In a controversial decision overnight, Brampton city council voted to reject hundreds of millions of dollars in provincial funding for a transit line.
The issue has roiled the city for months, sparking increasingly nasty debate. And the vote Wednesday came only after hours of passionate public presentations that had both sides painting the decision as one that was crucial to the city's future.
Supporters have called the proposed light rail line an opportunity to revitalize the downtown in this city northwest of Toronto. Critics shot back that the LRT was being put in the wrong place, and that the scale of the project was an insult compared to funding offers other communities were getting.
Not until close to 2 o'clock Wednesday morning did council finally make their decision, opting against the project by a 7-4 margin. The rejection – which prompted hoots and heckling from the audience – called also for study of further options for a local LRT, except on the route specified by the province.
One of the votes against the project was Mayor Linda Jeffrey, who had previously been a strong supporter of the idea. It was unclear whether that was for procedural reasons, potentially allowing her to re-open the decision, or as an olive branch to the rest of council. She did not answer directly when asked later.
"I'm disappointed that this is the decision that council made," the mayor said after the vote. "I want to make sure that we still have transit on the table. And I'm really sad about what council made, the decision they made. I've been clear from the very beginning, I wanted an LRT that connected to our GO station."
The decision came after an earlier attempt to sway a crucial swing vote on council backfired. A pro-LRT councillor introduced a motion to amend the province's route slightly. When Bruce McCuaig, CEO of Metrolinx, the regional transit agency that would operate the line, said that such a modification could be possible, critics pounced, arguing that more substantive changes were thus possible.
"It was a route that I asked [for] … to see if we could look at alternate routes," said Councillor Michael Palleschi. "There's an opportunity here to look at alternate routes. I'm all for that."
It's a high-stakes gamble. The province had given Brampton until the end of this month to make a decision, all the while making clear that the pledged funding was for their preferred route only. Planning and approvals for a new transit line would be expected to take at least five years. And the money that had been coming Brampton's way will no longer be available.
"If council chooses to re-start a process, to look at other alternatives, then the funding that was set aside for the project would return to the Moving Ontario Fund, and it would be available for decision making by the province in the future on other priorities in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area," Mr. McCuaig explained.
The LRT vote came at the tail end of a marathon special meeting that featured more than 50 public speakers. The debate showed a remarkable level of public engagement while also laying bare the stark divisions in the city. Although the deputants were overwhelmingly in favour of the LRT, opponents were equally vehement in their stance.
The project, as proposed by the province, "is simply not in Brampton's best interest," argued Doug Bryden. And Chris Bejnar said that "quite frankly, the project is not good enough." Critics cited concerns about heritage, operating expenses and construction impacts.
But supporters warned that the province's funding offer was too good to refuse. "We don't deserve it any more or less than [other communities] and yet it's here for the taking," said Nikita Brown.
And they painted a glowing picture of the positive change the project could bring, warning that the city now offers little to its young.
"It represents more than just a train – it represents hope," said Gurratan Singh. "This LRT can be our saving grace … this LRT is our lifeline to a better future."
This week's special meeting came more than three months after a previous attempt to settle the contentious issue. At that meeting, the council was split 5-5, with Mr. Palleschi proposing a deferral and a facilitated attempt at finding a middle ground.
There was little public evidence that this facilitation helped bring council together. And during this time tensions ran high outside city hall. There was a legal attempt to stop a pro-LRT from voting at this meeting and dark allegations about land interests affecting the debate.