The Ontario government is aiming to speed up the construction of its four marquee Toronto-area transit projects with legislation it says will streamline the approvals process, but which critics argue will make it easier for the province to override citizens’ concerns.
As the legislature resumed sitting Tuesday, the Progressive Conservative government proposed measures to speed up environmental assessments, accelerate the expropriation of property, force utilities such as power and gas companies to co-ordinate their work and make developers get special permits before beginning any construction that could conflict with nearby transit work.
The bill comes nearly two years into the premiership of Doug Ford, who has made transit one of his top priorities. Its unveiling also coincided with word of new construction delays on a major Toronto project: The Eglinton Crosstown light-rail project – being built by a private consortium overseen by provincial transit agency Metrolinx – will not open in September, 2021, but instead some time the following year.
In the spring of last year, Mr. Ford unveiled a $28.5-billion transit expansion in the Greater Toronto Area. It includes an expanded three-stop Scarborough subway extension, a tunnelled expansion of the Eglinton Crosstown to the west, an extension of the Yonge subway north into York Region and his signature Ontario Line, a new subway that would replace the city’s own long-planned relief line. The plan also included the province taking over construction of all new subway lines, with Mr. Ford arguing the province could build these projects more quickly than the city.
Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said the measures introduced Tuesday, which apply only to these four projects, would get them done faster. Many of the expanded powers the province wants to give itself, she said, are meant to be used only as last resorts, if negotiations with property owners, utility companies or municipalities cannot be resolved.
“We are still going to respect property rights, negotiate in good faith and treat people fairly,” Ms. Mulroney said. “But we are not going to spend 12 months getting permission to remove a tree.”
One measure would give the minister the power to issue an order to modify or take over any municipal right-of-way or service if negotiations with a municipality over a transit project fail. But Ms. Mulroney said talks with Toronto were still going well, and that this power was meant only as a “backstop.”
Regulatory changes to the environmental assessment process, also unveiled Tuesday, would allow preliminary work to begin on the Ontario Line before its assessment is complete, and give the Environment Minister new powers to intervene to speed up the assessment process.
Ms. Mulroney said these sorts of tactics could have resulted in the Crosstown being operational three years earlier than now scheduled. But critics say there is no connection between the Crosstown delays and the sorts of changes brought forward in the legislature.
“The reason that the Crosstown is delayed is because Metrolinx has completely mishandled their relationship with their contractors," said midtown councillor Josh Matlow, who has long been critical of how the project has been built.
“I think the Ford government is using Metrolinx’s mess as a convenient excuse to push democracy and the environment to the wayside.”
According to Metrolinx chief executive officer Phil Verster, the Crosstown will open late because of defective concrete found under Eglinton subway station, delays in getting the project going and design work that progressed slowly. He offered a personal apology to the people of Toronto, but also suggested that delays are not uncommon on the biggest infrastructure projects.
“If you look at the statistics of megaprojects, megatransit projects, they have huge complexities to them and this is a real risk to all of these projects,” said Mr. Verster, who declined to specify in which half of 2022 he expected the Crosstown to be complete.
Councillor Paula Fletcher, through whose ward the proposed Ontario Line subway would run, warned that transparency is being lost as the province takes over the transit file.
“Everything’s going into the backroom at Metrolinx and nothing is in the living room of the citizens of the city, and it’s really concerning,” she said.