Chapter 6: Environmental Assessment Review

6.0 Overview

To assist the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) with its review of the work undertaken on the GTAW EA to date, the Panel was asked to conduct a strategic assessment, making recommendations for next steps, and giving advice on a path forward for the EA process. To fulfill these tasks, the Panel reviewed the work done over the past decade. This chapter presents an overview of that review, within the framework of the Environmental Assessment Act. Appendix 6 provides the complete details and discussion of our review, which focused on two broad requirements — the commitments made by the GTAW EA in the terms of reference approval it obtained from the Minister of the Environment, and the requirements of the Environmental Assessment Act to describe and evaluate alternatives to the undertaking.

Two topics were central to this review:

  1. the identification and evaluation of alternatives to the undertaking; and
  2. the EA’s assessment of need for the undertaking.

6.1 The EA Terms of Reference

The Environmental Assessment Act requires that an EA describe and evaluate alternatives to an undertaking. Since 1996, proponents have had two options: 1) obtain approval for a terms of reference for a full EA, and start that EA with a review of alternatives based on what addresses the purpose of the undertaking or, 2) obtain a terms of reference that starts with the undertaking and avoids reviewing alternatives to the undertaking. For the GTAW EA, MTO chose the first option, and sought a terms of reference approval that committed it to carrying out an EA that included a full review of alternatives to the undertaking.

The terms of reference document that was approved by the Minister of the Environment included two commitments that specified the GTAW EA’s approach to address “alternatives to the undertaking.” One commitment was to assess the need for the undertaking. The terms of reference stated that “The specific need for any proposed undertaking(s) and a description of the proposed undertaking(s) will be determined during the EA study…”(p.19). Related to this commitment, the terms of reference also committed to releasing a “Transportation Planning Needs Report” as part of the EA (p.19).

A second commitment was to carry out a multi-step process to assess alternatives to the undertaking. The process outlined in the terms of reference began with a screening step to eliminate individual transportation alternatives that did not contribute to identified problems and opportunities. It also proposed further steps to describe and evaluate “groups” of transportation alternatives, including groups of new and existing road and highway corridors, in order to identify a preferred undertaking. The final step involved reviewing the preferred undertaking so that MTO could decide on the appropriate next steps. In the event that MTO decided to continue the EA process, the next phase of the environmental assessment would be to assess alternative methods of carrying out the undertaking.

6.2 Alternatives to the Undertaking

6.2.1 Alternative Actions

The first step in the EA process to address alternatives to the undertaking was a screening test to narrow down a long list of possible individual transportation options. A screening test is an acknowledged method of assessment under the Ontario EA process.xviii Its purpose is to use a Yes/No question to screen in or out the identified options. Based on a preliminary list of eight broadly-cast transportation options,xix the GTAW EA identified a total of 297 individual alternatives (hereby termed “actions”). These actions were often quite specific.

According to the EA, MTO assessed each action against a single criterion: its ability to provide a meaningful contribution to the identified inter-regional transportation problems and opportunities. Documentation of this assessment was provided in Table B-2 of the report, Area Transportation System Alternatives Report (Revised, January 2011) (the “Alternatives Report”). In that table, the EA provided three tests, rather than just one (see Table B-2).

The EA is not clear about how the three tests collectively were to inform decisions on whether to further eliminate or pursue particular actions as part of the subsequent groups. For example, under the heading of Transportation Demand Management (TDM)/ Transportation Systems Management (TSM), Table B-2 considers numerous actions related to road tolling.xx This is consistent with provincial policy on TDM and “Optimizing” existing infrastructure.xxii Further, Table B-2 concludes that at least two actions had “Potential to Substantively Contribute to Addressing the Identified Transportation Problems & Opportunities,” and that another of these actions “Should be Further Considered as Part of the GTA West Study.”xxiii However, with no explanation in the EA reports on Table B-2, the EA does not pursue any of these three actions as part of Stage 1. Later, in response to public comment, the EA describes road tolling as being “beyond the scope of this study.” Given the open scope of the GTAW EA’s terms of reference, and the provincial policies in place at that time regarding TDM and optimizing use of existing infrastructure over construction of new infrastructure, the rationale for this decision in the EA was not clear to the Panel.

