As post-COVID economic stimulus ideas for Ontario go, Doug Ford’s GTA West superhighway plan is certainly epic in scale.
At an estimated $ 10-billion construction cost, the new 400-series freeway will run through 55 kilometres of prime farmland, conservation lands and protected areas across the GTA’s northern perimeter in Halton, Caledon, and Vaughan townships, generating thousands of well-paid road construction jobs over the project’s multi-year span.
But according to real estate and construction experts, the government’s plan is much more than just a highway proposal. It’s also a bonanza for land speculators and builders.
“This is a slam dunk for us,” says Bill Argeropoulos, head of research at Avison Young, a Toronto-based commercial real estate advisory and brokerage with 100 offices in 10 countries. “The new transportation corridor will open a lot of available land, and it’ll provide a release valve for the industrial land market, which is extremely tight. Right now there’s huge demand for land for retail distribution centres.”
The economic case for the project, says Natasha Tremblay, spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Transport, is obvious.
With the population of the Greater Golden Horseshoe projected to double to almost 15 million over the next 30 years, the creation of new housing, workplaces, schools, hospitals and university campuses in Toronto’s near north — all fed by the new superhighway — represents a wave of new economic activity akin in scale to the creation of Mississauga in recent decades.
“In addition to serving over 300,000 auto vehicle trips a day in 2031 and relieving traffic on local roads and parallel highways,” Tremblay explained in an email, the GTAW will benefit the economy by “reducing travel times for commuters and goods, providing greater connectivity between urban growth centres,” and “providing better connections to residential and employment lands.” It will also provide “greater economic vitality,” she says.
But like a lot of other epic-scale Canadian economic megaproject plans, the economic pushback against the new superhighway is starting to look rather epic in scale, too.
Farmers, alongside key business leaders at the helm of Ontario’s massive agri-biz industry, which employs almost a million people, are leading the charge.
And they’re gaining momentum fast.
On Thursday, Ontario’s Liberals joined the Green Party and the NDP in vowing to kill Highway 413 — as the GTA West is informally known — and invest the cash instead in mass transit projects.
On the same day, Peel Regional Council — one of the premier’s key political assets in pushing the new highway forward — moved to question the government’s 413 implementation strategy.
An last week, Environmental Defence, an advocacy group, asked the federal government to review the project’s legality under federal environmental laws. Ottawa now says it’s thinking about whether or not to do so. But this isn’t just an environmental fight, says Sarah Buchanan, who heads the group’s campaign. “This project is a huge economic mistake as well,” she says.
“The real estate and construction industries have monopolized the discussion about this project long enough,” Buchanan says. “The agriculture, food, tourism and recreational industries deserve to be heard too. This project puts tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity in those sectors at risk.”
Ontario’s fragile food system
Alarmed that the government’s highway plan will ultimately erase much of the farmlands within easy reach of Toronto, farmers desperately want to be heard, says Allan Ehrlick, president of the Halton Region Federation of Agriculture, which represents 480 farmers.
In an open letter to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and Halton officials in January, the federation called for firm limits on urban sprawl within the areas that will in future be impacted by the proposed new superhighway.
In Ehrlick’s view, the highway is a profound economic mistake. “It’s an outdated throwback to an earlier era when farms, rural communities and nature itself were all merely the raw materials for unrestricted urban growth,” he says. “But the COVID pandemic has now dramatically changed the way people work. And that’s reduced the need for a new superhighway.”
The pandemic has also revealed our food system’s fragile reliance on increasingly pricey imported food trucked in across closed borders, Ehrlick adds.
“Suddenly, everyone wants to buy local food. But you can’t grow it in subdivisions.”
Kathryn Enders, director of the Ontario Farmland Trust, which helps farmers permanently protect their land from real estate development, says her phone has been ringing off the hook since the pandemic began.
“A rapidly growing number of farmers have now decided that future generations of people will never complain that we fought to protect their food supply,” she says.
Peggy Brekveld, the president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), which has 38,000 members, says she’s watching closely from her home in Thunder Bay.
Agriculture is a big part of the Ontario economy, she says. Farming and food processing employ almost a million people in the province and generate at least $ 35 billion in annual revenues. The regional food and farming economy of the Golden Horseshoe is North America’s third largest, after Southern California and Chicago.
In York Region alone, the agri-food sector provides approximately 57,000 permanent jobs and generates $ 2.7 billion in annual revenues.
Brekveld wants Ontario’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs to formally examine the new superhighway’s rural economic impacts before it goes any further with a proposal that will unleash a massive new wave of residential and industrial development across much of the last best farmlands adjacent to Toronto.
“OFA would like to see an Agricultural Impact Assessment done to better understand the overall impact,” Brekveld says with regard to the proposed superhighway. “Issues to consider include farm units cut into portions, transportation pressures for farm equipment on roads, and if the land use decisions will encourage further urban sprawl because of its location.”
