Ontario should use Highway 407 to address GTA traffic woes

Premier Doug Ford raised some eyebrows last week when he talked about highways, and actually made a lot of sense.

That’s not what we’ve become accustomed to hearing from the premier in this area. He seems bound and determined to build new highways wherever he can, no matter the financial cost and environmental consequences.

But when it comes to Highway 407, the underused, mostly private toll route across the northern GTA, Ford hit the bullseye.

“I would never have sold it,” he said. “What did they sell it for, $3 billion? And it’s worth, what, $20 billion now? So I don’t believe in selling off toll roads.”

Two things on that. First, current estimates actually put the value of Highway 407 closer to $30 billion, making the sale back in 1999 look even more foolish. And second, it was a Progressive Conservative government, the one led by Mike Harris, that sold off the highway for what we can now see amounted to a handful of beans.

But never mind. Ford wasn’t part of that government and it’s a long time ago. The essential point is that even a PC premier can now see the folly of selling a valuable public asset for far below its long-term worth.

Too bad, though, that the premier hasn’t made a connection between the problems with Highway 407 and his own plans to build yet another multi-lane route across the northern fringes of the GTA, Highway 413, or as it’s formally known, the GTA West Corridor.

Highway 413, according to the government, will address the issue of traffic congestion and long commuting times in the fast-growing suburban areas along its projected route.

There are many problems with this idea, which the previous government cancelled in 2018 for very good reasons. And there are alternatives to an expensive new highway through farmland and environmentally sensitive areas.

One of the most obvious alternatives is making more efficient use of Highway 407, which is notable for two things — very high tolls and a striking shortage of traffic. It can cost $66 to drive the 108 kilometres of the privately operated section of the road, which keeps traffic volumes low.

Many experts, including those on the panel that recommended not proceeding with Highway 413, have urged finding a way to divert more traffic to Highway 407, thus relieving congestion on other roads without the need to construct another major roadway.

One idea, supported by the advocacy group Transport Action Ontario, is for the government to encourage trucks to use Highway 407 by paying their tolls. The group estimates that would divert up to 21,000 trucks a day, at a cost of some $4 billion over 30 years.

That sounds like a lot, but it’s a considerably less than the $10 billion or so the new Highway 413 will cost taxpayers. That’s a rough number because the government itself won’t even give an estimate of the cost.

A government that had the public interest in mind — especially one that knows the owners of Highway 407 got a very sweet deal — would be prepared to put a lot of pressure on those owners to make better use of their route. Especially when the government has already given them a big break by opting not to pursue penalties of about $1 billion when traffic levels fell below contractual levels during the pandemic.

The government should connect the dots. Taxpayers got hosed when Highway 407 was sold off. But it can now be part of a solution that would prevent more billions going on a highway that isn’t needed.

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