6.2.2 Alternative Groups

MTO’s second step in the assessment of alternatives to the undertaking was to combine individual actions into groups of alternatives. Within Ontario EA practice, the rationale for grouping individual actions is that some individual actions may be more advantageous to the environment than others, but may not be fully capable on their own of addressing either the purpose of an undertaking or the need for the undertaking.xxiv The practice of combining individual actions is thus intended to group individual actions that have different environmental impacts in order to identify a number of groups that together address the purpose of the undertaking or its need, and then evaluate and compare the groups to identify the group with the most favourable overall environmental impact.

The 2009 Alternatives Report was the first EA document to address how the GTAW EA would combine individual actions into groups of actions that it would assess as alternatives. The report identified four groups for assessment:

  • Group #1: Optimize existing networks;
  • Group #2: New/expanded non-road infrastructure;
  • Group #3: Widen/improve roads; and
  • Group #4: New transportation corridor.

Three years later, the 2012 Transportation Development Strategy Report (TDS) also began with the same list of four groups of alternatives.

One important aspect of these groupings is that MTO framed the groups as being additive, rather than discrete alternatives for the purposes of the assessment process. Specifically, Group #2 included all the individual actions listed in Group #1; Group #3 included all the actions listed in both Groups #1 and #2; and Group #4 included all of the actions in Group #1, Group #2 and Group #3. The additive approach to bundling groups thus established the foundation for the GTAW EA’s assessment of alternatives.xxv

Turning to the four groups of alternatives that the GTAW EA did assess, the Panel has identified two concerns: first, the group descriptions are not adequate to understand what specific actions make up each group; second, their assessment as additive groups came at the expense of any assessment of each of the groups in relation to each other.

Group #1

The Panel’s concerns with the adequacy of the group descriptions can be demonstrated by focusing on Group #1 (Optimize existing networks). Because of the additive nature of the groups, all of the Group #1 actions were included in all of the four Groups identified that the EA evaluated. As a result, any issue with Group #1 would affect the evaluation of all alternatives. The Panel found two issues with the Group # 1 alternatives: there are three different definitions (Table B-2 of the Alternatives Report, Table B-3 of the Alternatives Report, and the TDS) of the alternatives, and there is no rationale for how they are assessed in the GTAW EA.

These inconsistent descriptions of the actions that make up the Group #1 alternative are particularly problematic, given that the PPS (2005) placed a high policy priority on optimizing existing infrastructure before developing new infrastructure.

The Panel could not identify specific analyses of the adequacy or inadequacy of Group # 1 actions (either alone or combined with Group # 2 actions) in meeting the project need. Instead, these groups were simply assumed to generate a four-per-cent reduction in vehicular travel and a 10-per-cent reduction in long-haul truck trips.xxvi The GTAW EA’s further conclusion that these groups were inadequate to fully address need is therefore based on an assumption without rationale; the EA provided no evidence to demonstrate their impacts or inadequacy.

The Panel therefore concludes that the GTAW EA did not adequately or reasonably assess the potential of Group #1 to optimize existing infrastructure. For example, as discussed earlier in Chapter 4, the Panel found that, in contrast to the EA, a single travel demand management action (congestion pricing) had the potential to exceed the anticipated travel time savings from the GTAW Recommended Actions.

Group #2

The Panel found similar issues in the TDS description of Group #2 (New/expanded non-road infrastructure). As with Group #1, the Panel found several inconsistencies in how the EA defined Group #2. Written descriptions of this Group included some aspects of projects already under way, which should have been included in the base case (e.g., the Metrolinx RTP and the GO 2020 Strategic Plan). Moreover, the assessment of Group #2 alternatives relied on assuming that, together, Groups #1 and #2 would lead to the four-per-cent vehicular reduction and 10-per-cent long-haul truck trip reduction.

The EA’s assumption of a four-per-cent vehicular travel reduction assumed that 2.5 per cent of trips would be diverted to transit and that 1.5 per cent would be diverted to walking, cycling, and other active travel modes. Although this assumption suggests that the GTAW Recommended Actions are aligned with more transit and “complete community” policies (i.e., to reduce long auto commutes and encourage transit mode share, discussed above in Chapters 4 and 5), the Panel is concerned that the EA provided no assessment or evidence in support of this assumption. It is also concerned that the EA made this assumption applicable to all alternatives, with the result that the EA provided no differentiation of transit and non-road benefits across different alternatives.

