Doug Ford’s government returned to Queen's Park on Tuesday after an extended winter break with a proposed law to help push through four Toronto-area transit projects championed by the Progressive Conservatives.
The new law is meant to fast track transit builds. And one of the ways it is going to do it is by allowing work to proceed before environmental assessments have been completed.
The proposed Building Transit Faster Act would grant more power to the provincial transportation minister and the Metrolinx transit agency to override objections from the City of Toronto and neighbouring municipalities, utility companies and other property owners to a $28.5-billion plan to upgrade the city’s transit infrastructure.
At the centre of that plan is the Ontario Line, a downtown relief subway line Ford is hoping to get built by 2027 at a cost of $10.9 billion. It also includes a three-stop Scarborough subway extension, a light-rail extension to the city's west end and future plans to extend the Yonge subway north to York Region.
The bill will make it easier for the province to acquire the land needed to build the projects, and forces utilities and telecommunication companies to move out of the way at their own cost. It also requires other projects, such as condo developments and municipal road maintenance projects, to win the approval of Metrolinx and align with its construction schedule.
Related draft regulations published by the environment ministry on Tuesday call for early planning to move forward before environmental assessments are complete. Such work could include station modifications, bridgework, expansion of rail corridors and utility relocation.
“We’re not going to spend 12 months getting approval to cut down a tree,” Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney told reporters shortly after introducing the legislation. “None of the measures that we’re proposing today are changing outcomes, they’re just streamlining the process and shortening timelines.”
But the move raised eyebrows among opposition politicians and transit experts, with McGill University professor Ahmed El-Geneidy questioning whether the government would be willing to walk away from the sunk costs of early development work if an environmental assessment came back negative.
“Environmental impact assessments are very important. We should do them, we should do them correctly, and we shouldn’t rush them,” said El-Geneidy, whose work focuses on land use and transportation. “They should inform us whether to build a project or not. If we are rubber-stamping these things, and no matter what they say, we are going to build them anyway, then why do them?”
He said the government would have to be “willing to accept that you moved forward with the planning or the civil engineering or the design knowing that you might throw this money that you paid on this part in the garbage.”
Transit in Toronto has for years been plagued by construction delays and the vagaries of a shifting political landscape, with Ford's government keeping that tradition alive with its nixing of earlier plans for a less ambitious relief line and shunting aside Toronto Mayor John Tory's SmartTrack plan.
Doug Ford's government just unveiled a proposed law to push through its pet transit projects. Critics worry that environmental concerns will be sidelined, @5thEstate reports. #onpoli
"It's this Ontario government's actions that has led to the transit delays we are experiencing in the GTHA (greater Toronto and Hamilton area) in the first place," said Jessica Bell, the NDP's transportation critic. "We had a shovel-ready relief line plan ready to be built in 2020 that all levels of government had approved, and it was scrapped for a completely new and untested transit plan that we even now don't know the details of."
She said she was concerned about the proposals because environmental assessments for transit projects are already very fast.
"In order to build right, we need to plan well. That requires doing a sensible and rigorous environmental assessment process."