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Rival plans for Highway 413 take centre stage as Ontario election campaign gets underway

Duelling plans for the controversial Highway 413 took centre stage on the campaign trail Wednesday, as Ontario's 43rd general election officially got underway.

29-day campaign period kicks off ahead of June 2 vote

From left to right: Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca and Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner. All four have multiple campaign stops planned for Wednesday. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters, Alex Lupul/CBC)

Duelling plans for the controversial Highway 413 took centre stage on the campaign trail Wednesday, as Ontario's 43rd general election officially got underway.

Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford started his campaign with a stop at a construction site in Brampton, where he repeated his promise to build Highway 413 if his party forms government.

"People are tired of the gridlock traffic they see every day," Ford told a group of supporters and media.

"It's time to start pouring the concrete. It's time to get paving. It's time to get it done," he added, in a nod to his "Let's Get It Done" campaign slogan.

Highway 413 would run for some 60 kilometres across the northwestern part of the Greater Toronto Area, from Highway 400 at the northern edge of Vaughan to the interchange of highways 401 and 407 at the western limits of Brampton and Mississauga. 

Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford began his campaign with a stop in Brampton, where he repeated his commitment to building Highway 413. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

While the PCs earmarked $25 billion over 10 years in their infrastructure-heavy pre-election budget, the party has thus far refused to provide an estimate of what the project would cost taxpayers. Pressed by reporters this morning, Ford again deflected questions about the highway's price tag, saying a PC government would be able to provide an accurate figure after the competitive bidding process.

"The worst thing you can do on a construction site is give an exact dollar figure. We are going out for bids, they are going to be competitive bids through the process. And once we have that bid, we will make it public," he said.

Much of the PC platform is geared toward motorists, with promises aimed at making it easier and cheaper to commute by car, particularly in the electorally critical 905 region of the GTA. The measures include cutting tolls on highways 412 and 418, scrapping license renewal fees and pledging to cut the provincial gas tax by 5.3 cents per litre for six months beginning on July 1

"The Liberals and NDP, all they want to do is talk and no action. Their transit plans will never include roads or highways drivers need," Ford said today.

His campaign appearance cut a stark contrast to Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, who earlier this morning announced that if elected his government would cancel Highway 413 "once and for all" and instead invest $10 billion — the approximate cost of Highway 413, according to independent estimates — to build 200 new public schools and repair and upgrade 4,500 others.

The $10 billion would be in addition to the $14 billion in capital grants bookmarked for schools in the province's capital spending plan. As of last September, Ontario's school repair backlog stood at an estimated $16.8 billion. 

Del Duca said Highway 413 would pave over ecologically valuable wetlands and farmland and ultimately wouldn't save commuters much time. 

The PCs are claiming that the new highway would save an average commuter 30 minutes each way. The Liberals, however, point to a 2017 panel report commissioned by the province that concluded the 413 would save just 30 seconds each way. That report was removed from the Ministry of Transportation's website after the 2018 election, but an archived version can still be found online.

Del Duca also attacked the Ford's government's record on public education spending and policy.

"We saw the undermining and the underfunding of publicly funded education by Doug Ford and the conservatives before the pandemic began," he said, referencing tense contract negotiations with teachers and the instituting of mandatory online courses in secondary school.

"Conservatives just cannot help themselves, that when they're given a chance ... one of their first actions is to go on the attack against publicly funded education."

Ontario Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca said he would end the prospect of Highway 413 'once and for all' and reiterated that he scrapped a proposal for the highway while serving as transportation minister in the government of former premier Kathleen Wynne. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

Meanwhile, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath also touted her party's commitment to cancel Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass during a campaign stop in a Peel Region riding.

Horwath said it is important to spend money on infrastructure. But she suggested the Tories are going ahead with Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass, which would connect highways 400 and 404, for the wrong reasons.

"There's billions and billions and billions of dollars that the government has kind of taken from all of the other road infrastructure projects and focused them in on these two projects to help Doug Ford's developer buddies," she said.

"I won't be making those decisions based on who owns a golf course or who owns land and property that might might help out with my election campaign war chest."

Ontario Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell and Chief Electoral Officer Greg Essensa on Wednesday sign writs for the province's 43rd general election, officially starting the campaign period. (Laura Pederson/CBC)

Horwath started her day at the legislature, with stops planned in three Tory-held ridings.

Speaking outside Queen's Park before heading out on the trail, Horwath repeated her message that her NDP is the only option for voters unhappy with Ford's tenure.

"Right now we are the best shot at getting rid of Doug Ford," she said. "This is a very important campaign, there is a lot at stake."

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has also promised not to build Highway 413 if her party forms government after June 2. Horwath has accused the PCs of catering to the agendas of developers along the proposed route. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

Horwath said by the end of the day the NDP will have nominated candidates in all 124 ridings. The party held 40 seats in the last provincial parliament, and either won or came second in 100 ridings across Ontario in the 2018 election.

In her fourth election as NDP leader, Horwath finds herself campaigning on two fronts as her party looks to form government. She is trying to position herself as the only viable alternative to Ford, while also swaying voters away from the Liberals in the so-called "progressive primary."

"People find it hard to believe that any government is actually going to deal with the priorities they have, fix the things that matter most to them, because they didn't see that with the Liberals, they certainly didn't see that with Doug Ford over the last four years," she told reporters.

"But we can do that."

The PCs are heading into the election with polls suggesting they could secure another majority government, after Ford's approval ratings rose and fell with the progress of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NDP and the Liberals are both trying to position themselves as the party best poised to defeat Ford, with the NDP heading into the election with far more incumbents and more funds, and the Liberals drawing on the strength of their history of electoral victories.

Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner has said that he would end any prospect of Highway 413 and instead add a dedicated truck lane on Highway 407 to ease congestion on other GTA roads. He has also promised to amend the Greenbelt Act to make any highway construction through the protected area illegal. (Alex Lupul/CBC)

Polls currently suggest the Liberals have carved out a modest lead over the NDP, but both parties find themselves significantly behind the PCs

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner kicked off the campaign period with a rally in Toronto before canvassing with his deputy leader and former Ontario environment commissioner Dianne Saxe in the NDP-held riding of University-Rosedale, where she is running to unseat Jessica Bell. 

Schreiner will be getting around the campaign trail in Hyundai Ioniq 5 electric vehicles. 

With files from The Canadian Press

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