Group #3

Group #3 (new/expanded roads) is important, given the PPS (2005) priority to optimize existing Infrastructure before developing new infrastructure. The Panel believes that this policy imposed a responsibility on the GTAW EA to assess opportunities to optimize existing road infrastructure before proposing a new road corridor.

The EA assessment of Group #3 was problematic for several reasons. First, because of the additive approach, the problems set out above regarding Groups #1 and #2 also apply to Group #3. Additionally, the EA’s treatment of Group #3 raised additional concerns for the Panel.

A first concern is that Group #3 alternatives included a mixture of approved and proposed changes to existing provincial highways and upper and lower tier municipal roads.xxvii This resulted in an overstatement of the transportation benefits of these alternatives.

A second concern is that all Group #3 alternatives (Alternatives 3-1, 3-2, and 3-3) included expansions to Hwy 407 that would exceed the 10-lane limit set out in the legislation that governs this highway. It is unclear whether this was an oversight in the GTAW EA or whether the inclusion of this action represented a reasonable consideration to revisit the Hwy 407 legislation.

A third concern is that, although the GTAW EA grouping approach is characterized as being strictly additive between demand management (Group #1), non-roadway (Group #2), expansion and extensions (Group #3) and new corridors (Group #4), this was not completed. Instead, Alternatives 4-1 through 4-5, which included new corridors, did not include the Group #3 expansions to Hwy 407 beyond the 10-lane limit.xxviii

The result of these latter two concerns is that the EA did not demonstrate consistency with the provincial policy to optimize the use of existing infrastructure before constructing new infrastructure. Recalling that all Group #3 alternatives represented options to expand existing infrastructure, it is troubling that the EA identified only three alternatives and provided that all such alternatives included an expansion to Hwy 407 that was inconsistent with existing provincial legislation. By contrast, the EA identified five Group #4 alternatives, and each Group #4 alternative included new corridors as well as expansions to Hwy 407 that were consistent with the existing legislation.

The Panel could find no explanation in the EA documentation regarding why the GTAW EA proposed one approach for Alternatives 3-1 through 3-3 and a different approach for Alternatives 4-1 through 4-5, particularly when the first approach was inconsistent with the Hwy 407 legislation and the second approach was not.

Group #4

The Group #4 alternatives included five different corridors between Hwy 400 and points to the west (Alternatives 4-1 through 4-5).

The Panel identified several issues with how the EA described and evaluated each of the Group #4 alternatives. The most important issue is that, like the Group #3 alternatives, the Group #4 alternatives included a mixture of approved and proposed changes to existing provincial highways and upper and lower-tier municipal roads.xxix For example, part of preferred corridor (4-2) aligns directly with the Halton-Peel Border Area Transportation Study (HPBATS) corridor, a regional planning initiative. This approach means that the EA overstated the benefits associated with each alternative within each Group, including the benefits of the Recommended Actions associated with the preferred alternative.

Overall, the partial application of the additive approach and the overlap between planned and newly proposed actions within each alternative complicated the comparison of the four alternative groups. The Panel is particularly concerned with the lack of transparency in the EA on the actions making up each group and their respective attributes. This is because it is unclear to the Panel what alternative would emerge as preferred, if the Group #3 and Group #4 alternatives had included only new actions (and not also actions approved elsewhere).

The EA could have mitigated this problem for the Group #3 and Group #4 alternatives in two ways. First, the EA needed to separate Group benefits from one another (i.e., how many more benefits could be delivered by each Group #3 alternative in comparison with each Group #4 alternative?). This would allow assessment of the incremental benefits/costs of the actions within each group independently of actions approved elsewhere.

Additionally, the Panel believes that the EA needed to better specify the base case scenario to reflect other planned and programmed actions that were known at the time of the GTAW EA. According to the TDS, “other planned improvements to the provincial highway network, beyond those noted above were not included for consideration in the Base Case.” It is unclear to the Panel why the base case scenario did not include all then-planned provincial road improvements beyond those in the Southern Ontario Highways Program, 2006-2010.

The Panel is concerned that, without clarity on the base case scenario and the actions within Groups #3 and #4, the EA did not address the provincial policy to optimize existing infrastructure before constructing new infrastructure, or the policy to demonstrate that there was both need for, and no reasonable alternative to, a new road corridor that would cross provincially protected lands.