Ernie Hardeman, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), declined an interview request, but spokesperson Christa Roettele confirmed that the agriculture ministry has never formally done an Agricultural Impacts Assessment (AIA) of the proposed superhighway.
Roettele referred questions about the OFA’s call for an AIA to the Ministry of Transport, where spokesperson Natasha Tremblay says a formal AIA could perhaps be done by her ministry, but that would have to await completion of AIA guidelines which OMAFRA drafted two years ago, but is still working on.
Not all farmers and agri-food leaders agree with the OFA that the province needs to far-sightedly consider the superhighway’s long-term economic impacts and benefits, however.
Tom Dolson, the president of the Peel Federation of Agriculture, which has 350 members, says some farmers see the highway as an inevitability. As a result, he says, some — himself included — have already sold off much of their lands to deep-pocketed developers, or hope to do so soon.
It’s “naive and short sighted,” Dolson says, to hope “that developers would hold these lands for farming purposes and open countryside while they have already been planned for development.”
Politicians choosing sides
As the battle lines between the real estate and construction industries and the agri-food industries harden, politicians are being forced to choose sides. And in some cases, their personal interests as landowners have been raised.
Stephen Del Ducca, the Ontario Liberal leader who shelved the project — largely for economic reasons at the advice of an expert panel — when he was minister of transport in 2018, said in an email on Thursday that “if elected in 2022, an Ontario Liberal Government would not proceed with the GTA West highway, and would instead invest the billions of dollars earmarked for it in regional transit priorities.”
In an interview, Patrick Brown, the former head of the Ontario Conservatives, who is now mayor of Brampton, says he views the superhighway as “contrary to Brampton’s economic interests,” and he urges that the mayors of Caledon and Vaughan take another look at the economics too.
Vaughan Councillor Marilyn Iafrate voted against the highway when it was first considered by the Vaughan Council in 2015, and she still views it as a threat to the regional agricultural economy that warrants a full assessment of the sort that the OFA wants the province to do. She says that “if the public demands it,” Vaughan Council should reopen the issue.
Michael Genova, Vaughan’s chief of communications, says that could happen.
Vaughan councillors Gino Rosati and Tony Carello are also worried about the project. “I think the Liberals were right to stop this project,” Carello says. “If the argument is that this is an economic stimulus project, there are a lot of other more important things to be done. I don’t see the need for it economically.”
On Thursday, Peel Region Council — including Vaughan Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua and most of Vaughan’s councillors — voted in support of the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority’s (TRCA) demand that the province back away from fast-tracking the GTAW environmental assessment.
Not all politicians outside Doug Ford’s inner circle agree that the superhighway is an economic mistake, however.
In Vaughan, Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua declined an interview to discuss the new superhighway’s economic merits. But in a written statement, he said the superhighway will be economically necessary as Vaughan’s employment growth is estimated to reach 321,500 by 2041 and its population expected to increase to almost half a million people by 2041.
“With a downtown core rising from the ground, a hospital under construction, a new 900-acre park, a new university and an economic growth rate of four per cent,” Bevilacqua wrote, “The GTA West corridor highway presents an opportunity to create more connections across Vaughan and the Greater Toronto Area, but it must be constructed responsibly.”
Caledon Mayor Allan Thompson is a former farmer who supports the premier’s superhighway plan, even while acknowledging that it may ultimately result in a large proportion of Caledon’s existing farmland being sold off to developers for residential and industrial projects.
Thompson himself recently sold some of his own farmland to a developer for $ 10 million, according to court documents.
Thompson says that Caledon has yet to commission any independent expert studies of the highway’s long-term economic impacts on scenic area’s increasingly prosperous economic mix of agriculture, tourism and outdoor activity enterprises, a point that is emphasized by Annette Groves, one of just two Caledon Council members — both from Bolton — who oppose the highway.
Mayor Thompson, who chairs the rural caucus for the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, which supports the government’s efforts to streamline the GTAW environmental assessment, declined to talk about his support for the GTAW. But in a written statement, he said “improved transportation infrastructure is needed to foster job growth while at the same time ensuring (that the) agricultural, environmental and natural heritage features that make Caledon so distinctive are protected.”
At a virtual Town Hall session last week, Thompson did not respond to questions about the superhighway project submitted by Caledon music teacher Jenni Le Forestier, who helps run the suddenly-snowballing “Stop the 413” Facebook page, which entertainingly collates research and information about the project for more than 700 members at last count.
In an outdoor, carefully socially-distanced interview at the intersection of Mississauga Road and Old School Road on a cold but sunny morning in southern Caledon earlier this week, Le Forestier chuckled that Thompson refused to publicly talk about anything except COVID during his recent online public forum. Instead he elected to send Le Forestier an email response to her questions.
