As cities all over North America clamour for transit, Brampton, Ont., appears poised to reject the province's offer to pay for a $386-million light rail line.
With a pivotal council debate scheduled for late Wednesday, advocates of the line warn that rejecting the offer could set transit in the city back a decade. But critics worry about harming downtown Brampton, and argue there are better places to build a rail project.
The Ontario government is keen to build transit infrastructure and promises to spend billions doing so around the Toronto and Hamilton areas. But it has made clear that if Brampton refuses the route as proposed – running up Main Street, from Steeles Avenue to the GO station near Queen Street – it will withdraw its funding offer.
It would be a stunning result for this community northwest of Toronto. The ninth largest city in the country, car-reliant Brampton is growing fast and is facing ever-worsening traffic. And it would be a major setback for Mayor Linda Jeffrey, who supports the LRT.
In the lead-up to the debate, Ms. Jeffrey admitted she was doubtful her side would prevail.
"I try not to count my chickens," she said in an interview Monday at her office, steps from where the LRT would run through the city's old downtown.
"At this point I am not optimistic about what the outcome will be. But I'm not a quitter, and I'm going to push to the very end, and I'm going to make the best argument that I can."
Opponents in Brampton have raised a host of concerns about the LRT route, arguing that other parts of the city have more development potential. They worry also that parking could be affected, that the historic character of the old downtown would be diminished and that the city might be saddled with some costs.
"The more information I get about it, the more questions I have," said David Harmsworth, whose family paint store has been on Main Street for five generations. "Until I'm convinced that this is the best way, I'm going to have to be skeptical and essentially, for the time, against it."
Supporters counter that there is nothing particularly historic about cars driving on a four-lane paved road and say the route will create the spine that will form the basis for future transit. They argue that the downtown has long been suffering, and that rejecting the LRT would send a terrible message to those who might help it rebound.
"What it's telling business and it's telling investors is, as a city, we don't believe in our downtown. We don't want development here. We don't want you to invest in the downtown," said Andrew deGroot, who lives in the area.
City staff studied multiple alternative routes for the LRT and concluded that all had "major technical issues" that knocked them out of contention. A tunnel was the only other option, the report said, but that would cost an additional $380-million that the city would have to find the funding for.
Elaine Belcher, who would rather not have a Brampton LRT at all than one built along the proposed route, said that the money for a tunnel could be found, perhaps from the federal government. And she, like some other critics of this project, believes that the province is bluffing about yanking its funding.
Everyone is predicting a long meeting Wednesday evening on the proposed route, finishing with a close vote.
The charged debate over the LRT is one that many here say pits the older and long-standing residents against newcomers and youth. And a number of locals say quietly that the debate feels like a re-hashing of the last election, with some of the criticism of the LRT coming from people who supported Ms. Jeffrey's main opponent and appear to see this issue as a way to undercut her.
The province's offer of light rail in Brampton is part of a longer proposed LRT route linking GO rail stations in that city and Mississauga. The whole project is budgeted at $1.6-billion, paid entirely by the province, and could be in service by early the next decade. It is one piece of a much larger infrastructure commitment by the province.
"The taxpayers of Ontario are giving Brampton an opportunity and we need to seize that opportunity," said Jaipaul Massey-Singh, chair of the city's board of trade. "I worry that we've become a punchline. We're the community that turned down the money for, what? For pride? And now we've got nothing."