Beyond overstating benefits, an additional problem is the use of the additive method to evaluate alternatives. Group #4 alternatives were framed as additive to the other three groups (with the exception of widenings to Hwy 407 beyond the 10-lane limit). The most fundamental problem with this approach is that it undermined the assessment of alternatives. Instead of comparing groups of alternatives, the GTAW EA bundled each of these groups to produce alternative packages with unclear individual contributions by each component group. Based on high growth forecasts in the GGH, adding any group of actions to any other group of actions (without comparing them as alternatives) would necessarily increase the benefits. Thus, the additive approach pre-determined that Group #4 alternatives would have the greatest benefits compared to all other group alternatives.

6.3 Consideration of “Need”

Through its terms of reference, the GTAW EA made “need” an essential requirement of this EA. Though need is not a stated requirement of the EAAxxx, need does arise in provincial policy: both the Greenbelt Plan and the Provincial Policy Statement make need and the lack of reasonable alternatives an explicit requirement of proposed new land uses that either cross the key natural heritage or hydrologic features or result in the exclusion of prime agricultural lands.

The GTAW EA used an inconsistent approach that was relevant and related to need, but not synonymous with need. This inconsistency was most evident in the GTAW EA’s mixture of need with “opportunities”, such that the TDS rationale for its recommended actions was based primarily on opportunity, not need. This imprecision regarding need and opportunity complicated the assessment of alternatives. It also left the Panel with uncertainty on whether the EA evaluation of alternatives aligned with provincial policy (i.e., the Greenbelt Plan and the PPS). Other inconsistencies in assessing need relate to the mixture of quantitative and qualitative approaches, without clear priority.

MTO conducted travel demand modeling to evaluate alternatives in the GTAW EA. In its quantitative work, the EA used two different approaches. The first quantitative approach was to measure the relationship of traffic volumes to roadway capacity, distinguishing different levels of service (LOS) across alternatives. In this approach, an LOS above 0.90 (i.e., when volume is at 90 per cent of capacity) is considered to be congested, and thus to demonstrate the need for improvements. The EA used this approach to evaluate and choose from among some, but not all of the grouped alternatives. The Panel observes that, had the EA used LOS as the measure of need, the preferred alternative would not have adequately addressed transportation need, as it did not deliver a level of service below 0.90 across the study area.

The second quantitative approach used in the EA was to focus on the quantitative measurement of transportation demand benefits. One example of such benefits is reduced travel time across the transportation system. With this approach, the best option according to this criterion is the option that delivers the greatest transportation demand benefits (i.e., the greatest savings in travel times). The GTAW EA did not make clear how this kind of transportation benefit is related to need. For example, is there a maximum average travel time, such that any time above this maximum would demonstrate the need for improvements?

Regarding its qualitative approach to need, the EA used a number of different terms, without explaining if or how these terms were related to need. While two of these terms are related to the quantitative approaches described above, the GTAW EA’s preferred qualitative approach to need also involved new terms describing transportation “problems and opportunities.” Considering these terms, the Panel was inclined to regard the transportation problems as “what is needed”, and the transportation opportunities as “what are additional benefits beyond what is needed.”

For example, in the Alternatives Report, the GTAW EA compared the Group #3 and Group #4 alternatives and concluded that, “While many of the transportation problems could be addressed by Group #3 (incorporating Groups #1 and #2),” the provision of a new transportation corridor presents the “opportunity” to improve linkages, accommodate development, provide economic opportunities, and support tourism (Alternatives Report, p. 64). This statement suggests that Group #3 would address the problems (and thus the need). If so, this is a major point.

The TDS also used this qualitative approach for several of its key conclusions regarding the elimination of alternatives from consideration, making these qualitative assessments important for the process of establishing need and confirming that there were no reasonable alternatives, in light of the strict provincial policy tests.

Had the EA clearly described the existing conditions, and evaluated the Do Nothing and base case alternatives, it would have been possible to understand the differences between need and opportunities. This is particularly important for this EA because the rationale for the GTAW Recommended Actions rested on opportunity, rather than meeting need. Yet the EA did not describe how this opportunity relates to need.

