Far from 'redundant', the environmental assessment Terry Cooke helped squash would have revealed major problems with the planned expressway and given opponents a fair hearing.
By Don McLean
Published November 08, 2007
In his column last week ('Red Hill Valley Parkway saga over', November 3, 2007), Spectator columnist Terry Cooke offered his personal take on the history of the Red Hill Valley Parkway.
Mr Cooke was elected regional chairman in 1994, and a few weeks before leaving office in 2000 he became CEO of the city's largest trucking company. He now runs Cooke Capital Corporation and is a director of several other companies.
Mr Cooke's column favours a conspiracy theory of the expressway history. He regales his readers with his personal memories of the "political end runs" by the expressway oppostion who "had friends in high places" that "attempted to hijack the process" with the objective of "scuttling the parkway".
These "guerilla tactics" by people who he says also carried out "relentless personal attacks" led "a few federal and provincial officials to erect bureaucratic roadblocks" all of which "spooked" some "wavering councillors" and "nearly did us in". But in the end the "vision and persistence" of the good guys led by Cooke of course won the day.
This tale would be comical if it weren't so sadly demonstrative of the politics of division that has characterized Hamilton for far too long. There appears to be no room in Mr Cooke's world for people who disagree with him and no willingness to countenance the possibility that his vilified opponents of this project might just be citizens with their own hopes and aspirations for the city and the planet.
Clearly those who questioned the wisdom of the expressway project weren't doing it out of any hope of making money or advancing their careers.
Note also that in his mind there's more to this gang of conspirators than nasty citizens with some demented desire to impose "economic disaster" on Hamilton.
It is also alleged to have included a premier of Ontario, a prime minister of Canada, and a long-standing Hamilton cabinet minister - despite Mr Cooke's claim that every successful politician has been a supporter of the expressway.
The main focus of Mr Cooke's column, and the thing he says almost caused "broken ranks" and a "domino-effect" among councillors, was the threat to the expressway these alleged conspirators caused by "imposing a second and entirely redundant environmental assessment" on the project.
Mr Cooke and his council supporters responded to that "hijacking" by spending over three million tax dollars to sue the Canadian government. That response speaks louder than even the charged language of his column.
Environmental assessment originated in the US in 1970. Over the next two decades it became the law in every province in Canada and dozens of countries around the world. The City of Hamilton now does more than a dozen assessments every year.
The fundamental premise of environmental assessment (EA) is that we should try to understand the consequences of our proposed actions on the social, economic and ecologial environment BEFORE we are forced as a society to deal with those consequences. EA is about preventing problems, protecting the public good, and ensuring that concerns about projects are heard, examined and hopefully dealt with in advance of construction.
Why did Mr Cooke feel so "spooked" by such an obviously sensible and lawful process? What was the terrible threat posed by an EA that led him to spend millions of dollars preventing this process from taking place?
More to the point, why did he and his allies spend taxpayers' money to ensure that some of those taxpayers were not able to raise their concerns about the expressway project in public hearings before an independent tribunal?
Mr Cooke's response in his column is that this was "entirely redundant". At the time, I recall he argued that it would also delay the project, but perhaps he's since changed his mind, since the court proceedings against the expressway took 27 months and federal legislation dictates that EA can only take 13.
But what of the "entirely redundant" accusation? Mr Cooke says this was the "second" EA. The first one he is apparently referring to was provincial government process in 1985 that combined four separate approval processes into one consolidated hearing.
The Red Hill road required approval from the Niagara Escarpment Commission (because most of its length lies within the escarpment World Biosphere) and from the Hamilton Conservation Authority (because the expressway was scheduled to cross Red Hill Creek 14 times in seven kilometres).
Prior to 1985 both of those regulators had taken public positions against the expressway project. Neither was given a seat on the Consolidated Hearing Board.
Instead, that tribunal was composed of two members of the Ontario Municipal Board and one from Environmental Assessment Board who rendered a 2-1 decision. The two OMB members endorsed the expressway, and the single representative of the Environmental Assessment Board submitted a 116-page dissent arguing that the road was not needed and should not be constructed in such an environmentally sensitive area.
