Ottawa will fund roadway maintenance, not ‘large’ new highway projects: Guilbeault

Environment and Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault spoke to the firestorm triggered by his remarks to a transportation conference earlier in the week.

Environment and Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault’s remarks raise questions about the future of the Highway 413 project, a controversial new corridor that Ontario’s Conservative government wants to build to ease car travel across the northwestern section of the Greater Toronto Area. Steven Guilbeault photo via Facebook.

This article was published by The Energy Mix on Feb. 15, 2024.

By Mitchell Beer

The federal government will still fund local, provincial, and territorial governments for roadway maintenance, but will no longer help pay for “large” highway expansion megaprojects like Quebec City’s controversial Third Link, Environment and Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault said Wednesday, as he sought to quell a firestorm triggered by his remarks to a transportation conference earlier in the week.

“That’s not what I said,” Guilbeault replied Wednesday morning, after a reporter asked if he stood by reports that he had called for no new road spending.

“What I have said is that the solutions to our transport challenge [include] many different things, including massive investment in public transit, including investment in electrification of transportation, and of course we’re funding roads. We have programs to fund roads,” he declared.

“What we have said, and maybe I should have been more specific, is that we don’t have funds for large projects like the Troisième Lien that the [Quebec government] has been trying to do for many years,” Guilbeault added. “Myself and many of my colleagues have said many times that the federal government had no funds for a project like this.”

‘No More Envelopes’ for Highway Expansion

The tempest traces back to Guilbeault’s virtual presentation Monday to an event in Montreal hosted by Trajéctoire Québec, a public transit advocacy group on record as opposing the Third Link. In its initial news story on the session, the Montreal Gazette provided only routine coverage of the minister’s remarks on new highway construction—the story led with his comment that electric vehicles aren’t a one-stop solution to transport emissions, but must be combined with transit and active transportation.

“We must stop thinking that electric cars will solve all our problems,” Guilbeault said, in a keynote address delivered by live feed from Ottawa. Relying too heavily on electrified transportation would be “an error, a false utopia that will let us down over the long term.”

By the Gazette’s account, that comment launched Guilbeault into an inventory of Ottawa’s investments in transit, walking, biking, and e-mobility, followed by a call for all levels of government to make the “hard decision” to stop expanding the road network. That well-worn strategy, called “induced demand”, is widely proven to encourage more car traffic, drive up congestion, and trigger demands for the next round of highway expansions.

“Our government has made the decision to stop investing in new road infrastructure,” Guilbeault said. “Of course we will continue to be there for cities, provinces, and territories to maintain the existing network, but there will be no more envelopes from the federal government to enlarge the road network. The analysis we have done is that the network is perfectly adequate to respond to the needs we have. And thanks to a mix of investment in active and public transit, and in [land use] planning and densification, we can very well achieve our goals of economic, social, and human development without more enlargement of the road network.”

The shift from paying for asphalt and concrete is largely a matter of local planning, he added.

“There is the question of urban planning that is hyper important,” he told the conference. “If you are a decision-maker and you decide to build a government institution far from public transit systems, then by default you are inciting people to use their cars to access that public service. All of our planning practices have to be coherent with these mobility objectives, for the reduction of the ecological footprint of transportation and of greenhouse emissions.”

A History of Highway Spending

CBC notes that Ottawa has shelled out “hefty funds” for roadway projects in the past. “The ‘gas tax fund’, which was rebranded by the Liberals as the Canada Community-Building Fund, has routinely delivered billions of dollars to provinces and municipalities to support construction and maintenance of highways and local roads and bridges.”

But now, Guilbeault’s remarks raise questions about the future of the Highway 413 project, a controversial new corridor that Ontario’s Conservative government wants to build to ease car travel across the northwestern section of the Greater Toronto Area.

“Ontario has argued that the project should be fast-tracked because the population growth in these Toronto suburbs demands more infrastructure to ease congestion,” CBC writes. But the project landed on the federal government’s radar at least three years ago, when then-environment and climate minister Jonathan Wilkinson said it would be subject to federal environmental review. A year later, three-quarters of poll respondents in Ontario’s “905” suburbs told EKOS researchers they opposed the project.