Furthermore, resting the alternative selection on an “opportunity” did not address policy requirements to demonstrate that other alternatives did not meet future needs. According to the GTAW EA, the recommended actions provided the opportunity to unlock lands for new development.xxxi While other alternatives may not have provided this opportunity, they may have been consistent with provincial policy objectives to avoid protected lands (Greenbelt Plan and PPS) and to prioritize optimization of existing infrastructure over developing new infrastructure (see Chapter 4).

Provincial policy required this EA to demonstrate that a new corridor crossing provincially protected lands was the only reasonable option capable of addressing future needs. The focus of the EA on opportunity was not aligned with any of these provincial policy priorities or tests.

6.4 Conclusions

The Panel believes that environmental assessment is a practical tool to improve decision-making. To fulfill this role, an EA must be comprehensible: it should use concise, simple, and clear language so that it can be understood. An EA should not have different conclusions, results, and emphases in different sections about the same topics and issues; it should follow a clear logic. While there is no perfect EA which avoids all risk and uncertainty, the GTAW EA challenges these practical tests.

The Panel’s review of the GTAW EA identified several fundamental concerns:

  1. The GTAW EA eliminated or did not carry forward actions and alternatives without a clear rationale. Especially notable examples, particularly in light of the strict reasonable alternative policy test and the policy to prioritize infrastructure optimization over developing new infrastructure, include:
    1. Alternative 3-1 was not carried forward due to “cost and constructability,” with little supporting documentation;
    2. Alternatives 3-2 and 3-3, included widening local roads (e.g., Hwy 7 and Hwy 9), but were not carried forward;
    3. Congestion pricing was eliminated as a specific optimization and travel demand management action; and
    4. The GTAW EA identified 297 actions which it did not eliminate from consideration, even though many of them were not carried forward.
  2. The Panel also identified several issues relating to the need for a new corridor:
    1. The GTAW EA did not define the relationship between need and opportunity. The preference for the recommended alternative (Alternative 4-2, which included a new highway corridor) compared to Alternative 3-1 (widening and extending existing highways) rested primarily on opportunity.
    2. The GTAW EA did not evaluate the Do Nothing alternative or accurately specify the base case scenario. In the Panel’s view, need and capacity to meet need could have been better assessed by testing the base case as an alternative to the Do Nothing alternative and to existing conditions, relative to GTAW EA alternatives.
    3. The GTAW EA’s definition and use of the base case was not appropriate. Specifically:
      1. The GTAW Recommended Actions included numerous highway widenings and extensions, several of which were already planned or programmed, and some of which are already under way. These actions should have been included in the base case scenario rather than in the EA’s Recommended Actions. As well, the capacity for these actions to meet need should have been independently assessed as an alternative to a new corridor.
      2. The GTAW Recommended Actions included unspecified TDM and TSM measures that could have been completed independently of the Recommended Actions, as part of the base case or an alternative on their own. In the Panel’s view, the EA’s method of assessing these optimization options (Groups #1 and #2) was inappropriate.
  3. The additive method of evaluating groups and alternatives was also problematic, for a number of reasons:
    1. The additive approach to bundling groups undermined the GTAW EA as a mechanism for assessing alternatives. Based on high growth forecasts in the GGH, adding any group of actions to any other group of actions would very mechanically lead to an expectation of more benefits. Without a strict definition of need, it is unclear how this approach to environmental assessments could ever lead to any conclusion other than that the most comprehensive list of actions assessed would generate the highest benefits.xxxii
    2. The GTAW EA did not specifically define some of the groups which additively formed the alternatives. Notably, it is unclear what TDM and TSM (Group #1) or transit and non-roadway improvements (Group #2) were proposed. Therefore, these actions are difficult to assess, implement, or evaluate as insufficient to meet need based on the GTAW EA.
  4. The evaluation of alternatives to a new corridor was also problematic because Group #3 alternatives (3-1, 3-2, and 3-3) included expansions to Hwy 407 beyond the 10-lane maximum defined by the Hwy 407 legislation. This problem thus affected Alternative 3-1, which was the only alternative to a new corridor that the TDS subjected to comparative evaluation with the new corridor alternatives. The EA did not explain why, in contrast to all Group #3 alternatives, all of the new corridor alternatives (4-1 through 4-5) included highway expansions that did not exceed the 10-lane maximum on Hwy 407.
  5. Overall, the EA did not demonstrate that a new corridor that crosses protected lands was the only reasonable option to address future transportation needs in the study area.

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