“Thompson is ignoring economic and environmental questions about this highway land development scheme,” Le Forestier charged while pointing across a sun-dappled hayfield towards a 100-acre farm in the highway’s path that’s suddenly come up for sale for $ 20 million. “He’s using the COVID crisis as political cover.”
Alongside Thompson on the Caledon Council, municipal politicians Johanna Downey and Jennifer Innis have also voted to urge the province to expedite the construction of the new superhighway.
Innis’s vote in support of the superhighway surprised many, because she chairs the TRCA, which has expressed concerns about the impact of the proposed superhighway.
In explaining her vote to expedite the highway, Innis said in a written statement that the government’s planned route for the superhighway is better than an alternative that might be proposed in the future — though that alternative would not be allowed under current conservation protections.
“The currently proposed highway route is more ‘environmentally friendly’ than a route further North in the Town of Caledon where the entire length would cross the Oak Ridges Moraine, Greenbelt and Niagara Escarpment, causing greater damage to a protected and delicate biodiversity,” says Innis, whose family owns farmland in East Caledon.
As with Innis, Johanna Downey’s vote in support of the highway also startled many because she serves on the board of the Credit Valley Conservation Authority (which like the TRCA has asked the province to rethink its superhighway approval process) and she also serves as the chair of the Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Alliance, a coalition of pro-farming groups that warns against any further encroachment on prime farmland in the Golden Horseshoe, which includes the GTA.
“Governments across the region must work together to ensure urban growth does not come at the expense of prime farmlands,” the Alliance warns, while noting that 52 per cent of Ontario’s agri-food jobs are in the Golden Horseshoe and that the number of farms in the Golden Horseshoe have fallen by 30 per cent since 1996.
Despite these warnings, Downey — whose family owns land in southern Caledon — said in a written statement, “neither I, nor our collective board have presented any formal position on the proposed highway.”
Janet Horner, a Dufferin County council member who serves as the Alliance’s executive director, and is the Mayor of Mulmur, is bluntly candid on the matter, however. The new superhighway will be a “disaster” for the region’s agricultural economy, she predicts.
A harvest of economic opponents
As “early works” involving bridge building on the highway get underway, Susan Lloyd Swail, a land use planner based in Nobleton near the highway’s proposed route, says that pressure is growing to rezone agricultural lands for development.
“Agricultural land is valued as low as $ 18,000 an acre, but residential land is easily worth $ 1 million an acre,” she says. “There are hundreds of millions of dollars to be made right now simply by rezoning farmlands around the new freeway into development lands. And there are billions more to be made in the future from developing those lands into ever more unsustainable sprawl when we should be building up in our existing urban areas.”
At Guelph University, rural development scholars are watching the backroom politicking over the fate of Toronto’s food security with fascination, and more than a touch of horror.
Sarah Epp, a professor who specializes in gathering and analyzing intricate data in support of evidence-based rural economic planning, warns that farmlands are already disappearing at a brisk pace in Halton, Peel and York.
According to an ongoing investigation she’s conducting with fellow Guelph agriculture expert Wayne Caldwell, about 11 per cent of farmland has been reclassified as non-agricultural in York since 2000, and about eight per cent in Peel. The new superhighway will escalate this pattern, she says.
In Vancouver, Alex Boston, who heads the Renewable Cities think tank at Simon Fraser University, points to a 2013 study led by the Royal Bank of Canada and the Pembina Institute that concluded that GTA residential sprawl inflicts serious and irreversible economic harms.
“Extending development into farms and forests is often rationalized on the basis of providing affordable housing, and it does, but it is a false economy,” says Boston, who has advised dozens of Canadian cities. “Big highway projects are very costly and can serve as a subsidy to low density development, and driving. Neighbourhoods far from jobs and services often pay more for transport, offsetting any savings from lower housing costs.”
Eric Miller, who served as a top Ontario government economist until joining the economics faculty at York University, argues that the government’s economic strategy in pushing ahead with the superhighway is based on faulty economic research that ignores every alternative to paving over the GTA’s last remaining major green spaces.
“We’d be far better off spending this massive economic stimulus investment on retrofitting buildings to be more energy efficient,” he says. “Building highways to spur more urban sprawl is a long-outdated economic growth strategy.”
Peter Victor, a former top Ontario government economist who was recruited by York’s faculty of economics and served as chair of the Green Belt Council, also questions the economic case for another superhighway that triggers a huge new wave of urban sprawl across the richly productive food-growing farm fields of Halton, Caledon, Vaughan and King.
“Maybe it’s time to consider whether Toronto has now reached its optimal footprint size?” he ponders.
“Remember,” he muses, “once we’ve paved over the lands that provide our food supply, it’s gone forever. And you can’t eat real estate.”