Mississauga councillors not happy after provincial officials flub basic questions about 413 Highway, City says the money should go to transit
Four hundred. It's a number that signifies opposite outcomes for those on opposite sides of the controversy surrounding a proposed highway across the western GTA.
Premier Doug Ford and his PCs see the new 400-series highway as a gold mine for future sprawl development. Municipalities and environmental groups across the province view it as the worst of government sponsored environmental destruction, a project that will bulldoze 400 acres of greenspace, natural habitats and vital lands that house endangered species.
The Greater Toronto Area West Corridor — or Highway 413 — was resurrected by the PC government in 2018 after Premier Doug Ford ran an election campaign that promised to ignore the advice of transportation experts and environmental groups whose work had led to the cancellation of the plan.
Premier Doug Ford has ignored the direction of a provincial panel of experts whose research and analysis showed the 413 Highway will not ease congestion and will not save commuters time.
(Government of Ontario)
Mississauga City Council passed a motion in 2021 rejecting the highway. More than two years later, the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) came to City Hall to win councillors over. It did not go well.
At the January 10 council meeting a presentation by MTO officials to “bring council up-to-date” was intended to highlight the project’s benefits. Instead, the provincial PC government representatives fumbled basic questions and failed to answer others as local councillors grew increasingly frustrated.
“We’re in the planning and design phase. Construction timelines and the opening date have not been determined and these depend on a number of things: the completion of the environmental assessment and other preliminary work,” Robert Vandenberg, project manager with the MTO, told councillors.
The PC government has repeatedly been asked to release cost details. Councillors asked the same, wanting to know if the Ministry has the numbers the public has been asking for, to understand how many tax dollars will be used for the construction of a highway that most Ontarians and even more GTA residents, according to multiple surveys, do not want.
“Not really,” Vandenberg responded, adding the Ministry has some “high level assumptions only… But that answer doesn’t take into account property or any kind of specific engineering details. That will take place in detailed design.”
The response, along with others, and many non-responses, left some councillors wondering why the government officials even showed up.
Councillor Joe Horneck, who said “he’s still very skeptical of the highway’s need,” later told The Pointer that, “Not being able to answer questions on cost and other alternative proposals wasn’t a good look,” adding the presenters “clearly were not ready for what they walked into.”
Approved route of the GTA West 413 Highway.
(Government of Ontario)
The PCs have repeatedly argued the route, which will pave over 400 acres of land, cutting through hundreds of waterways and destroying the habitat of 29 species at risk (some critically endangered), will help ease congestion in the GTA. An expert panel showed the highway would do no such thing and would not save commuters time, with questions about who would use a route that travels from west to east past Milton, into Mississauga, before arcing north along the western edge of Brampton then bending east along the southern portion of Caledon through to Vaughan. Transportation planners have questioned how the approved route would benefit commuters who would have to either travel from York Region toward Halton or from the western GTA toward York Region to take advantage of the design.
The PCs have not provided studies or any other evidence to support how Highway 413 will accomplish the goals of transportation planning for the GTA.
If constructed, what the highway would do is act as a “gravel gorilla”, as described by former Mississauga councillor George Carlson who said the purpose is to unlock vast amounts of land for suburban-style development.
Currently, the 413 Highway is at a standstill while the federal government’s Impact Assessment Agency reviews the project to make sure no federal legislation would be violated by the construction. Ottawa could cancel the project.
The approved highway has been heavily protested by residents and advocacy groups who are concerned about the environmental impacts the 413 will have on the Greenbelt and surrounding lands.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Despite protests by local residents opposed to the environmental harm the highway will cause and the financial burden on taxpayers (it has been estimated the project will cost $10 billion) the Premier has not yielded. Ford and his government are currently under criminal investigation for their Greenbelt land swaps, which were reversed after a firestorm of anger swept across the province following the release of two damning investigation reports that showed how the PCs worked secretly to help developers create almost $8.3 billion in value by opening up Greenbelt lands for preferred builders; the 413 Highway would be another way to open up land already purchased by developers adjacent to the Greenbelt, along the 413 Highway corridor.
When challenged on the cost estimate running north of $10 billion, Vandenberg responded “those kind of cost estimates are just not something that we’ve done on this project… we haven’t done any cost estimates."
Now former mayor Bonnie Crombie, who was still in the role during the January 10 meeting (her last day was January 12) challenged the MTO officials.
“I think the people of Ontario, the municipalities bordering, should know what the estimated costs would be to build a highway where there would be no population allocated for quite a number of decades.”
Councillor Carolyn Parrish added, “I can’t believe that there’s a highway being proposed that you can’t estimate the cost of. That one’s a zinger for me.”
