Province unwilling to provide timeline for critical GTA West Highway report

By Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer

Premier Doug Ford has never hidden his love for the 413 Highway. It was resurrected by his government in 2018, it was used as a key piece of the PCs’ economic blueprint for Ontario and it was front and centre during Ford’s reelection campaign ahead of his decisive June 2 victory.

The Liberals, NDP and Greens all said they would cancel the project, but with Ford securing a second term—with a stronger majority than before, and a bigger mandate—it will be full speed ahead to “get it done” as he promised.

The 413, or GTA West Highway as it’s often called, will run from Milton up Brampton’s west end before curving east through south Caledon to Vaughan. It has been a major source of strife among residents, environmental groups and opposition politicians alike over the last four years.

Despite countless protests that have taken place along proposed interchanges of the 413 route, with local residents raising concerns about the unavoidable environmental harm the highway will cause and the financial burden on the backs of taxpayers for years—it’s estimated the project will cost as much as $10 billion—the PCs are not budging from their plan to build the mega-highway along and through the south end of the Greenbelt.

“Our government was re-elected with a clear mandate to build critical infrastructure, tackle gridlock, and support good-paying jobs. Highway 413 is a key part of that plan,” Christina Salituro, spokesperson for Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney, said. “We are moving full steam ahead with our balanced approach to transportation planning, which includes the largest subway expansion in Canadian history, the Bradford Bypass, and Highway 413.”

Opponents argue the plan is anything but balanced.

Eric Miller, a professor of civil engineering and the Director at the University of Toronto Transportation Research Institute, calls the highway a land development play.

“[T]he only reason the government is promoting this is they want to develop that land up there in an unsustainable way,” he said. “It’s going to create a land use and urban form that’s going to be auto-oriented.”

Much of the land that would ultimately be unlocked for development if the highway is built, currently is protected as part of the Greenbelt, under provincial law. A key purpose of the Greenbelt legislation is to prevent the exact type of sprawl that will be triggered by the construction of the GTA West Highway.

But the Greenbelt Plan—which was developed in 2005— can not stop the construction of the 413. The plan accepts the outdated notion that growth is an overriding principle. The Plan states new infrastructure can be built within the Greenbelt if it “serves the significant growth and economic development expected in Southern Ontario.” This includes highway infrastructure. However, the architect of the Greenbelt Plan, Victor Doyle, has previously told The Pointer that exemption for infrastructure through the Greenbelt was never meant to be used to accommodate massive 400-series highways.

But 2005 was a very different time.

In the early 2000s, suburbs were still enjoying their post-post war popularity. For decades, residents had abandoned dense city centres for the verdant sprawl of suburbia, with its four-car driveways, vast parking lots (free of charge) and large single-family homes that featured a room for every possible use, and backyards big enough to invite the entire block.

It was all part of the slavish give over to the car.

A vehicle was needed to get everywhere. Neighbourhoods were not walkable and transit use meant for dense, compact communities was an afterthought to those who had escaped life in tight quarters.

Miller says Peel can expect this same kind of outdated development style should Ontario be successful in building the 413.

“[O]nce we put houses out there and a shopping mall or whatever, we’re going to be locked into that auto-oriented design and then to do anything else becomes very, very, very difficult,” Miller said. “So this is a very fundamental decision about what sort of a city Brampton wants to be, what sort of a region Peel wants to be.”

The PCs claim the 413 will save drivers up to 30 minutes per trip. The MTO would not directly answer how they arrived at that number. An expert panel commissioned by the most recent Liberal government found the highway would only save between 30 and 60 seconds per trip, according to its detailed analysis.

“They say we’re fighting congestion, they are just simply wrong when they say that,” Miller said. “They’re going to create congestion, they’re going to create more demand for cars, more demand for roadways.”

This is the opposite of what many urban planners around the globe are striving for. Cities like Amsterdam were crowded with cars in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Today, the city’s streets have far more people walking or cycling and fewer cars.

