London, Ont. councillors suspend Wonderland Road widening in light of climate-focused review

City council has voted to suspend road-widening projects along Wonderland Road and Adelaide Street North, falling in line with the recommendations set out by a review of the upcoming work in London, Ont., through a climate lens.

The review was conducted using the Climate Emergency Screen Tool (CEST), which was born out of city council’s declaration of a climate emergency in 2019 and aims to “ensure positive climate action is considered” in the decision-making process for transportation projects.

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Much of the debate during Tuesday’s meeting of city council focused on the roughly 12-year, $212-million project to widen Wonderland Road between Sarnia and Southdale roads.

A partially complete environmental assessment for the project, which began in 2017, had considered bumping the four-lane road to six-lanes. The CEST review notes a widened version of the west London corridor “is predicted to experience a return of congestion due to induced demand while creating accessibility pressures.”

The project would also have “a negative impact on the streetscape and impact connectivity and accessibility across the corridor,” according to the review.

The review also predicts the project will have “significant impacts to the environment and climate change associated with increased (greenhouse gas emissions).”

City staff recommend this project be evaluated under the upcoming Mobility Master Plan (MMP) “with a focus on transit, high occupancy vehicle use and active transportation.” The MMP is set to supersede the city’s 2030 Transportation and Cycling master plans.

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During Tuesday’s meeting, Kelly Scherr, the deputy city manager of environment and infrastructure, said city staff intend to share the scope, scale and schedule of the MMP later this year

“The process itself, including a very extensive public consultation plan, is likely to take all of 2022 and part of 2023… I would expect that you would hear from us at some point in later 2023,” Scherr added.

City council approved an amendment from Ward 8 Coun. Steve Lehman that would direct city staff to include specific actions to tackle traffic congestion along Wonderland Road between Southdale and Sarnia roads during the development of the upcoming MMP.

Lehman also attempted to put forward an amendment that would hold off on suspending Wonderland Road’s widening until councillors could see the alternatives presented in the MMP, however this was shot down with those against it noting this could confuse the process.

Dept. Mayor Josh Morgan argued the referral would be redundant, adding that a future city council would have the option to resume the environmental assessment surrounding the road widening at a later date under the MMP.

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The suspension of Wonderland Road’s widening to six lanes was the subject of a lengthy debate between councillors that ultimately saw its proponents come out on top.

Among the outnumbered opponents was Ward 6 Coun. Phil Squire, who said he found the CEST review was not sufficient enough to rule out road widening, adding that he felt too much emphasis was being placed on viewing the project through a climate lens.

“I reject the idea that a lens, whatever it might be, by itself is conclusive as to whether something happens or doesn’t happen,” Squire added.

“The other point I really want to stress is just because you widen a road doesn’t mean you’re not going to do anything else… all of the things that people are talking about doing to make the road better, they can be done.”

Ward 1 Coun. Michael van Holst argued technological progress could lead to reduced emissions generated by vehicles, and in particular electric vehicles, driving along a widened Wonderland Road

Ward 10 Coun. Paul Van Meerbergen added that London is “asking an awful lot from this little 4-laner,” noting that Wonderland Road is one of only three corridors that service drivers from Highway 401 through the city.

“There’s a problem on Wonderland, and it’s a problem that’s greater than just tweaking with buses and bicycles,” Van Meerbergen said.

“How do people in London, Ont., choose to move? They move in vehicles. We’re not going to change that.”

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Ward 12 Coun. Elizabeth Peloza, who supported suspending the widening, responded that “of course Londoners pick cars. It’s all we build for… Those who are privileged and wealthy enough will buy a car, the rest will still figure out what they need to do with public transit, bikes and walking because that’s what we’ve left them with.”

“If we’re going from four to six lanes, we’re not widening a road, we’re building a highway,” Peloza added.

Ward 2 Coun. Shawn Lewis responded to van Holst’s argument regarding electric vehicles, telling colleagues that while those vehicles may reduce greenhouse gas emissions, “building six lanes of roadway itself is going to cause greenhouse emissions from the production of the materials going into the road.”

Morgan, London’s deputy mayor, added that the project’s $212-million price tag played a role in his support of suspending the road widening.

“(City staff) suggest that widening to six lanes to address traffic congestion is predicted to experience a return to congestion at the end of that and it is challenging to me to spend that volume of money when we might end up exactly in the place that we are,” Morgan said.

“Taking the time to see what the alternatives are and moving away from simply widening roads all the time I think is something that I’m certainly supportive of.”

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The debate ended with city councillors voting 9-5 in favour of the motion that includes suspending the widening of Wonderland Road.

Those in favour included Peloza, Lewis and Morgan, along with Mayor Ed Holder, Ward 3 Coun. Mo Salih, Ward 4 Coun. Jesse Helmer, Ward 5 Coun. Maureen Cassidy, Ward 9 Coun. Anna Hopkins and Ward 11 Coun. Stephen Turner.

Those opposed included van Holst, Squire, Lehman and Van Meerbergen, along with Ward 14 Coun. Steven Hillier.

Ward 13 Coun. Arielle Kayabaga remains on a leave of absence as she campaigns in the 2021 federal election.

The vote also means that an ongoing environmental assessment for improvements to Adelaide Street North will exclude widening the road between Sunningdale and Fanshawe Park roads.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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