Yesterday, Infrastructure Ontario (IO) and the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) announced that the LINK 427 consortium has signed an approximately $616 million, fixed-price contract to design, build, finance, and maintain (DBFM) an expanded and extended Highway 427. Construction is expected to begin in 2017, with project completion expected in 2021.

The LINK 427 consortium includes ACS Infrastructure Canada Inc and Brennan Infrastructures Inc as developers, Dragados Canada Inc, Brennan Infrastructures Inc, and Bot Infrastructure Ltd as constructors, MMM Group Ltd and Thurber Engineering Ltd as designers, with ACS and Brennan Infrastructures also responsible for maintenance.

Highway 427 extension design, image courtesy of MTO

The project involves two components; a 4 km expansion of the existing Highway 427 from Finch Ave to Highway 7, and a 6.6 km extension of the highway from Highway 7 to Major Mackenzie Dr. The highway will be widened from six to eight lanes from Finch Ave to south of Steeles Ave, and from four to eight lanes from Steeles to Highway 7. The new highway will begin at Highway 7, with 8 lanes from Highway 7 to Rutherford Rd, and 6 lanes from Rutherford to Major Mackenzie Dr. The extension will feature new interchanges at Langstaff Rd, Rutherford Rd, and Major Mackenzie Dr. The entire length of the highway, expansion and extension, will feature High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes.

HOT lanes were introduced for the first time in Canada on the QEW through Oakville and Burlington in the fall of 2016. For a pre-paid $60/month, drivers who are the only occupant of the vehicle can use the existing HOV lanes on the QEW, which are generally less congested than the general vehicle lanes. Prior to the HOT program, HOV lanes were reserved exclusively for vehicles with more than two occupants, as well as Green vehicles.

The theory is that allowing select drivers to bypass congestion maximizes the capacity of existing infrastructure while also raising revenue, which in theory goes towards funding future infrastructure projects. However, HOT lanes have been criticized on several fronts. Sometimes referred to as "Lexus Lanes," only more affluent commuters typically have the financial ability to pay the monthly cost to use them, complicating social equity goals. By adding more cars to the HOV lanes, congestion in those lanes is also increased, thus reducing the difference in speed between them and the general vehicle lanes. If the time advantage to using HOV lanes is reduced, those who are carpooling will have less of an incentive to do so. The Province has attempted to mitigate this by limiting the number of permits available for purchase.

QEW HOT Lanes Pilot Project, image courtesy MTO

Proponents of the Highway 427 expansion and extension project, such as Ontario Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli, argue that "[i]mproving commute times and easing congestion are critical for families and businesses, and a priority for our government," and that such a project is a necessity to service the growth occurring throughout the GTHA. Opponents, however, are quick to counter that highway extension and expansion is a major factor in urban sprawl development, which in turn requires more highway extension and expansion in order to support it, creating a dangerous feedback loop.

Another argument against is that widening highways does not in fact reduce total congestion, it merely displaces it in the short term, and regenerates it in the medium to long term. This phenomenon is known as induced demand, which states that after you increase the supply of something (in this case, road space), demand for that good increases as well. To paraphrase Field of Dreams, "if you build it, they will come." In the case of the Highway 427 project, the likely outcome of it will be increased congestion on the remaining sections of Highway 427 (south of Finch), and on the 401-427 interchange, which doesn't have a much capacity to spare. A textbook case of induced demand is the Katy Freeway in Houston, where travel times actually increased following a $2.8 billion ($USD) widening of the highway to as many as 26 lanes (yes, you read that right).

However, the 427 extension project does include protection for a future Transitway along the west side of the corridor, as well as protection for three future Transitway stations at each of the proposed interchanges. This configuration has been done before, with the entire Highway 407 right-of-way having adequate space for an adjacent Transitway. (There are currently three sections of this 407 Transitway in various stages of design and public consultation, including from Hurontario St to Highway 400 in Brampton and Vaughan, Highway 400 to Kennedy Rd in Vaughan, Richmond Hill and Markham, and from Kennedy Rd to Brock Rd in Markham and Pickering). 

A preferred design, shown below, has already been completed for a Transitway from Highway 7 to Albion Rd, with a connection to the future Highway 407 Transitway. To be built along the recently-announced extension to Major Mackenzie Dr, the Transitway would connect to this relatively short segment.

427 Transitway (Hwy 7 to Albion) Preferred Alternative Design, image courtesy of McCormick Rankin

You can join the conversation about the Highway 427 extension and expansion project by commenting in our Ontario Highways Forum thread, or about the Highway 427 Transitway in its dedicated Forum thread, or by leaving a comment below.