A Commentary by Doug Draper
At the risk of coming across as a little hard-hearted here, the more I read about the concerns residents in west St. Catharines are raising over plans for a new interchange off Hwy. 406, the less sympathy I feel for these people.
The interchange – the subject this February 15 of a first of what is expected to be a series of public information meetings hosted by the City of St. Catharines, Ontario and Niagara’s regional government – is being proposed for the stretch of Hwy. 406 curling through west St. Catharines to address the traffic congestion in that area now, and forecast to grower even heavier in the future.
Residents living in the area say they fear another interchange, just north of an existing one running on and off Fourth Avenue Louth, will only add to the traffic congestion in their west St. Catharines neighbourhood.
Now these folks are concerned about traffic congestion? Have they been paying the slightest bit of attention to what has been unfolding in that area of the region over the past decade or so?
To state what may be obvious to almost everyone but them, west St. Catharines is a modern-day showcase for everything that “smart growth” is not. It is an ongoing reminder that as much as our municipal politicians and those working in planning and public works for our municipalities talk a good game about building communities that are more compact and friendly to walkers and transit users, and less dependent on trucks and cars, they continue to allow sprawling development to occur at this location, off Woodlawn Road in Welland, in the west end of Niagara Falls, and on and on.
For all too many of our municipal officials, it is as if waxing away about the virtues of ‘smarter growth’ is like spending a few minutes in the confessional after another week of committing sins.
But getting back to these folks in west St. Catharines who are now, all of a sudden, flocking to municipal meetings and the media with their concerns about traffic congestion in their neighbourhood?
Was there no inkling that traffic congestion was going to become a big problem here? Where did they think things were going to go all the while the City of St. Catharines has been spending the last decade or more moving its main retail center (in the form of ever more big box stores, strip malls and the like) from the traditional downtown and older shopping malls to the west end? I don’t remember any of these people going to public meetings and complaining about what this mass movement of chain stores t would do to the volume of traffic in their area.
And what about their own contribution to the traffic mayhem? They are living in a low-sprawl neighbourhood that almost makes it impossible to get around without a truck or car? For that reason alone, most of them are probably doing a lot of driving around and are therefore contributing to a situation where the existing Fourth Avenue interchange and adjoining roads have reached capacity.
Then there is the new hospital complex. More than five years ago, when it was still possible to question the Niagara Health System’s decision to locate the new hospital complex for this region in west St. Catharines, the city and regional government came out with a final report that, among other things, concluded that a new interchange would likely be needed to accommodate the additional traffic this facility would draw.
Where were these west St. Catharines residents when people in other parts of the city and region were arguing back then that this was not the best site for this hospital complex? Why weren’t they standing shoulder to shoulder with residents like Pat Scholfield from south Niagara and others who said at the time that the new complex should go in a more central location in the region where the road services and other infrastructure is already in place to accommodate it?
It was stunning to read in a February 16 edition of the St. Catharines Standard that Kris Jacobson, transportation services manager for St. Catharines, said he doesn’t think future development, including the hospital, is a significant driver for the new interchange. Apparently, he missed some of the meetings and reports this reporter attended and read more than five years ago, including the final report his city participated in with the region’s government, titled ‘West St. Catharines Transportation Study’ and dated May 2006 , in which the study, under the heading “Proposed Hospital Complex,” lists among the top concerns around this complex; “increased traffic generation and its impact on the road networks, “access issues related to emergency vehicles and response times,” “further pressures on the infrastructure – both above and below ground – to accommodate further development,” and “the new (hospital) site’s compatibility with the surrounding area.”
This report and others, including a regional planning department report that warned of traffic and infrastructure pressures the new hospital could bring before the region’s council approve locating the hospital there, were made publicly available at open meetings more than five years ago. And yes, they discussed the possible need for another highway interchange in that area. Yet, I don’t recall any residents from the west St. Catharines area coming to these meetings and expressing their concerns at the time.
Even this past Tuesday night, power point available from the regional government lists the new hospital complex as point number one under the reasons why “future development” has to be considered when forecasting future traffic and the need for a new interchange. I got the impression from what I read in The Standard that Jacobson was at that meeting.
So I have a hard time with people coming in long after it is too late to do anything about where the new hospital should be located or how many more box stores and strip malls should be jammed into west St. Catharines and complaining about the need for a new interchange to relieve traffic congestion.
I have far more sympathy for residents in other parts of Niagara, including Niagara Falls and other municipalities in the south end, who spoke out against this location for a hospital a long time ago.
Unlike the residents of west St. Catharines, they spoke out when something could have potentially been done to press for a better location for this hospital complex, from a smarter growth and more economically sustainable point of view and from a health care point of view. And having been ignored by every body up to and including the last council of the region, the Niagara Health System, the Local Health Integration Network for this region and the provincial government, they will now be forced to join in paying millions of dollars for this new interchange.
Their concerns deserve to be taken far more seriously than those of a group of west St. Catharines resident (with the exception of a few that may have been raising concerns about sprawling development in that area for years) who just woke up and discovered there is a years-old plan for a new interchange on the table and are now yelling; “not in my backyard!”
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