Policy Analysis

Zombie highway: The resurrection of the 413

It rose up stronger... faster...

Back in 2005, the Liberal government of Ontario proposed the GTA West Transportation Corridor, also known as Highway 413, as part of the Places to Grow Act. The act was written to promote economic growth, increase housing supply, create jobs, and build communities in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Highway 413 was proposed as a four-to-six lane 400-series highway that would service anticipated growth west of the GTA. An environmental assessment (EA) began in 2007 that put a freeze on all development in the proposed corridor until the assessment was complete. The EA was paused for review in 2015. Unfortunately for proponents of the project but much to the celebrations of environmental groups, the Liberal government under Kathleen Wynne cancelled the entire project in 2018 following recommendations from the independent GTA West Advisory Panel.

But then, in 2019, the 413 rose from the grave stronger… faster…

Barely a year after taking office, the Doug Ford government revived the GTA West Transportation Corridor citing a need to ease congestion and increase travel speed. The province released a tidy map showing the 60 kilometre “technically preferred route” that would cross the regions of Halton, Peel, and York. What the map pointedly doesn’t show are the swathes of land where the technically preferred route would cut into the Greenbelt and ecologically sensitive areas.

Courtesy Government of Ontario. “Ontario Making Travel Easier Across York, Peel and Halton Regions – Map showing GTA West Route Planning Study Area”. https://news.ontario.ca/en/release/57930/ontario-making-travel-easier-across-york-peel-and-halton-regions

Environmental Defence released a more holistic thematic map that clearly shows how and where the highway would impact the environment and the Greenbelt. Some of the impacts were detailed in a Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) report released on 1 March, 2021. For lands under their jurisdiction, they identified over 1,000 hectares (ha; 2,471 acres) of land important to wildlife movement that is to be removed or cut through; 85 watercourses including ten “high priority” (deep valley) locations plus 130 ha (321 acres) of wetland that will be negatively impacted; ten types of species at risk and 109 species of local concern; 680 ha (1,680 acres) of habitat that will be removed or impacted; and calculated that 317 ha (783 acres) of impervious surface would be added which will increase contaminated stormwater runoff. Part of this route also goes directly through a conservation area and the protected Oak Ridges Moraine.

Courtesy Environmental Defence adapted from map by As The Crow Flies Cartography Aug 2020. Updated March 2021. https://environmentaldefence.ca/stop-the-413/

Again, all this is only within the TRCA’s jurisdiction and does not account for lands that fall under Credit Valley Conservation or Conservation Halton. And yet the Ford government is not only sticking to their so-called “technically preferred route” but they also want to exempt the project from completing the EA (and confirming the TRCA report).

Approximately 6,000 individuals have formally requested that the project be cancelled. Halton Hills, Mississauga, Orangeville, King City, and Vaughan all have firmly opposed it. Brampton and Caledon originally showed support for the project but have since moved to supporting a federal review following news that the province is looking to shirk their duty of a full environmental assessment. Indigenous consultation, and public consultation in general, could not really be called consultation. Archaeological and burial sites for the Huron Wendat are located in the highway’s path. All opposition parties have vowed to scrap the project if they are elected in 2022. An additional 300,000 car trips will be enabled thus increasing emissions by 0.57 Mt CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per year in an area where transportation accounts for 33-47% of emissions. And a much-touted report by the GTA West Advisory Panel (which was conveniently removed from the MTO website) not only recommended the discontinuation of the project, but found that this allegedly desperately needed relief line would only save 30-60 seconds for drivers per trip.

And yet despite the opposition, despite the massive increase in emissions over the lifetime of the highway, despite the destruction of natural heritage and prime agricultural land, despite an increase in air pollution and threats to public health, and despite the lack of any noticeable benefit to the public, the Ford government is pulling out all the stops to make sure that this highway happens. Why?

Well, if you guessed money, great job! You are correct.

A sweeping investigation by the Toronto Star (which you can and should read here) revealed just how deeply the Ford government is involved with developers. Some of the investigation is summarized here, but do check out the full article.

Eight developers held by several families collectively own 1,335 ha (3,300 acres) near and/or along the proposed highway route:

  • John Di Poce – 268 ha (663 acres)
  • Cortellucci family – over 243 ha (600 acres)
  • Guglietti family – 202 ha (500 acres)
  • De Meneghi family – 95 ha (234 acres)
  • DeGasperis – 68 ha (168 acres)

Every single developer has donated to the Progressive Conservatives (PC) to the total tune of $813,000 since 2014, and it doesn’t stop there. John Di Poce directly employed Tony Miele, the head of the PC’s fundraising arm, until 2016 as a development consultant. Miele was originally hired by former Premier Mike Harris as the CEO of the Ontario Realty Corporation and also helped to sell 12 ha (30 acres) of federal land to Di Poce who was eventually able to sell said land for more than double what he paid. The head of Caroline Mulroney’s failed bid to lead the PC party in 2018 is retained by three other developers as a lobbyist. Mulroney currently serves as the Minister of Transportation. Michael DeGasperis hosted Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce in Miami shortly after the 413 was miraculously brought back to life. The DeGasperis family, related to the Guglietti family by marriage, employs former federal Conservative MP and former president of the PC party Peter Van Loan as a lobbyist. They also employ former PC MPP Frank Klees as a lobbyist. Van Loan served as a cabinet minister for Mike Harris and transportation minister for his successor.