In an email to The Pointer, Councillor Alvin Tedjo said he was disappointed that so many of the questions councillors asked were left unanswered, “especially questions around the cost and benefit of the highway.”
“This project will be at minimum $10 Billion taxpayer dollars. That amount of spending deserves to be scrutinized and carefully considered,” he added. “The project seems ill equipped to manage a project of this scale when they cannot answer the question ‘how much will this cost?’”
In 2021, Mississauga City Council unanimously passed a motion opposing the construction of the 400-series highway with Crombie warning the project “will have a disastrous impact on the environment.” The motion, moved by Councillor Parrish, warned the highway, if built, would cut through “agricultural, natural heritage and environmentally sensitive lands,” significantly fragmenting those areas and wiping out the equivalent of 13.6 functioning farms, “making serious incursions into areas protected under the Green Belt Plan.” It also said the highway would put “tens of thousands of jobs and billions in agriculture-related economic activity at risk.”
It opposed “any and all advanced construction” associated with the project, calling for a federal environmental assessment to be conducted. It also expressed “strong opposition in principle to construction of any transportation corridor traversing the Region of Peel, but specifically the currently proposed GTA West 413 highway… which will wreak havoc on the environment, encourage residential sprawl and dependence on the car as a significant means of transportation.”
Along with Mississauga, almost all municipalities along the route have passed motions in opposition to the 413 project including Vaughan, Halton Hills, Markham, the Region of Peel, Halton Region, Orangeville and the City of Toronto.
The resurrected transportation corridor will destroy vast swaths of agricultural land, encroach on the protected Greenbelt and trigger the worst of costly sprawl, critics have pointed out. The Pointer has previously detailed how the 400-series highway will trigger more sprawl at the expense of dense, greener and cleaner walkable communities designed around transit corridors.
A key purpose of the Greenbelt legislation is to prevent the type of sprawl that would be triggered by the construction of the 413.
The PC government has called it a “balanced approach to transportation planning”, a claim opponents have challenged.
In May 2021, the federal government designated the Highway 413 project for an Impact Assessment, which stopped the project from proceeding. But after a Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) ruling in October found parts of the federal Impact Assessment Act to be unconstitutional, the PC government asked the courts to free the Highway 413 project from having to undergo the environmental assessment the Act requires. The judicial review applications, previously shared with The Pointer by the Attorney General’s Office, seek to remove two of the PC government’s controversial projects: Highway 413 and the redevelopment of Ontario Place from under the jurisdiction of the Impact Assessment Act.
Vandenberg said the Province is reviewing how the ruling from the SCC on the environmental assessment will affect the project, noting “we still are working on the initial project description report but we have requested a judicial review and really until there’s one we can’t really provide any further comments right now.”
In December, a spokesperson from Environment and Climate Change Canada told The Pointer that, “To date, the Impact Assessment Agency has yet to receive the initial project description from the Province of Ontario required to advance the assessment of the Highway 413 project… So far, the only source of delay has been the Ontario Government. We’ve been waiting two years for their project description. Had they submitted it back in 2021, the Impact Assessment could already be complete.”
Until the initial project description is complete, the planning phase for the project cannot move forward. Once it’s complete, a 180-day planning phase will begin and during that time the Federal Impact Assessment Agency will hold a public comment period on the project. The Ministry has given no indication of when the initial project description will be completed.
Vandenberg told councillors during the meeting last week that the impacts to the Greenbelt are “being addressed through comprehensive environmental assessments,” noting that approximately nine percent of Highway 413 will cross through designated Greenbelt land, according to the Ministry’s design, which is only 50 percent complete.
“There will be further assessments and mitigation strategies to minimize any kind of large impact to preserve those agricultural lands,” he assured.
But Vandenberg could not confirm how much work has been done, how many property owners there are across the lands proposed for development, how much land has been purchased or if any attempts to purchase land have been made; but did say there has been no expropriation at this time. Another representative confirmed there are over 400 properties that are being impacted by the project but could not clarify how many individual property owners there are.
A large portion of the properties proposed for development are home to farm land and natural habitat for several species.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Crombie asked if any thought was given to carving out the portion that runs through the Greenbelt since the PC government stated it would restore Greenbelt protections to 15 parcels of land after scathing auditor general and integrity commissioner investigations found the process unfairly favoured certain developers, forcing Ford to reverse course.
“All of our design has been in accordance with the Greenbelt Plan and the Plan does allow for building infrastructure as long as it serves the population growth and we’re expecting significant population growth,” Vandenberg responded. “The preferred route was selected in effort to lessen effects on the Greenbelt and we are prioritizing protecting the Greenbelt and agriculture lands — floodplains, waterways, fish habitats and all that stuff — and all of that was really crucial in determining the preferred route.”