The federal environmental assessment began 13 years later. In those intervening years many things changed:
The east-west road was converted into an expressway with six interchanges, instead of the arterial road with stoplights that had been presented to the 1985 hearings.
The plan to cross the escarpment without creating any new gaps was changed to blasting the biggest hole ever in the face of the escarpment.
Extensive new science documented the human health hazards from roadway pollution. A city-ordered health assessment warned that children and the elderly should avoid using the valley if the expressway was built.
The first ever biological inventory of Red Hill Valley was completed.
Two million dollars in trails were placed in the valley.
The city decided to re-route nearly the entire creek. The route of the planned expressway was substantially altered.
The federal assessment began as an environmental screening in June 1998. The city tolerated it until June 1999 when it came to the conclusion that the project was "likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects that could not be mitigated" and federal authorities took the legally required step of appointing a three-person panel to conduct a more complete environmental assessment.
At this point, Mr Cooke and his council sued to prevent that from taking place, and specifically to prevent the assessment from examining the need for the expressway and alternatives to it, including different locations. More particularly, to prevent concerned citizens from presenting their concerns in a forum where they would be given a fair hearing.
Mr Cooke's legal action then precisely reflects the attitude he continues to display today towards his fellow citizens - their views are illegitimate, and any influence they have must be the result of conspiracies.
Sadly, that view continues to be seen as acceptable by people who claim to have the best interests of Hamiltonians at heart.
Even more sadly, this depiction of politics and politicians as conspirators working outside the law sends a devastating message to citizens. It tells them to distrust government and treat it with contempt. It helps explain a voter turnout that dropped to just 52 percent in last month's provincial election.
It is worth asking who is served by contempt for government. Is it citizens who want secure and good quality public services, fair treatment, and a healthy and safe environment? Or is it those who detest the regulations that governments have put in place to try and achieve these goals?
The opening this month of the Red Hill Valley Parkway completes a $550 million construction project whose consequences will be with us far into the future. One of them has been going on for several years but was underlined last week when the city treasurer presented a very bleak draft capital budget for 2008 that is 40% lower than 2007.
The money available to maintain, repair and expand city roads, parks, recreation centres and other projects is down $90 million from last year, and treasurer Joe Rinaldo predicts that we won't see much improvement for many years to come.
Of the $142 million Rinaldo has scraped together, a third ($47 million) has to go just to pay debts - about $200 from each residential taxpayer. Total city debt is scheduled to hit $360 million this year, and the annual debt payments will get bigger every year until at least 2016.
The biggest slice of these repayments are for expressway debts. The Linc cost $192 million while the price tag for the valley road is $356 million or more than $1100 an inch. The provincial government paid about 55 percent of this bill - a fact that may explain their reluctance to meet the repeated demands of the city for more money.
The capital budget allocates $35 million in 2008 to maintain existing roads. That's down from $56 million this year, and Rinaldo says it is actually $50 million a year less than what's required just to prevent further deterioration of Hamilton's roads.
The situation is so bad that the city hasn't yet been able to service the North Glanbrook business park - the place which is supposed to house the 'thousands of jobs' promised by expressway backers. Despite a $25 million gift last year from the province, the business park is not expected to be functional until 2009.
The expressways aren't the only reason Hamilton has its financial back to the wall, but they are a big part of it. Other cities are also struggling with infrastructure costs, but Hamilton is unique in having decided that it could afford two new inner city expressways.
Councillors might think about all this as they debate how to carve up the measly $3 million allotted to them for new projects coming out of their visioning exercise.
There are many other consequences - economic, social and environmental - of these expressways, but let me just mention one more of special interest to folks planning to drive on them.
The valley road completes an expressway shortcut between the QEW and the 403 that is quite a bit shorter than going around through Burlington. Anyone trucking goods between Niagara and Brantford, or just driving past Hamilton, would be crazy not to switch over to this new route.
That is going to create a nightmare for drivers, especially those using the Linc who will shortly be pulling their hair out trying to get on and off the much-too-closely placed ramps and interchanges when the inside lane of the mountain expressway is occupied by a line of 18 wheelers.
Some people think the opponents of the valley expressway are losers. The reality is that we're all losers on this one.
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