The development of Highway 413 is a highly controversial subject in Ontario, with the provincial government and developers pushing for its approval, while municipalities and environmentalists strongly oppose it. Due to the number of factors involved in the project, this article has been broken up into 2 parts. Part 1 will discuss what the proposed project is, and the ecological and societal damage it could cause. Part 2 will focus on how this proposed development shows that the provincial government is not aligned with the federal or municipal governments in its values and goals.
What is Highway 413?
The proposed Greater Toronto Area (GTA) West Transportation Corridor, informally known as Highway 413, originated as a component of the 2005 Places to Grow Act which set out population density and growth targets for municipalities while aiming to redirect growth away from agricultural and environmentally sensitive lands. This Act envisioned a potential transportation corridor that would connect the evolving urban growth centres to the west of the GTA. While first suggested about 15 years ago, the Wynne government killed the project in 2018 after deciding it would cause too much environmental damage, and only save about 30-60 seconds for commuters. However, a year later, Doug Ford became the premier of Ontario and reintroduced the idea.
According to plans, this corridor would include traffic lanes and transitways and would prioritize the movement of goods. It would stretch 50km from Vaughan in the east, through Brampton and Caledon, and into Halton in the west. According to a spokesperson for Ontario Transport Minister Caroline Mulroney, the multibillion-dollar highway expects to host over 300,000 vehicle trips per day. They continued to state that the purpose of the new highway would be the reduction of travel times for both commuters and goods, in addition to “providing greater connectivity between urban growth centres, providing better connections to residential and employment lands, providing an alternate route in the event of an incident or road closure on local roads, providing a designated transitway as a multimodal alternative, and providing greater economic vitality.”
In August 2020, the Ministry of Transportation released the “technically preferred route” for the highway and began the 2nd stage of the environmental assessment study that originally began in 2007. The month before, the government passed its omnibus Bill 197, the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, which managed to gut a number of environmental regulations, and essentially paved the way for a streamlined environmental assessment process for the highway, in addition to reducing the ability of landowners to challenge expropriations for public roads and transit projects. However, in a surprising turn of events, the federal government stepped in in May 2021, taking over the environmental assessment process for the project, citing the risks to federally-listed species at risk as being too great.
The intention of the highway is sensical, with some of the GTA’s communities being the fastest-growing in North America, and the expected population growth for the region expected to increase from 7 million (2019) to over 9.5 million by 2046. Generally speaking, failing to plan in advance for a mass increase in population like this can be incredibly damaging to a region; however, in this case, this is not the right plan. There are a number of reasons for this, including:
- The ecological and societal damage of this development would be much too significant*
- This development does not align with the values and goals of the federal and municipal governments
* The remainder of this article will look at reason number 1, while part 2 of this article will look at reason number 2.
Ecological & Societal Damage
What is it?
Ontario’s Greenbelt is one of the world’s largest Natural Heritage Systems (NHS), which is a network of interconnected natural features and areas. This particular system includes over 2 million acres of protected farmland, forests, wetlands, rivers and lakes, and supports a thriving economy based on food, farming, environment, recreation, and tourism (see figure 3). The Greenbelt was first established in 2005 and was designed to protect key environmentally sensitive areas that provide essential ecosystem services to the densely populated region. The system was immediately recognized internationally for its leadership in fostering agriculture and conserving the environment. Overall, the Greenbelt includes green space, farmland, residential communities, forests, wetlands, and watersheds, all of which provide crucial habitats for more than 1/3 of Ontario’s species at risk (SAR).
The Greenbelt manages to be one of the most biologically diverse areas in the country and includes both the Niagara Escarpment and Oak Ridges Moraine. These 2 protected areas work to filter and replenish the groundwater that feeds into the many river systems throughout the province. All 3 of these protected areas can also be found within the greater protection of the Greater Golden Horseshoe. In 2017, the Greenbelt was expanded to include 21 urban river valleys and 7 coastal wetlands, connecting both its rural and suburban lands to Lake Ontario.
The Greenbelt is vital to Ontario and all of Canada, as it safeguards the vital resources that clean our air and water, reduce our flood risk, provide crucial habitat for wildlife, and ensure our communities have green space to enjoy.
How is it Protected?
The Greenbelt is the cornerstone of Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan (“Growth Plan”) which is a holistic strategy providing clarity and direction for urban areas, such as where and how growth can be accommodated, and what must be protected. The Greenbelt Plan (2017) along with the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan (ORMCP) (2017) and the Niagara Escarpment Plan (NEP) (2017), identify where urbanization should not occur in order to provide permanent protection to the agricultural land base and the important ecological and hydrological features, areas, and functions occurring within this landscape.
The Greenbelt Plan includes the lands within the designated Greenbelt area and builds upon the ecological protections provided within the NEP and the ORMCP. As well, the Greenbelt Plan, together with the Growth Plan, the NEP and the ORMCP build upon the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) to establish a land-use planning framework for the entire Greater Golden Horseshoe that works to support a thriving economy, social equity, and a healthy environment. All of these plans work with Ontario’s Climate Change Strategy (2015) – the government’s commitment to meeting its long-term targets regarding the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions – of which the Greenbelt is a major element.
How Would Highway 413 Impact It?
