DUNDAS, Ont. - Ontario's Progressive Conservative leader said Saturday he wants to end Premier Dalton McGuinty's "war on the car," invoking a phrase from the successful election campaign of Toronto's right-leaning mayor.
Tim Hudak spent Saturday in the Hamilton and Niagara areas, where he said if he is premier after Thursday's election he will make sure a highway is constructed through the region.
"A good highway route like that would not only create jobs in building it, but most importantly will attract new businesses to our area and help to break the gridlock, because families are spending far too much time stuck in their cars and not home with the kids," Hudak said.
There is some opposition to the project from local residents, who worry the highway would negatively impact environmentally sensitive areas. Susan McMaster, co-chair of the group Citizens Opposed to Paving the Escarpment, sought Hudak out as he popped into businesses in downtown Dundas, Ont. She said the highway isn't needed for the area and is an "utter waste of money."
"At this point we need our food supply. We don't need this highway," McMaster said after Hudak walked away. "We're talking about some of the last viable farmland in the area and they want to pave right through it."
Hudak later defended his plan.
"There's some people who don't want to build highways in our province. I do," Hudak said.
He has previously said the exact location of the highway would have to be determined through public hearings and consultations with communities, though he said it will probably start along the Queen Elizabeth Way outside of Fort Erie, Ont., heading west, south of the Niagara escarpment, toward the Hamilton airport.
The Liberals shelved plans for a mid-peninsula highway last year after a Ministry of Transportation study said the four-lane expressway wouldn't be needed for at least another 20 years.
An alternate route to the QEW from Niagara to Hamilton has been talked about for decades and was last championed by former Conservative premier Mike Harris, but fell out of favour when the Liberals were elected in 2003.
The New Democrats say to ease traffic congestion they prefer "immediate" solutions such as expanding the QEW and speeding up the instalment of HOV lanes in Niagara. They say they want to complete a full environmental assessment before making a decision about the highway.
"What a full process does is determine what all of the options are," leader Andrea Horwath said in Brantford, Ont. "That's, I think, a better way to go instead of saying automatically, 'It's going to be this.'"
The Liberals are contrasting Hudak's talk of highways and a war on cars with their plan to implement all-day GO train service. The Liberal incumbent for the Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale riding said Hudak doesn't understand the needs of Hamilton and the surrounding area.
"He calls it the war on the car ... we don't see it that way and neither do Hamilton city council or anybody else with progressive ideas," Ted McMeekin said in an interview. "The idea is to get cars off the road and to make transit efficient and effective and you do that by making it more available to people."
Hudak said a plan to build the highway is part of an overall strategy to ease congestion on Ontario's major roads.
"We've set aside $35 billion for infrastructure investments, largely targeted at breaking gridlock and helping families spend more time together, getting goods to market," he said. "It's a balanced plan. So yes, it's highways, yes it's transit. We've got to get the right balance and we need to end the war on the car that we've seen from the McGuinty Liberals."
The phrase ''war on cars'' will sound familiar to voters in Toronto, where Mayor Rob Ford was swept to victory last year on a campaign that included issues targeted at commuter and suburban communities. He, too, pledged to end a war on cars.
The conservative-minded Ford has decided not to endorse any party in the Ontario election. The mayor threw his support and the weight of what he calls "Ford Nation" behind Prime Minister Stephen Harper just days before the federal vote in May.
The lack of an official endorsement from Ford may prove a saving grace for Hudak, as polls suggest Ford's strong approval ratings have been slipping and he has been pilloried over potential cuts to services and programs. Ford did not say why he's not wading into this campaign.