Province asks Metrolinx to restore Mississauga’s downtown LRT loop & extend system into Brampton’s city centre
After Doug Ford’s PC government removed Mississauga’s downtown LRT loop from the Hurontario project in 2019, the transportation minister has now asked provincial transit agency Metrolinx to “bring forward” a business case for the previously cancelled section and an extension of the line into Brampton’s city centre.
A January 17 letter from Minister of Transportation and Brampton South MPP Prabmeet Singh Sarkaria was shared with The Pointer by the ministry Thursday. Sarkaria requests that Metrolinx move forward with plans to reintroduce the downtown Mississauga loop as part of the project (the letter does not state when). It’s unclear what changed after Ford cited escalating project costs in 2019, following his election in 2018, to justify the removal of the rectangular shaped section that, if built, would see the LRT travel around City Hall, the Square One Shopping Mall and the surrounding commercial district before returning back to Hurontario Street.
The letter also directed Metrolinx to pursue the extension of the Hazel McCallion Line, the name of the entire north-south system, into downtown Brampton, past Steeles Avenue at the Gateway Terminal where it is currently planned to turn around. A special council meeting was held at Brampton’s Rose Theatre in 2015, where the controversial decision was made in a 6-5 vote to withdraw support for the route into the city centre chosen by Metrolinx, despite the efforts of former mayor Linda Jeffrey who supported the Main Street alignment. At the time, the provincial government had committed $1.6 billion for the Hurontario-Main LRT’s total capital cost from Port Credit to downtown Brampton, but pulled funding for the portion north of Steeles after Brampton’s decision.
Sarkaria has now directed Metrolinx CEO and President Phil Verster to create an Initial Business Case to be submitted to the Minister by February 5. It will include a strategy to attract bids from private partners to construct the loop and Brampton extension, come up with projected costs for the two sections and “market-driven funding strategies to ensure best value for taxpayers.”
In the fall of 2019 the PC government announced a $4.6 billion contract had been awarded to a consortium of companies brought together under the name Mobilinx, to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the Hurontario LRT over a 30-year term.
It is now unclear how the PCs will integrate the funding, construction and operation of the loop and Brampton extension into that contract. Timelines and criteria for funding will be explored, according to a statement from Metrolinx to The Pointer Thursday.
“The Hazel McCallion LRT will be a transformative project for the region and both the loop and Brampton Extension have always been viewed as strong and viable next phases of this project,” a Metrolinx spokesperson responded in an email. “We are in the process of reviewing the Minister’s letter and specifics around costs, scope, design and construction timelines have yet to be determined. We look forward to responding to the Minister’s letter by February 5.”
The spokesperson did not clarify if the two additions will be folded into the Mobilinx consortium’s overall responsibilities, or if the current timeline to open the system (as designed under the existing contract) in 2024 will be impacted.
The LRT is currently designed to run along Hurontario from the Port Credit GO Station to the Brampton Gateway Terminal over an 18-kilometre route with 19 stops and would link major transit systems including GO Transit, ZUM, MiWay, the Mississauga Transitway and Brampton Transit along the way.
“A Brampton LRT extension would better-connect families and commuters in Brampton to their neighbours in Mississauga and across the Greater Toronto Area,” Sarkaria wrote in his letter to Metrolinx. “[T]he inclusion of the downtown Mississauga loop and Brampton extension will ensure its legacy for decades to come.”
Additional expansions of the LRT would create a downtown Mississauga loop and extend the system to Brampton’s downtown GO Station, instead of the city’s Gateway Terminal.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
The Brampton extension comes with a list of unanswered questions. Mayor Patrick Brown has forced plans for the previously cancelled surface route along Main Street to instead travel underground, through a tunnel that would begin north of Steeles, through the Etobicoke Creek corridor and into the city’s struggling downtown. The LRT extension would dramatically improve the prospects of the decaying area, which City Hall has tried to brand as an “Innovation District” despite very little investment or innovative activity in the downtown precinct of Canada’s ninth largest city.
An LRT system could change that. But the $2.8 billion cost of Brown’s tunnel option, about three times more than the price for a surface LRT, could be a barrier.
Brampton MPPs were asked if they are supportive of Brampton's LRT extending into downtown and whether they believe the $2.8 billion tunnel alignment the City is planning to advance is a good use of taxpayer dollars. They were also asked to comment on what they have heard from their constituents regarding their preference of a tunnel versus a much cheaper surface alignment, and were asked—if the tunnel alignment is advanced by council—about their commitment to advocating for its funding to their government (all five of Brampton’s MPPs are members of Ford’s PC party).