Figure 9 illustrates the crossover between both existing and planned road networks, public transit networks, and protected areas. As you can see, the preferred route for the GTA West corridor cuts through a significant swath of agricultural lands, a number of forested areas and wetlands, and conservation areas that are both within and adjacent to the designated Greenbelt area.
As previously stated, the highway would stretch 50km from Vaughan through Brampton and Caledon, and into Halton. About 170m wide in all, the corridor would pave over 2,000 hectares of land and cross the Humber and Credit Valley watersheds, and the upper portion of the Etobicoke Creek (see Figure 9). It would also corrupt the protection of environmentally sensitive areas and significant habitats in the province, such as the Nashville Conservation Reserve located in the heart of the Greenbelt (see Figure 10).
As well, while Caledon generates only a small fraction of the commuter and industrial traffic the highway will serve, the town will hold the longest stretch of the corridor. The corridor would pave over 1,000 acres of the Greenbelt in Vaughan, but in Caledon, it would pass through the “Whitebelt” – a stretch of land in south Caledon that was left unprotected for future development, when the Greenbelt was first established in 2005. About 18% of Caledon is considered Whitebelt, while the rest of the town’s land, about 80% is protected Greenbelt.
The development of Highway 413 would not only have significant ecological repercussions, but also societal ones. The uncertainty surrounding the highway has been impacting municipal planning, with Caledon’s own strategy for residential and employment lands in Mayfield West, Bolton, and Caledon East – all of which are designated areas for population growth. Presently, the municipal infrastructure required for the success of the Mayfield West Community Development Plan is being delayed by the ongoing environmental assessment review for the highway.
Not only has the proposed project disrupted local planning efforts, but it would also be an incredibly divisive development for the town, essentially cutting it in two. According to local farmer Dan O’Reilly, “It will be Caledon’s version of the Berlin Wall, but unlike the Berlin Wall, it will never be torn down once built.” The wall could be particularly damaging to the Mayfield West communities of Valleywood and Southfields, as they are already surrounded by the 410 to the west and south, and would be completely boxed in by the construction of the 413 to the north, and the new 410 interchange to the east.
The situation has been highly affecting farmers and farmland owners in the area, with them unable to sell because no one wants farmlands targeted for development. However, that seems to only be the case for those wanting to use the land for farming. According to Ian Sinclair, Ward 1 regional councillor, many farmers have already sold their lands and are just living in their homes until they’re told to vacate. Apparently, developers have been steadily acquiring farms in Caledon for the past 25 years, even though actual development on them has been frozen for the last 14. Until the final route is determined, or the project is finally scrapped, they will continue to stay frozen. For this reason, the Peel Federation of Agriculture does not support the federal EA on Highway 13, and they expect it to extend this freeze on farmland further.
While the Premier’s office says the 413 is necessary for a number of reasons, such as the need to serve a growing population, a National Observer investigation found some more realistic reasons for the provincial push for the highway. According to this investigation, 8 of Ontario’s most powerful land developers own thousands of acres of prime real estate near the proposed route for Highway 413. Half of these developers are connected to Doug Ford’s government through party officials and former Tory politicians now working as registered lobbyists. Most of the developers in this group also manage to be generous donors to the PC party, contributing at least $813,000 in support since 2014.
One developer, John Di Poce, employed the head of the Ontario PC party’s fundraising branch for several years, and 3 other developers employ the chair of Caroline Mulroney’s 2018 PC leadership campaign as a government lobbyist. Mulroney is now Ontario’s transportation minister and plays a key role in any decisions relating to the highway.
The province has also handed down extraordinary directives in a number of instances since April 2020 in order to fast-track development on lands owned by some of these major developers around the proposed highway. Overall, this group of developers own about 39 properties covering 3,300 acres, that are valued at nearly half a billion dollars conservatively; however, the value of these lands would increase exponentially if the highway were built and residential, commercial, and industrial developments were permitted along the corridor (see figure 13).
The National Observer’s investigation raises significant questions about why Highway 413 was resurrected so shortly after it was deemed unnecessary and significantly harmful. The answer seems to lie within these political and business relationships, surrounding the landholdings of those whom the proposed corridor would benefit.
Former Ontario government planner Victor Doyle states, “the profit margins are astronomical. So if any developer speculatively bought land in Caledon and Vaughan, then developers are going to be pushing for the highway to no end, because they stand to benefit even more so from their investment.” Doyle worked as a government planner when the province was deciding on the highway before it was shelved in 2018. He said the government found it was not the best solution to the GTA’s gridlock problem, and suggested highway expansions and better use of the 407 instead. According to Doyle, “the reinvigoration of the 413 under the Conservatives can be directly attributed to the development industry.”
Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner commented on the investigation saying, “It just shows you how much the Highway 413 project is about benefitting land speculators who donated a lot of money to the PC Party.” However, according to Dan Gold, a Ph.D. graduate with a focus on lobbying decision-making in North America, “It’s not about bribing a politician, it’s about finding a candidate who is receptive to your position, and helping them get into office. In some ways, it’s more insidious, because it’s not just one decision but finding an elected official whose viewpoint aligns with yours.” He continues, saying that donations that developers give politicians “don’t buy the outcome you want, they buy you access.”
To find out more about Highway 413 and how its development does not align with federal and municipal goals or values, please see part 2, available here.