5 years later, was the Red Hill Valley Parkway worth it?

After a 50-year battle and for more than $100 million in debt, Hamilton got a new highway in 2007. As for whether it was worth it, there are no easy answers.

Community still divided over benefits of the controversial highway

Community activist Don McLean says all his fears about the Red Hill Valley Parkway have materialized. Others say the highway has brought jobs and much-needed growth to Hamilton. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Standing on an overpass at the Red Hill Valley Parkway, Don McLean explains his beefs over a deafening roar of traffic.

"No," he says simply when asked if it was all worth it. The 50 years of political bickering. The thousands of trees razed. The ongoing lawsuit and the multiple millions spent.

The highway has put the city in debt for years, said McLean, a city hall watchdog who cycles everywhere. He is also chair of the Friends of Red Hill Valley, an organization that sprang up to fight the controversial highway.

"I think in light of what's happened since, particularly with respect to our understanding of climate change, that we were on the right side when we fought against this."

The highway officially opened in late 2007 — about five years ago. Now, like before the thoroughfare was constructed, there is still no consensus on whether it was a good idea.

'Gift that will keep on giving'

Those against it cite the pollution, noise and other environmental drawbacks. Those in favour say it sparks much-needed development and jobs.

The highway "is a gift that will keep on giving to the city of Hamilton," said Larry Di Ianni, who was Hamilton's mayor when the parkway opened.

The battle over the eight-kilometre stretch of road went on for 50 years. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"Not only does it resolve transportation issues, but it's created economic benefits to the city."

The evolution of the parkway dates back to 1929, when the city purchased the tract for parkland. Local politicians discussed the notion of an expressway in 1957 and again in 1963. In the 1970s, it purchased the land going east-west along the mountain to link to the future north-south highway — what would eventually become the Red Hill and Lincoln Alexander parkways.

From that point on, the battle involved public meetings and Ontario Municipal Board challenges, and inspired passionate protesters who took to living in trees. The proposed eight-kilometre road was killed and revived, debated and modified. 

Paying off the debt

Hamilton will be paying for the highway until 2025, said Rob Rossini, the city's head of finance. It borrowed $100.5 million via debenture in four tranches, dating from 2005 to 2008, to build the highway. 

Nearly $57 million of that has been repaid through development charges by industrial and commercial properties along the highway, Rossini said. Hamilton taxpayers spend about $7.7 million annually to pay off the debt.

There is also an ongoing $75-million lawsuit between the city and federal government. The lawsuit has cost taxpayers $1.3 million between 2004 and 2011, the Hamilton Spectator has reported.

It could be argued that the highway is paying for itself, particularly with decreased wear and tear on other roads, said Neil Everson, Hamilton's director of economic development.

The highway has spawned a number of jobs — although so far, short of the 14,000 that were predicted — and it brought in $14,252,714 in taxes and $386 million worth of assessment in 2011.

More taxes and jobs

That money comes from the 18 businesses that have set up shop along the parkway, Everson said. That includes the Fortino's headquarters, Canada Bread, Maple Leaf Foods and the businesses in the Heritage Green Plaza.

Before the parkway, the Red Hill Business Park was basically "a home for field mice," Everson said. Now it's serviced land ready for development.

The parkway has also led to Stoney Creek development around it, including big box stores, restaurants and massive residential growth.

"There were about 12,000 to 15,000 people on Stoney Creek Mountain just after amalgamation in early 2002," Everson said. "Now it's up to 45-50,000."

Economy versus environment was a common theme in the parkway fight. There is still no consensus on how many trees were felled, or the exact impact on the southern flying squirrel, a vulnerable species potentially affected by the highway.

Initial studies

Three months before the parkway opened, students working under McMaster University biologist Patricia Chow-Fraser took baseline samples from a creek near the parkway.

The samples were meant to serve as a starting point for when future researchers investigate the impact on water quality. But so far, no one has taken up the task, Chow-Fraser said.

Last year, a student put up cameras to see if southern flying squirrels were using poles meant to connect them to habitat. They caught a darkened image of a squirrel that may or may not have been a southern flying squirrel, she said. But that's the only information so far.

There is data on air quality. Hamilton researcher Denis Corr used a mobile air monitoring system to monitor air quality in the neighbourhoods around the parkway. To his surprise, he found no major impact.

Highways are the worst places for air quality, he said. But because the parkway is in a valley, winds channel along the valley rather than sideways into neighbourhoods.

"I'm not trying to tell you there'll never be a day where it does impact," he said. "I'm telling you that on the 10 different days we measured, there was no impact."

Neighbours complain of noise

Julie Brezden, president of the Red Hill Valley Neighbourhoods Association, says the parkway has negatively affected her quality of life. Some days, the smell of diesel fuel overwhelms the neighbourhood.

There are also no sound walls between the parkway and homes. The noise keeps some people up at night, she said.

"It's not a sound sleep anymore," she said. "It's just getting worse and worse."

'Once it's there, it's there'

The association has appealed to the city and local politicians. But options are limited.

"There's only so much you can do," she said of the parkway. "Once it's there, it's there."

But Chow-Fraser offers some future measures she'd like to see.

She'd like someone to pick up where her students left off. Knowing the impact on wildlife and local waterways would be useful for the next highway battle — whenever and wherever that may be.

"Our children are going to be the people left with this legacy," she said. "Whether what we did was effective or not, we have to learn from it to make sure we don't make mistakes in the future."