Brampton North MPP Graham McGregor’s office responded on his behalf, stating he is “very happy with the progress MTO is making for Brampton residents” and that “Minister Sarkaria is doing an excellent job.” Brampton East MPP Hardeep Grewal’s office deferred to an earlier response The Pointer received from the Minister’s office on behalf of MPP McGregor, which stated the PC government, “has been steadfast in getting shovels in the ground on critical infrastructure projects,” and that this “is why, at the request of the Premier, Minister Sarkaria has directed Metrolinx to develop a plan to build both the downtown Mississauga Loop and the Brampton extension.”
The downtown loop, which was previously cancelled by the PC government in 2019, features three stations around the city centre.
“[T]his is the most significant indication since 2015 of the Province's position on the Main Street corridor,” Chris Drew, a former Brampton resident, longtime City Hall watcher and transit advocate who delegated on the LRT tunnel idea at the January 17 Brampton Committee of Council meeting, told The Pointer. “It's a key piece of the network function, plan, and opportunity for the City and its transit riders. It's great to see a specific date marker of February 5th,” he said, regarding Sarkaria’s direction to Metrolinx to create an Initial Business Case.
In May of 2023, despite no position from the provincial government and without any funding committed, Brampton council unanimously voted for a partly-underground tunnel alignment for a future LRT extension running along the Main Street corridor, the most expensive of three options under consideration. Brown first introduced the tunnel option, claiming early in 2019, less than two months after taking on the role of mayor, that upper levels of government had suggested to him they would provide funding (which never materialized).
At the Wednesday Committee of Council meeting, Brampton’s elected officials were presented with the option to pursue either alignment, including the surface-level extension at a fraction of the cost of the tunnel. The sub-surface alternative avoids running the LRT through the city’s historic heritage area along Main Street. Former Ontario premier Bill Davis was a mentor to Brown and the mayor has aggressively supported the late Brampton icon’s desire to keep a rail system off the surface of Main Street, where the Davis family house still sits in the historic district just south of downtown.
Despite an opportunity to move forward with the roughly $933 million surface alignment, Brampton council members voted to send the $2.8 billion tunnel alignment to full Council next week for ratification. The staff report presented to members highlighted advantages and disadvantages to both options, stating that based on the “overall benefits of the tunnel alignment compared to the surface alignment, the funding ask for higher order transit in Brampton is comparable to what other GTHA municipalities have received, and that Brampton City Council has already unanimously supported the tunnel alignment to advance funding advocacy,” council should support the tunnel alignment through the Transit Project Assessment Process (TPAP).
The staff report to council this week states that Metrolinx grouped Brampton’s LRT Extension into its high prioritization category alongside 15 other projects through its 2023 annual review of its Frequent Rapid Transit Network (FRTN) Prioritization Framework. However, this was based on a surface alignment, with the report highlighting that the increased cost for the tunnel alignment “may negatively impact the preliminary benefit cost ratio.”
“It may be that the net benefit of an underground alignment makes the most sense for the City of Brampton, and only its elected leaders can determine their priorities for the future,” CodeRedTO executive director Cameron MacLeod, who heads the group that advocates for rapid transit, told The Pointer in an email. “But it is vital to understand that protecting private car traffic is not a valid benefit for public road space.”
“Private cars are the least efficient way to move people, and moving people is what our public roadways are for,” he wrote, saying that draining public budgets without sufficient benefit is something “we all must guard against.”
The decision to reject the Main Street alignment almost a decade ago still weighs on transit advocates in Brampton.
“Had a previous Council, in 2015, not, short-sightedly turned down the Province’s initial offer, we would already be building a surface route from Port Credit all the way to the Brampton GO terminal,” David Laing, president of Brampton Environmental Alliance (BEA), told The Pointer in an email. “Both the surface and tunnel routes have advantages and disadvantages from an environmental perspective,” he wrote, saying that the biggest disadvantage of the tunnel route is perhaps its higher price tag which he said “presents a bigger barrier to funding and will take longer to construct.”
“That said, opening the debate once again would likely push the completion date even further into the future which would benefit neither people nor planet,” he wrote.
The lack of transit ridership along Main Street, the impact on the heritage district, constrained development opportunities along the Etobicoke Creek corridor and engineering concerns due to the watershed’s floodplain designation (much of downtown is a Special Policy Area as designated by the provincial government due to the risk of flooding, which severely limits construction across the SPA) were all contributing factors for the six council members who voted against the Main Street alignment in 2015.
