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We're band-aiding our highways again

So we learned ahead of the election that Guelph is getting a new 4-lane highway 7 connecting Guelph to Kitchener. Now we hear about the MTO's plans to grade separate the three interchanges nearest my home on the Hanlon, the only highway through town. But when will we learn?

As a driver, I admit it: I like long, open, straight roads without stop signs or traffic lights. Indeed, from when I leave my home in Guelph to when I arrive at my parents' place an hour on the other side of Montreal, I face just 5 sets of traffic lights and not a single stop sign - and every single one of them is before I leave the city of Guelph. I like my car, it gets me where I am going with all my junk. It doesn't cost me anything, I convince myself while paying high insurance, maintenance, and fuel bills.

But there are bigger issues with this obsession I share with most of my fellow countrymen.

The environment, overused as a reason almost to the point of clich, is an important factor. Driving a car everywhere burns gas, and regardless of the issue of greenhouse gasses, the crap coming out of my muffler isn't going to never-never land, it's going into the air and staying there. So is the rubber coming off my ever-wearing tires, the fluid I use to clean off my windshield when it gets too dirty to see out, the oil that inevitably slowly leaks out of the bottom of my car, and every other source of pollutants my car creates. And that's not counting the ones used to produce my car or the roads I drive on.

Another issue is that we have this completely absurd notion as a species and as a society that in order to function and succeed, everything must grow. Our businesses grow, our populations grow, our economy, measured in how money moves around how often, must grow. If we don't keep up the growth, we say that the economy is stagnant, we are heading into recession, there is no growth. At the core of this though is one fundamental flaw: there is simply no such thing as sustainable growth. We cannot grow forever.

We are told that the new highway 7 is needed because simply increasing the old one from 2 lanes to 4 will only be good until 2011. But if we add a new highway, we can grow until 2031 before we need to make another highway. Wow, huge improvement! As we grow and grow and grow, we are eating up our resources, namely our land, our air, and our water, at an incredible rate. Every few years a few hundred acres gets eaten up as we need another highway to service our insatiable growth and its associated traffic.

Even hybrid or electric cars do not address our problems. Ultimately, our roads get full as we grow faster and faster, and our problems cease to be about the toxins coming out of our cars but more about the bumper to bumper traffic on our 24 lane highways and the lack of any open land left anywhere.

Surely there is a better solution?

Of course there is. And it's as old an idea as confederation itself: rail. For a fraction of what it costs us in money, land, air, and water, we can use and expand our extensive rail network to provide people and goods the ability to move efficiently and effectively. If we put the cost of all these highway upgrades and new ongoing maintenance into our rail and bus transit networks, the traffic taken off our roads would be enough to last well beyond 2031, with the roads continuing to exist to service those people and goods that simply cannot go by mass transit.

Every GO train we put in could take up to 1,800 cars off the road. Every 100-car freight train we run means between 200 and 500 fewer trucks on the road. Every few thousand vehicles we remove from the road is one less highway we need to build. Every less highway we need to build is one more piece of land that can continue to be used for plants to feed us and to clean our air.

We cannot continue to expand our highways forever. It is simply not sustainable. We cannot expand rail forever, either, but each additional track we add to each rail line is an enormous number of highway lanes that we do not need to build with a significantly smaller land footprint, with significantly reduced environmental effects. We have to get away from our car culture. Incrementally, no doubt, but we do need to. To start, we could stop upgrading our highways and put that money instead into mass transit solutions that are at least more sustainable. We could fund our rail infrastructure to the level that it is not only better, but cheaper, to board a train anywhere and get off anywhere, perhaps even with our cars in an auto-carrier so the trip can be finished to get to that place that even trains have never been.

We need to return to the level of rail service we had a century ago, when passengers could take a train from just about anywhere to just about anywhere, when one could board a streetcar at the Ontario Veterinary College, transfer downtown, and take another street car all the way to downtown Toronto, when through a couple of transfers, one would be able to board a train in Owen Sound and get off at Mont Tremblant.

It is time to go back for the future and once again travel the continent with the reduced ecological and economical footprint afforded by mass transit.

Posted at 14:13 on November 28, 2007

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