This is the kind of transformation Miller would like to see in Brampton and Mississauga. Instead of accommodating growth in the region by creating sprawl in northern Brampton and throughout Caledon, southern Brampton and Mississauga could build upwards instead of outwards.

“If you start with the assumption that we’re going to have a lot of growth here, then you’re saying the only solution we have is to accommodate this growth,” said Miller. “And I don’t think a lot of suburban housing and highways is the solution for that.”

One problem is the continued demand for sprawl, which Ford and the developers he listens to believe is the desired way of living for many Ontarians, and this desire for bigger homes with bigger yards was only amplified by the pandemic, the home building industry claims. It could very well be right.

But policy makers and elected officials can play a significant role in changing market desires. More efficient, complete communities, supported by transit, that are also walkable and conducive to cycling, with the types of commercial offerings and entertainment that attract young residents to urban centres, coupled with well-paying jobs and child-friendly infrastructure could push back demand for more sprawl.

Such sprawl will be inevitable if we allow the creation of built forms such as 400-series highway infrastructure to continue creating demand for lifestyles that fit into this type of form.

There are other significant concerns.

The 413 would encroach into the last available farmland across much of the region. The Pointer previously reported that food security in Peel is at risk due to the expansion of the urban boundary that will wipe out nearly 11,000 acres of prime farmland and greenspace. The construction of the 413, the catalyst for a huge chunk of this expanded urban boundary, would pave over an additional 400 acres for the road alone.

“The pandemic has taught us how vulnerable we are to global supply chains with respect to food,” Miller said. “But we need to be much more self sufficient and self contained in terms of our food growth and to be chewing up valuable farmland to build a highway, that’s going to make things worse, not better.”

NDP Transportation and Infrastructure Critic Jennifer French says there are plenty of other alternatives available that would not include paving over precious greenspace.

“Perhaps instead of building a Highway 413, we could be making better use of what we do have.”

A component of the NDP provincial campaign was the idea to lower or eliminate tolls on the 407 for truck drivers. French says this should be part of a larger conversation about truck traffic on existing 400-series highways around the GTA. It is not economical or safe for trucks to be gridlocked in Toronto traffic, costing billions of dollars in lost productivity each year, and sending massive amounts of carbon into the already overheated atmosphere.

Using the 407 is one proposed solution French says could be rolled out immediately. Instead of locking the country’s economic engine into a project with such a long timeline—construction of the 413 will take about 10 years—there are actions that could be taken much quicker to alleviate congestion.

“Why on earth are we not exploring that?” French questions. “I’m interested in an answer from the Minister and the Premier, like why can’t we start this today?”

The majority of local municipalities have passed motions in opposition to the 413 project including the City of Mississauga, the City of Vaughan, the Town of Halton Hills, the Town of Orangeville, Halton Region, Peel Region and King Township. The City of Brampton has remained on the fence about the project, first passing a motion in support of the highway, then claiming it wants to see a “boulevard design” for the portion that runs through the city—something the Province has repeatedly told the City can not happen. The Town of Caledon, and its majority of pro-sprawl, pro-development council members, including outgoing Mayor Allan Thompson and his hopeful successor councillor Jennifer Innis whose families both stand to gain significant financial rewards from selling their land to builders, supports the proposed highway.

In January, Brampton Councillor Doug Whillans brought forward a motion to reconsider Brampton’s stance on the project, looking to have the City take a stronger position against the highway. The proposed resolution, which required a two-thirds majority vote to be considered due to a previous council decision to support the project, was voted down 6-5, with Mayor Patrick Brown leading the opposition. He has bragged about being the person who put the 413 on the PC campaign platform when he was Party leader in 2018 before he was forced to step down ahead of that year’s provincial election.

In February, Caledon and Peel Region Councillor Annette Groves, who is running against Innis to be the next mayor, brought forward a similar motion to Caledon Council. At Caledon’s Planning and Development Committee meeting February 15, her motion was voted down by Innis, Nick deBoer and Thompson. Mayor Thompson, like Brown, is a  staunch conservative.

