two, he's obsessed with
destroying the Greenbelt
and paving over farmland
to build highways that don't
make sense;
and he's really, really focused
on rewarding his friends
who are already doing really
well
and don't need a premier to be
there to back them up -
the people who will do better
because of those--
those mirage highways that he's
proposing to build.
JOHN MICHAEL:
That is Liberal leader
Steven Del Duca
speaking to reporters on Monday
morning.
STEVE:
And that's this week's edition
of # onpoli podcast,
produced by Katie O'Connor,
edited by Matthew O'Mara,
production support from Nicki
Ashworth,
Jonathan Halliwell
and Albert Wisco.
JMM, as my dad likes to say,
stay positive, test negative.
JOHN MICHAEL:
Stay safe, Steve.
(Funky instrumental
music playing)

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