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Ontario Premier Doug Ford holds a press conference in Toronto, Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. Ontario is set to deliver a budget later this month that the finance minister promises will have no tax hikes or spending cuts as the province focuses on fighting the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan DenetteNathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Fifty years ago, Ontario premier Bill Davis halted the Spadina Expressway.

The northern end of the highway was already partially built; the south section was about to start ripping through the heart of Toronto. With opposition mounting, the rookie premier stepped in. “If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile,” Mr. Davis said, announcing the project’s cancellation, “the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop.”

As a result, central Toronto was not bisected by a series of sprawl-encouraging, neighbourhood-devouring superhighways. What wasn’t built shaped Toronto for the better.

A half-century later, another Progressive Conservative premier can make a similar call. At stake is another proposed highway, this one on the fringes of the Greater Toronto Area. Highway 413 would start at the interchange of Highways 401 and 407, on the border of Mississauga, and arc some 50 kilometres northeast to Highway 400, on the edges of Vaughan.

The 413 would plow over farms, through waterways and across the Greenbelt and conservation areas. The highway was initially backed by the previous Liberal government, but it was spiked in 2018, after an expert panel determined it was unnecessary and would save drivers only 30 seconds of time. Doug Ford’s government revived the plan.

This page has dubbed it the Sprawl Accelerator, since its only purpose appears to be assisting developers in pushing exurbia ever further north and west. But opposition is growing. It’s coming from local politicians, many of whom are changing their minds. In late February, Mississauga City Council unanimously opposed the highway, citing its “disastrous impact” on the environment. Halton Hills, Halton Region and Orangeville are all opposed. Brampton, once an enthusiastic backer, now supports a tough federal environmental review; so do Caledon and Peel Region. Vaughan City Council has revoked its previous support.

The Ford government, which last year was creating shortcuts to jumpstart construction, seems to be listening – or, at least, trying to sound as if it’s listening. “If it doesn’t make sense,” PC House Leader Paul Calandra told the legislature recently, “then we will not proceed.”

Highway 413 should not proceed, because it does not make sense. There were good reasons for shelving it in 2018, and they remain. What’s more, the once-upon-a-time cost estimate of $6-billion is now likely much higher.

It’s time for Ontario to think about what else it could do with money. Back in the 1970s, Mr. Davis made only half of the right call. He blocked a highway and put more money into transit, but Ontario didn’t always pick the right transit.

A subway was planned to run down the centre median of the Spadina Expressway, a route less populated than options on Bathurst, Christie and Dufferin Streets. The highway was killed but the subway went ahead, including a section smack in the middle of what is now the Allen expressway. Ridership was lower than the line on Yonge Street.

The one certainty is that, in the future, there will be a lot more people to move in the GTA. The population is predicted to grow to 9.5 million by 2046 from seven million in 2019. The Toronto Region Board of Trade, in a 2013 report on gridlock, called for a bigger investment in commuter rail. When the GTA’s population tripled from just more than one million in 1950 to about three million in 1980, almost 400 kilometres of commuter rail were constructed. In the three decades thereafter, to 2010, fewer than 50 kilometres of track was built, even as the population doubled to six million.

The humble bus is also part of the answer. Improvements to suburban bus service – while a less obvious ribbon-cutting opportunity than a new subway or rail line – would have a big impact. York and Peel Regions together have nearly as many people as Toronto, yet their transit services’ ridership is a tiny fraction of the Toronto Transit Commission’s. Part of the reason is that the TTC has relatively frequent bus service, even in low-density neighbourhoods. It’s why the TTC, North America’s least-subsidized transit system, is also the continent’s second busiest.

Fifty years ago, Bill Davis made the right decision by blocking an expressway. Doug Ford can repeat what Mr. Davis got right – and go one better, by making sure the money saved goes to the best transit plans.

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