When the Right Honourable Herb Gray Parkway opened in 2015, it ranked as Ontario’s largest-ever highway investment. A CAD $1.4B undertaking, the six-lane, 11-kilometer project is part of a wider transportation infrastructure solution to improve movement of people and goods through Canada’s busiest trade corridor with the United States.
What makes this project noteworthy is the extensive care taken – from project design through construction – to protect the area’s fragile ecosystem and endangered wildlife.
The Parkway’s footprint cuts through former urban and rural areas of west Windsor and neighbouring Town of LaSalle, as well as traditional territory of the Walpole Island First Nation. In doing so, it also impinges on the region’s Carolinian Tallgrass Prairie, which includes more than 4,000 species of plants and animals, many of them unique to Canada. Nine of them are species at risk (SAR) and they include two reptiles – the Butler’s Gartersnake and the Eastern Foxsnake – and seven plants: Colicroot (Aletris farinosa), Common Hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata), Dense Blazing Star (Liatris spicata), Dwarf Hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia), Kentucky Coffee-Tree (Gymnocladus dioicus), Willowleaf Aster (Symphyotrichum praealtum, and the Eastern Prairie Fringed-orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).
Since the project was subject to both Federal and Provincial permitting, a high priority was placed on the compliant handling of all environmental aspects of the undertaking.
Our environmental management role
Wood’s team of environmental managers, and avian, terrestrial, and aquatic biologists and monitors implemented a full ecosystem approach, managing all environmental aspects of the project. This included: transfer of snakes and more than 200,000 plants from the impact footprint to protected habitat; baseline and construction monitoring under SAR permitting obligations; sustainability planning; site restoration management; and daily snake tracking with radio telemetry. We were also the environmental design lead, responsible for environmental mitigation, including ecopassage habitat features, 60+ hectares of tallgrass prairie landscape restoration and four hectares of pond, creek, wetland and floodplain fish habitat restoration – all of it intricately interwoven within the Parkway corridor and adjacent natural areas.
As part of the SAR management program, our team provided mandatory induction training for more than 8,000 staff and subcontractors.
As lead Environmental Consultant, Wood’s team of environmental experts was able to use industry-leading methods and innovations to minimize the Parkway’s impact on both the environment and the local community without impeding the systematic and efficient construction delivery of the project. This same innovation and environmental guidance has continued, seamlessly, from implementation into the operations maintenance & rehabilitation phase of the project.
Innovation by design
Today, the Parkway features two ecopassages, the largest of which measures about 1.4 hectares and stretches over two highways. They allow snakes and other wildlife to cross between two natural habitat areas that had been separated by road development since the 1920s. Although such sizable ecopassages are typically created for larger mammals, like elk, caribou, bears or deer, the structure was utilized in this case – and a first for snakes – because of the global rarity of the local Eastern Foxsnake. A functional objective was to improve population dynamics, and our tracking data has confirmed the snakes immediately started using the passages.
Additional amenities of the Parkway include more than 121 hectares of green space and 16 kilometers of recreational multi-use trails, as well as a culvert that allows snakes safe passage under the trail. Wood’s extensive ecological landscape restoration and management measures were also applied throughout the corridor, as well as adjacent lands, to promote rare Tallgrass Prairie habitat and protect additional rare plant and animal species.
Highlights of our work include the use of innovative techniques to increase habitat diversity – among them: the demolition of a housing development to establish new Tallgrass Prairie and using the house foundations to create overwintering areas for prairie snakes and other animal species; and the integration of stormwater pond outfalls into creek restoration designs to extend flow duration and habitat opportunities.
Community and stakeholder engagement
Key to reaching final solutions was the outreach and stewardship Wood’s team provided to local and Indigenous communities, as well as regulatory subject matter experts. That engagement provided us the opportunity to educate the public and other stakeholders on the importance of the rare species involved and raise awareness about the full extent of actions taken to protect them while building the parkway.
It also enabled our team to receive valuable feedback, as well as traditional knowledge, so designs and management actions could be optimized by Wood to best benefit the local ecosystems.
Wood’s involvement with this project – and collaboration with our client, Windsor Essex Mobility Group, as well as the owner – is for the long-term. We started in 2010, providing design engineering and construction support services during the five-year construction phase. Following final completion, we secured a contract to provide environmental management continuity for the first 15 years of a 30-year operations contract. In 2020, we completed a decade of permit-based wildlife monitoring, which will not only be used to close out the Ministry of Transportation’s Endangered Species Act permits, but also to produce scientific papers for the academic community.
It’s a Parkway in a prairie – and a rare example where environmental regulatory obligations and the wishes of an interested local and Indigenous community intersected with the necessary project-based funding to provide a wide range of comprehensive solutions. It resulted in a design that not only maximized ecological function but also met recreational and aesthetic objectives, while supporting Canada’s need for transportation improvements in a key international trade corridor.