They moved quickly to explore other potential alignments for the LRT outside the floodplain and where much more development could occur along a high-order transit corridor. But other councillors aligned with Jeffrey who were elected in 2022 and determined to put the Main Street option back on the table, scrapped the other options, prompting Brown to push a tunnel, which would appease them and those who did not want to see a train with cables and wires throughout the heritage district.
The tunnel option mitigates concerns around preserving the character of the heritage area, but the floodplain issues have still not been addressed, no Environmental Assessment has been completed and engineering questions about going underground through a major watershed remain unanswered.
Brown has cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the City’s budget since becoming mayor, cancelling projects to revitalize the downtown area and postponing work needed to mitigate the flood risk. A tunnel could not move forward if the engineering is not feasible and if public safety risks remain due to the threat of flooding around Etobicoke Creek.
The Hurontario-Main corridor was identified through Metrolinx’s Regional Transportation Plan, also known as the Big Move, more than a decade ago as a key area for transit investment with significant growth forecast over the next twenty to thirty years. The top transit priorities at the time included a Hurontario rapid transit line from Port Credit to downtown Brampton.
While the PCs’ move to bring back the loop and extend the line into Brampton’s downtown signals good news for the two cities, possibly helping fulfill the transition to more transit-oriented municipalities, Metrolinx has not confirmed whether the project, already two years behind, is on schedule, after the original 2022 opening date for the Hurontario LRT was abandoned.
A spokesperson from Metrolinx recently told The Pointer “significant progress” was made on the project in 2023 but the agency would not confirm it’s on track to meet the current 2024 target for significant completion, noting “When construction nears completion and we move into the testing and commissioning phase, we will be in a better position to provide a specific opening date.”
A letter from the transportation minister asks Metrolinx to come up with a plan to attract bids to build the two project expansions.
Mississauga’s downtown loop was approved by the previous Liberal government in 2014 before the PCs unexpectedly removed it in 2019 when they took power, citing project cost inflation. Ford argued the loop’s removal — which reportedly saved at least $200 million — was needed as cost estimates had increased significantly since the project was originally approved five years earlier.
In February 2022, the downtown loop was casually promised when Ford was campaigning ahead of the June provincial election that year. He assured former mayor Bonnie Crombie “[The downtown loop is] something we all want and we’ll make it happen eventually, sooner or later.” At the time, the Premier did not say when the loop’s funding would be restored.
Now, Ford’s move, instructing the transportation minister to direct Metrolinx, comes just over a month after Crombie won the Ontario Liberal leadership — making it clear that if the Premier does not make much-needed investments in municipalities, he could see stiff competition in the next provincial election. Polls and reporting have suggested Ford was rattled by Crombie’s victory. The timing of his move on the loop, which he previously said was too expensive, raises questions about the politics behind the decision, considering building material and labour costs have skyrocketed since he claimed the downtown feature could no longer be afforded.
The City has continuously cautioned that the cost of the downtown loop — critical to future growth — is far too high for Mississauga to take on alone and it “must be considered a funding priority” by upper levels of government. Requests to reinstall the loop were recently made once again in the City’s 2024 pre-budget submission to the Province.
The latest budget submission notes the loop is critical to supporting the development of Mississauga’s downtown core, which is anticipated to grow by 50,000 residents in the coming years.
According to the City’s projections, the addition of the loop would allow for increased frequency of service. The current design would see 7.5 minutes between trains on Hurontario Street, however, with the loop, there would only be 2.5 minutes between trains in the downtown circle and 5 minutes between trains on Hurontario Street. Additional trains would also be required with an increase from 16 an hour operating without the loop to 24 per hour with it.
Metrolinx has repeatedly assured the route’s design will allow for a downtown loop to be “easily added back in the future” without affecting the line’s operations. A spokesperson previously confirmed the design and construction of the line does not “preclude the reinstatement of the loop at a future date.” While the current project does allow for modifications, the spokesperson said the design and costs will have to be updated should the loop be reintroduced.
MacLeod told The Pointer that CodeRedTO “looks forward to greater details on alignment proposals,” and said the tunnel motion out of Brampton is “not a decision milestone or an irreversible choice, but rather a continuation of the process in place for this project.”
“Any new transit choices for more Brampton residents is a win, and bringing those benefits sooner is an important consideration.”
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