“Environmentalists and some local groups have vigorously opposed the 60-kilometre highway because it will cut through farmland and waterways and pave over parts of the province’s protected Greenbelt,” CBC says. That would be the same Ontario Greenbelt that became a major scandal for the Ford government and a signature victory for local communities and campaigners—and for climate journalists at The Narwhal and the Toronto Star—last year.

Quebec’s Third Link

While the implications of Guilbeault’s statement may extend farther, his focus Monday was on a contentious project in his home province. The local conversation around Quebec City’s Troisième Lien/Third Link had been going on for years, not weeks or months, by the time Guilbeault stepped into it, and it wasn’t the first time the project produced political fireworks.

The new tunnel was a “key promise” from Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec in the 2018 and 2022 provincial election, a campaign pledge to voters in the capital region to create a third route across the St. Lawrence River between Quebec City and Lévis, City News reported almost a year ago. In the 2022 campaign, the CAQ won 16 of the region’s 18 seats, CBC said.

The Third Link was originally meant to have four lanes for cars and two reserved for buses, City News wrote. But last April, provincial Transport Minister Geneviève Guilbault (no relation to the federal minister, and with a surname not spelled exactly the same) announced the project would be limited to public transit.

“The responsible and lucid decision to make today based upon the data I just gave to you is the one that I am announcing today,” she said at the time, citing post-pandemic traffic patterns. “There is no need for a new tunnel for cars, but we need to connect Lévis and Quebec City in the centre of the cities, and so we are going to have a tunnel that is dedicated to public transit that’s modern and efficient. That is hopefully going to convince people, once and for all, to give up their cars for public transit.”

City News said Education Minister Bernard Drainville, Member of National Assembly (MNA) for Lévis, was near tears as he apologized to local voters for the decision. “I understand their disappointment and their anger,” he said. “The commitment I made was sincere. I sincerely believed that the bad traffic we had last summer was the new normal.”

Another local MNA, Cybersecurity and Digital Technology Minister Eric Caire, had threatened to resign if the project was cancelled, but ultimately decided to keep his National Assembly seat. “I will go to meet the citizens, and I will explain the decision to them,” he said. “I trust their judgment,” but “I can understand that people feel betrayed.”

Transport Minister Guilbault said better mobility between Quebec City and Lévis was still the government’s goal. “If we want to attract new students, new people, new people who come from abroad, new business, new events, we have to be attractive—and modern,” she said.

A scant six months later, after a decisive by-election loss in the region’s Jean-Talon riding, Legault said he would consult the local population on the project and keep all options on the table.

But Third Link is still raising serious concerns about uncontrolled development, impacts on established neighbourhoods, the fate of a protected heritage site, and an imbalance between government investments in transit and highways. The Non au Troisième Lien coalition says the original C$9.45-billion price tag attached to the project—which it estimated at $200,000 per eventual user—could pay for 108 years of free transit across the region, 84,000 community housing spaces, 978 new schools across the province, or 39 new hospitals.

Overheated Reaction

The reaction to Guilbeault’s remarks was rather more overheated than the original news report Monday or his video response Wednesday.

Federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre claimed Guilbeault “won’t be happy until we’re living back in mud huts.” His party’s transport critic, Mark Strahl, said “this isn’t something many Canadians do without,” calling it “extreme” and “divisive” to withhold funding for highway megaprojects.

On social media, Ford said he was “gobsmacked” that a federal minister would say the government won’t invest in new roads or highways. “He doesn’t care that you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I do,” said the premier whose Greenbelt plan chose extended sprawl development over land closer by that municipalities had already designated for housing. “We’re building roads and highways, with or without a cent from the feds.”

“Most of us can’t just head out the door in the snow and rain and just walk 10 kilometres to work each day,” said Alberta Premier Danielle Smith.


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