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The March of the Hanlon Freeway

Last night, I attended the first of three workshop sessions put on by MTO, Guelph city staff, and their design consultants on the topic of the building of interchanges on the Hanlon expressway.

The night was long but is nothing compared to how long tomorrow will be, when the two dozen residents and the planning staff spend the day locked in a room together to allow residents to propose alternatives to their plans for 7 hours. Whether we will be listened to or humoured through this process, only time will tell, but one attendee last night cautioned the organisers that he was not interested in participating in a "dog and pony show". While organisers emphatically denied that this is what it was, the "8 assumptions" put up on the screen at the end of the night seemed to suggest otherwise.

The Hanlon upgrades are most controversial because of the effect they will have of changing the Hanlon from an intra-Guelph highway to an inter-city highway. Of the three interchanges that we are being talked to about, only one and a half will remain under what the designers call their "preferred plan". Kortright Rd will have a commuter-only exit and entrance, facing south. College Ave will have no exit whatsoever and be converted into an underpass. The adjacent roads to the Hanlon expressway that are unable to handle significant traffic and were not designed for the purpose will have to handle the domestic Guelph traffic between the remaining interchange and the city streets that will be cut off.

The general consensus among the residents is that this is not necessary, that interchanges can be built without cutting off all the roads, and that noise levels and particulate levels can be reduced, if the speed limit on the highway remains 80km/h as it is today. There is also a feeling that as gas heads for $2 a litre, the highway upgrades should not be the priority so much as alternate modes of transportation.

In their three hour presentation, the staff told us that the province has put $3.4 billion into transit solutions in the province over the last few years, although they didn't mention how much is going into highways. $1.6 billion had been announced earlier in the day to build a 12 km stretch of highway in Windsor, half a billion dollars are about to be spent on highways in Guelph, and there are a lot more cities with a lot more highway projects throughout the province. Another staff member showed an (incomplete and not completely accurate) rail map of the region with GO lines depicted saying that we are investing in transit, which is true, but that it was a subject for another day, which is not.

A representative from the MTO asserted that there has been no modal shift away from the automobile, and none is projected. Therefore, he said, this highway is necessary. While I will concede that if there are more cars, there will be more roads to accommodate them, I will also note that as we have more roads to accommodate them, there will be more cars. The logic that because there will be more cars there needs to be more highways is both shortsighted and self-fulfilling.

The plans for the highway are not only about upgrading the section near where I live to remove my neighbours' access to it, but it is about extending the highway across the 401 to connect up to Highway 6 south of the 401, to connect it north of Woodlawn to highway 6 north of Guelph, and to connect it to a new divided Highway 7 and GTA West highway corridor at the top of the city. This will turn the expressway from a short highway that helps Guelph citizens get around and in and out of Guelph into a freeway designed to bypass the city. There is a growing sense in the community that the MTO and the province see Guelph as little more than a speed bump on the way to Waterloo region.

I have it on some authority that the organisers of these sessions did not want the press in attendance at this event. Naturally there is nothing more attractive to members of the press, and Magda Konieczna, the Mercury's intrepid city hall reporter, attended the event. At the start of the session, the organiser went around the room getting everyone to introduce themselves. At the end of the introductions, she announced rather unhappily that there was a reporter from the Guelph Mercury in the room. It sounded to me more like a warning to staff than any kind of introduction. About half of Guelph City Council were in attendance as well.

Over the course of the evening, questions were occasionally taken from the floor. The most critical question was about speed limits. There is a near-universal desire to keep the highway to 80 km/h (100 km/h design speeds) through Guelph as I mentioned a moment ago, to allow for more useful interchanges and less noise and air pollution. The question was asked: is lowering the speed limit on the table? Yes of course it is, assured the moderator, while being countermanded by the 5-pound briefing package we had been given and by MTO representatives who seemed to suggest that it was only on the table insofar as we would be told why it was not possible.

Why is it not possible? Well, according to one of the last presenters, it is not possible because drivers are too stupid to handle an 80 km/h speed limit. That's not how he phrased it, but that's essentially what he said. Drivers see a freeway, they expect a 100 km/h speed limit, and therefore that's what we will give them. And so they will continue to expect it. When I asked if the MTO would consider left-hand exits, the reaction was swift and decisive: it's too dangerous to have a left-hand exit. Drivers, I assume, are too stupid to handle those, too, notwithstanding the 403 eastbound to 6 northbound exit or the 40 eastbound to 15 northbound exits in Montreal, or any of the dozens of forks in highways all over the place, all of which are perfectly usable left-hand exits. If he is right and drivers are too stupid to handle our roads, why are we encouraging more of us to drive, anyway?

I also had the opportunity to ask last night when the Hanlon would be finished. That is, at what point will everyone be satisfied that the highway is big enough, long enough, fast enough, and sufficiently inaccessible that we can call it completely and totally done? My question was met with a blank stare. Indeed.

Posted at 08:42 on May 02, 2008

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