Premier Doug Ford's party is staking much of its re-election hopes on winning the votes of drivers in the Greater Toronto Area with a promise to forge ahead with the controversial Highway 413.
The proposed new highway would cost at least $6 billion and would cut a 59-kilometre arc across the northwestern part of the GTA, linking the northern edge of Vaughan to where Mississauga, Brampton and Milton converge, at the interchange of highways 401 and 407.
Top strategists with Ford's Progressive Conservatives believe the highway is a wedge issue that will help them hold on to crucial swing seats in York, Peel and Halton regions, since the New Democratic, Liberal and Green parties all oppose the project.
The party's internal polling finds the highway is popular in ridings in the 905, where commuters form a significant voting bloc, a senior PC official tells CBC News.
The official, who spoke about the party's internal research on condition of anonymity, says the polling also finds opposition to the highway comes predominantly from voters who would not consider voting PC in any circumstances.
Ford's Progressive Conservatives won 21 of the 24 seats in York, Peel and Halton regions in the last election. If the PCs hold on to the bulk of those ridings next June, it would be almost impossible for the opposition parties to find a path to defeating Ford elsewhere on Ontario's electoral map.
"We can't afford more backlogs on highways," Ford said Friday, describing the GTA's 400-series routes as congested and the 401 as a parking lot.
"We need more people to get from Point A to Point B in a much more faster fashion so that they can spend time with their families and we can transport goods," he said during at a news conference at Queen's Park.
Asked by CBC News whether the 413 will be a toll highway, Ford did not answer, and his spokesperson declined to say.
The previous Liberal government began studying the feasibility of a GTA West highway more than a decade ago but paused planning in 2015, then scrubbed the project entirely ahead of the 2018 election. The Ford government reignited the plan in 2019, and the current proposal includes a dedicated public transit corridor alongside the highway.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca calls the 413 a "super-sprawl spreader highway" and says Ford is not telling voters the full story about it.
"He wants to confuse or try to fool voters into believing that a project that's going to cost them and their kids and grandkids billions of dollars and be finished many, many years from now is somehow going to fix their problems right now," said Del Duca in an interview.
"It's not a real solution," said Del Duca, who was transportation minister when Kathleen Wynne's government paused the project. "Fundamentally, this is the wrong highway in the wrong location for the wrong price tag."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the highway "is like 1950s thinking" and will bring more problems than benefits. She raised concerns about its potential impact on farmland and environmentally sensitive areas in the GreenBelt, as well its potential impact on the fight against climate change.
"We need more public transit. We need more opportunities for people to get out of their cars," Horwath told a news conference this week. "We need to look at how we route the traffic as it exists now in the existing networks and where there's possible opportunities for increasing capacity."
Both Horwath and Del Duca allege that the highway construction will enrich developers who have been financial and political supporters of Ford and the PC party
"Doug Ford is not interested in building this highway, the 413, because he wants to resolve congestion, he wants to reward his friends," said Del Duca.
"Doug Ford's developer buddies are the ones that are going to gain the most from the 413," said Horwath.
Eight of Ontario's most powerful land developers own thousands of acres of prime real estate near the highway's proposed route, according to an investigation by the Toronto Star and National Observer.
An expert panel appointed by the Wynne government recommended in 2017 that the new highway should not be built. The panel's report has been scrubbed from the province's website, but can be found on this web archive.
That report found the proposed highway would save on average just 30 seconds per vehicle trip in the Greater Golden Horseshoe region.
The Ford government's dedicated website for the project dismisses that finding as unrepresentative, as it considers every trip in a region that stretches from Niagara to Barrie to Peterborough, including trips that are nowhere near the proposed route.
The government now touts Highway 413 as saving up to 30 minutes per trip specifically for drivers travelling its entire length between York and Halton regions.
"It's going to save a tremendous amount of time," Ford said Friday.
"Building infrastructure, that's what we do. That's what I do as a premier. I build transit, I build bridges, hospitals, schools and we're going to continue building."
Ford's statements echo the messages in an election-style ad campaign the Progressive Conservatives are currently airing on TV stations around Ontario.
"We're the party saying yes," Ford states in the voiceover of one ad. "Yes to building highways you can drive on so you don't sit in gridlock."
It's a direct contrast to a PC attack ad against Horwath: "She says she's against gridlock but opposes building new highways," says the announcer, as the words "No, to the 413 Highway" appear on the screen over video of the NDP leader.