With all this money coming in and all the lobbying, it suddenly becomes very clear why the 413 was resurrected and why Ford is so eager to create a “streamlined process for assessing potential environmental impacts” – i.e. allowing construction to begin before the EA is completed. Several key people stand to get very, very rich if this highway gets built. At present, a conservative estimate for the value of the land owned by the developers puts it at $500 million. With the highway, and therefore convenient transit, nearby, that value will skyrocket and the likelihood of more party donations goes way up. Already, the Ford government has issued three ministerial zoning orders (MZOs) for the developers for lands near the 413. One destroyed three provincially significant wetlands (PSWs). Two rezoned lands for low density housing. Another MZO is underway for the Cortel Group that would allow the destruction of more PSWs and significant woodlands.

The only region that actively favours the 413 is York where, conveniently, many of the developers listed own properties. York Region has repeatedly requested the government to allow development in the Greenbelt (the largest permanently protected greenspace in the world) along 400 series highways. Doug Ford pledged to expand the Greenbelt, but with this its seems more like a ‘one in, one out’ policy than a true expansion. While one could argue in favour of York Region and the need for more affordable housing, it is almost certain that precisely none of the developments near the 413 or in the Greenbelt will be affordable housing and will instead be extraordinarily expensive.

Unfortunately, the municipalities who are opposed to the project have limited instruments that they can use to halt it. Developers are pushing hard for municipalities to expand their urban zones. With Bill 197, the Covid-19 Economic Recovery Act, the Ford government wrote into law their ability to circumvent EAs. To further this, the government is now proposing that all highways less than 75 kilometres long be completely exempt from provincial individual EAs. Even more unfortunate for the people whose homes are in the way of the 413, Bill 197 also reduced their ability to challenge provincial expropriation. The one bright spot is a pending federal review. Ecojustice has requested a federal EA for the highway, meaning that the project would also be subject to federal approval. Most municipalities, including Brampton and Caledon, support this.

The construction of the 413 will exacerbate sprawl and climate change. That is a fact. Coupled with the cumulative effects of nearby expansions of the 410, 427, 401, and 407 without pushing for any meaningful expansions to public transit will not only make meeting climate targets more difficult but will cause untold and irreversible damage to the surrounding ecosystem. A full EA is essential to supporting the environment and showing that this highway is not the best option for addressing transit needs in this area.

There are also two very troubling things that we have not yet addressed with the project: the repetition of history, and the price tag.

With Ford’s ties to developers and his love of privatization, the 413 project shows early, eerie similarities to another doomed toll road, Highway 407. The 407 was built in the early 1990s by the NDP government as a public-private partnership (PPP), which was unusual at the time. It was proposed as a toll road (check) to relieve traffic congestion (check) north of Toronto (check). Its life as a toll road was only supposed to last around 30 years and the revenue earned would have been used to cover the costs of its construction. Overall, it cost taxpayers at the time $1.5 billion. Then, in 1999, Premier Mike Harris sold a 99 year lease for the 407 in a gambit to balance the budget just before an election for $3.1 billion. It went to the Spanish-based Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte which is held to some capacity by SNC-Lavalin. Today, the value of the highway is around $26 billion and the lack of public control has allowed the corporation to jack up the tolls by 300%. So instead of a publicly owned, affordable transit corridor that could relieve the horrendous GTA traffic, we now have an exorbitant, underused track that will not come back into public hands until the turn of this century.

Besides privatization, the Ford government also loves talking about balancing the budget. It is very possible – and also likely – that once the taxpayers pay for the building of the road as with the 407, the PCs will sell it to make the books look good. And it won’t just be a measly $1.5 billion that we end up paying, no. The cost of the GTA West Transportation Corridor to the taxpayer? Anywhere from $6-10 billion. Imagine the profit a foreign company could make on that. Because, like so many of this administration’s policies, this is not about the people. This is not about providing a relief line or giving communities north of the GTA better access to transportation. (If it were about that, we would be talking about slapping Metrolinx into shape and creating an actually functional intercity public transit network). This is about keeping the developers happy so they keep sending in their political donations and increasing the PC war chest. And hey, if they get a trip to Florida out of it? Bonus.

References

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