The Holland Marsh Highway proposed by the provincial government plans to increase connectivity in the region but at the expense of the wetlands’ well-being

C/O Bryan Hanson

Plans for the Bradford Bypass, also known as the Holland Marsh Highway, is an east-west, four-lane highway between Highways 400 and 404 that has been in the works for decades. The proposed highway would connect York Region and Simcoe Country, to ease traffic congestion and support commuters from both communities. Environmental groups say that these benefits would be at the expense of the well-being of the Holland Marsh Wetlands.

Initial studies were conducted by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. All of the studies concluded that there was a need for this type of provincial highway.

The ministry studies cited expected significant population growth in the region. An environmental assessment was conducted in 1997 and the project received approval in 2002. 

The project was then shelved due to its incompatibility with the provincial A Place to Grow Act. It was not until August 2019 that the Ministry of Transportation approved its re-commencement.

The highway is one of two controversial transportation projects resurrected by the provincial government in 2019. The other was Highway 413 which was shelved by the previous Kathleen Wynne Liberal government due to similar concerns regarding its potential to harm the surrounding natural environment.

The Ford government sought to fast-track these developments by exempting them from the Environmental Assessment Act. It has also recently been reported that there are nearby large expanses of real estate owned by eight of Ontario’s most powerful land developers.

Half of these developers — which include John Di Poce, Benny Marotta, Argo Development and Fieldgate Homes and the Cortellucci, DeGasperis, Guglietti and De Meneghi families — are connected to the Ford government through former members of the party or current officials. Most have donated a great deal of money — at least $813,000 — to the Progressive Conservative party since 2014.

The Bradford Bypass had and continues to have strong support from municipalities, which have grown substantially over the past four decades. These areas are expected to continue to grow in the future. 

“For decades, commuters in York Region and Simcoe County have been demanding a connecting link . . . The Bradford Bypass will bring relief to drivers, support development in York Region and Simcoe County and bolster Ontario’s economy following this pandemic,” said Natasha Tremblay, a spokesperson for Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney, in a statement to the CBC.

While the main benefits of the highway will be less traffic congestion and the connection of York Region and Simcoe Country, supporters of the project have pointed to its economic benefits, particularly as part of the province’s economic recovery from the pandemic.

The project will generate a number of jobs during its construction. Once completed, it would further support the creation of more local jobs by connecting communities to major job centres in the Greater Toronto Area and encouraging more business within the area.

However, the Holland Marsh Highway would pave over the provincially significant wetlands. It would impact endangered species, migratory birds, aquatic life and generate significant groundwater contamination.

“Lake Simcoe is stressed by development impacts, salt from the expanding road network and excess nutrients already. Historically, the Holland Marsh filtered pollutants from the waters that flowed into the lake. It is extremely sensitive and a wholly inappropriate place to put a highway,” said Claire Malcomson, the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition’s executive director in an interview with Barrie Today.

Local groups, including the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition, have consistently voiced their concerns about the project and called on the government to reconsider, at the very least, conducting a more up-to-date environmental assessment.

Student organizations on campus, including Mac Climate Advocates and McMaster Outdoor Club, also have similar concerns about the project and its impact on the marsh.

“So because it’s been in the works for quite a while, [because of] the connectivity issues, I think the actual standards that they’ve been using to conduct these assessments is probably even older [than the initial 1997 assessment]. As mentioned before, just to reiterate, so much has changed in the last 30 years or so,” said Vidushi Saxena, co-president of Mac Climate Advocates.

Students also raised concerns about how the construction of this project might encourage urban sprawl and new housing development, further damaging the wetlands and its impact on farms in the area. Holland Marsh is considered a significantly productive specialty crop agricultural area.

“[The highway] will encourage housing developments in rural areas and that will damage wetlands and farms and those are two things that have been really important throughout the pandemic . . . Having local agriculture is super important to climate change and it’s been important throughout the pandemic because it’s more affordable to transport food locally,” said Jenn Cross, the other co-president of Mac Climate Advocates.

Additionally, Cross noted that given the rise of remote work due to the pandemic that many have noted is likely to continue, it is possible that the need for such a highway is no longer quite as high.

“There’ll always be a reason to go through with [projects such as the Holland Marsh Highway] but we have to be sure that we’re looking at it holistically, looking at the big picture and recognizing the significant consequences that might arise . . . There is always an alternative as well” said Saxena.

“There’ll always be a reason to go through with [projects such as the Holland Marsh Highway] but we have to be sure that we’re looking at it holistically, looking at the big picture and recognizing the significant consequences that might arise . . . There is always an alternative as well.”

Vidushi Saxena, co-president of Mac Climate Advocates

Madeleine Hayes, the environmental coordinator for McMaster Outdoor Club, also stressed the importance of students being aware of developments and projects such as this highway.

“I think it’s important for students to get involved . . . There are students from that area too, right? The more you get involved in local [advocacy], the more — globally — different things are going to happen, right? Because that’s how change happens, a little bit at a time. So by bringing attention to local issues like this, I think it really makes a difference,” explained Hayes.

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