“And all that stuff” were words Crombie did not appreciate. She said, “it's a shame that we can’t make that commitment to put that land back where it should be in protection because you just acknowledged the sensitive nature of that land, the farm land and natural habitat for many species. It's a big concern for a lot of people.”
The Greenbelt Plan, developed in 2005, cannot stop the construction of the 413. The Plan accepts an outdated notion that growth is an overriding principle. It states new infrastructure can be built within the Greenbelt if it “serves the significant growth and economic development expected in Southern Ontario”, including highway infrastructure.
According to Vandenberg, the Province is projecting the population around the Greater Golden Horseshoe to increase from 10 million to 15 million people by 2051. He told council “there’s just a huge need for another highway corridor,” adding “in the earlier part of the project we looked at all kinds of alternatives, including not building a new highway, expanding all existing highways and it was just found that demand was so high that this is a requirement.”
Crombie argued “that given the congestion and gridlock situation in the urban area,” the money allocated for the project would be better spent on enhanced public transit in those areas, rather than investing in a highway where there won’t be population for decades.
“The need is today and it's now in urban areas to build public transit. Why wouldn’t that money estimated to be $10 billion or more be invested in public transit?” she questioned. “I think if we did a cost benefit analysis I think we would see that more people would benefit for enhanced investments in public transit than a highway that won’t be needed for decades.”
Polling by EKOS for the David Suzuki Foundation — one of the organizations that has demanded the cancellation of the project — has shown Ontario residents do not support Ford’s highway agenda. A recent poll released in December revealed the majority of GTA residents are opposed to the project. The vast majority of Ontario residents, 74 percent, said the Greenbelt is no place for a 400-series highway and 81 percent agreed with farmers who are opposed to Highway 413.
Of those surveyed, 79 percent agreed that to reduce traffic congestion, the provincial and federal governments should put more money into public transit and 82 percent said the province should provide more funding for public transit. Currently, cars dominate streetscapes. According to the EKOS poll, 71 percent of Ontario’s population relies on a car as their main mode of daily transportation, with only 14 percent regularly utilizing public transit. Mississauga is no exception.
Suburban sprawl creates reliance on cars.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Gideon Forman, climate change and transportation policy analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation, said without a timeline available and updated cost estimates there are still a lot of question marks around the project.
“The Ontario government has not been transparent on it, to put it mildly and it's a phenomenal waste of money in our view,” he told The Pointer. “We feel, the Suzuki Foundation and others, feel that that money could be so much better spent on other things and we'd get so much further, if we put some of that money into public transit, if we put some of that money into making better use of highways that we already have like Highway 407.”
“Almost overnight we could make better use of the 407, get trucks off the 401. We could do it very quickly for a fraction of the cost of building a new highway and trashing the Greenbelt.”
During the January 10 meeting, Vandenberg said increasing usage of the 407 — an alternative that’s been proposed numerous times by elected officials, advocacy groups and opposition critics — “wouldn’t sufficiently address the region’s traffic demands.” He added while the Province has looked at using other 400-series highways as an alternative to alleviate congestion, “the 407 alone will not be able to handle the amount of additional traffic that’s coming. In 2031 we would suffer basically the same congestion problems we have now. It's just not a realistic alternative.”
But as the PC government prepares to finance the largely unwanted 413 Highway, withholding critical funding that could be better utilized by investing in local transit projects, the Province’s continued push for a mega-highway contradicts Mississauga’s vision of a transit-oriented future. As an advocate for high-order transit within Mississauga, Councillor Tedjo said a new highway corridor would be contrary to this kind of City planning.
“A new highway through significant portions of the Greenbelt is not intensification, nor does it support high-order transit. This project will not be beneficial to Mississauga residents, and does not fit within the planning principles the city or the province has been working on.”
While the federal and provincial governments have supported transit-oriented projects in Mississauga, Councillor Tedjo said “projects like the Downtown (LRT) Loop (which was cancelled by Ford) must move forward to provide the necessary transit access for tens of thousands of residents already living in and those who will move into the neighbourhood”, adding “spending billions on an unnecessary highway when there are projects that need to be funded now is irresponsible.”
The City of Mississauga has adopted a “complete community” approach to planning by implementing the long-term vision in the City’s Official Plan, proposing multi-modal transportation that creates walkable communities for residents to access everything they need without having to step into a car. It’s a planning approach that focuses on high-order public transit with projects like the Hurontario LRT and the Dundas Bus Rapid Transit, to counter outdated highway planning that will keep commuters in cars.
“The impacts on this vision continue to be reviewed as more details on the preferred Highway 413 design are released by MTO,” a City spokesperson explained. “City Council continues to express concerns on the cost to build Highway 413, the environmental impacts, encouragement of residential sprawl and the dependence on the car for transportation.”
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