Many residents in Brampton and Caledon share the same view as Brown and Thompson. A poll conducted for the Ontario Provincial District Council of the Labourers’ International Union of North America found 57 percent of people in the Greater Toronto Area support the construction of the 413. This is in contrast to a poll by EKOS done for the David Suzuki Foundation ahead of the June provincial election that showed the majority of GTA residents were opposed to the project. The vast majority of Ontario residents, 76 percent, said the Greenbelt is no place for a 400-series highway. Another Ekos poll for Nature Canada found only 29 percent of residents in and around Toronto support the 413.

Peel residents opposed to the highway have formed groups and organized protests around various proposed interchanges. Some of the information they are sharing comes from Environmental Defence, an organization that advocates for a healthy environment and strong action against climate change.

According to Environmental Defence an additional 17 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions will be released into the atmosphere by 2050 should the highway be constructed. This will result in $1.4 billion in damages caused by pollution. Even if the federal target of 100 percent electric vehicles is achieved by 2050, Environmental Defence still estimates an additional 13 million tonnes of GHGs by the same year.

Caledon, Brampton and Mississauga all have emissions reductions plans which most likely do not take into account additional pollution caused by the 413. In addition, municipalities within the Region of Peel will be responsible for much of the cost of environmental damages as the highway runs right through the Region.

A previous investigation by The Pointer found 29 endangered, threatened and species of concern that had been spotted along the proposed path of the 413 in the past six months. Twenty-one of these species were found in the areas where proposed interchanges could be built.

French says that in her role as Transportation and Infrastructure Critic she will continue to voice the need for environmentally responsible planning and development.

“This particular government’s track record on the environment is shocking, and I would say that they have zero credibility.”

French is a proponent of the federal government conducting an Impact Assessment to determine whether or not the project should go forward. In 2021, the federal government announced it would designate the 413 Highway plan for such an assessment, initiating a process that will see the Province attempt to address some of Ottawa’s concerns, including impact on species at risk and Indigenous lands and heritage.

Ontario’s transportation ministry, led by Mulroney, submitted a first draft of its Initial Project Description (IPD) for the 413 Highway in October 2021 in an attempt to address these concerns and is currently working on a second draft. Until this is complete, the planning phase cannot move forward.

The ministry gave no indication of when the IPD might be completed when asked by The Pointer.

Once the IPD is complete, a 180-day planning phase will begin. During this time, the Federal Impact Assessment Agency will hold a public comment period on the IPD.

“The public, Indigenous groups, federal authorities, and provincial and municipal jurisdictions are invited to provide knowledge, expertise or information that may help the Agency identify key issues of concern, and determine how Indigenous groups and the public would like to be engaged should an Impact Assessment be required,” the Agency explained in an email statement to The Pointer.

After public consultation, a ‘Summary of Issues’ is provided to the MTO. The MTO has 30 days to respond to this document and propose a Detailed Project Description.

“The project continues to be subject to the requirements of the Ontario Environmental Assessment Act, even when a federal impact assessment is required. A federal impact assessment does not change the requirements of the provincial environmental assessment,” the Agency stressed. However, critics have raised concerns with the provincial environmental assessment process as the PCs have significantly weakend the Act for major projects like the 413 and the Bradford Bypass, exempting these roadways that will almost certainly cause profound environmental damage from key assessments and studies, while allowing “early works”—like bridge construction—to begin for the highway before all the necessary studies to mitigate damage are completed.

French says regardless of what happens with the 413, she will continue to oppose the PCs’ shortsighted, environmentally irresponsible transportation strategy.

“When we’re talking about the 413, if it should go forward, … in terms of the timeline, we’re looking at 10 years out,” she says. “So what happens in the next six months, in the next year, in terms of supporting communities when it comes to transit investment and transit follow through.”

“A lot can happen in 10 years. We don’t want to just be stuck with this one plan.”

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