Province commits to funding controversial GTA highway projects in fall economic statement

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The PC government released its fall economic statement Thursday, and it projects a deficit this fiscal year of $21.5 billion, under the $33.1 billion projection from the budget. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press - image credit)
The PC government released its fall economic statement Thursday, and it projects a deficit this fiscal year of $21.5 billion, under the $33.1 billion projection from the budget. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Ontario will go ahead with construction of both the Bradford Bypass and Highway 413, according to the province's fall economic statement.

The government's new mini-budget, delivered Thursday, also includes a much lower deficit projection for the fiscal year of 2021-22 than what was forecasted in the budget last March. Although the province has dubbed the outlook "build Ontario," funding being allocated for building hospitals, schools and transit over the next three years is no different than what was tabled in the most recent budget.

In recent news conferences previewing the economic statement, Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy had cast "building Ontario" as a way of revving up economic recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic and providing needed infrastructure.

"The qualities that saw our province through the worst days of the pandemic — the spirit of the people of Ontario — will see us to a brighter, more prosperous future," Bethlenfalvy said in a statement.

"This is our plan for building a better and brighter future for the people of Ontario," he later said in the legislature.

There are no tax cuts in the document, though the province is introducing a "staycation" tax credit and enhancing or extending several existing tax credits, including the Ontario Seniors' Home Safety tax credit.

WATCH | Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy discusses the province's fall fiscal update:

A $15 minimum wage, announced Tuesday by Premier Doug Ford, is also in the legislation.

The province has been keen to build two new highways in the Greater Toronto Area, with Highway 413 cutting an arc from Highway 400 at the northern edge of Vaughan to the interchange of Highways 401 and 407, near where Milton, Mississauga and Brampton converge, and the Bradford bypass connecting Highway 400 to the northern end of Highway 404.

Minister says it is 'time to get the 413 built'

The province says it is spending an additional $1.6 billion over the next six years to support large bridge rehabilitation projects and advance key highway expansion projects including the 413 and the Bradford bypass.

"The evidence is clear … it's time to get the 413 built," Bethlenfalvy said, adding that the province's plans for expansion do not include tolls.

There is not, however, any specific cost breakdown of those projects included in the statement. Earlier estimates from the previous Liberal government pegged costs for Highway 413 alone at $6 billion.

At a briefing Thursday morning, a senior government official said it would not be appropriate to discuss specific costs as there will be a competitive tendering process for the projects, but added that it will be paid for out of the province's capital plan.

The Canadian Press
The Canadian Press

Opposition critics have questioned the value of those projects, including whether the routes were planned to benefit allies of Ford, how much time they will save commuters and the impacts to the environment.

Critics speaking at Queen's Park Thursday panned the announcement. Scarborough–Guildwood Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter said it "falls well short of what Ontarians need" and amounts to a "premature victory lap" in the face of uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic.

"You've chosen instead to double down on things like highways and bypasses, instead of education," she said.

"This is an absolute disgrace."

Opposition NDP leader Andrea Horwath echoed that sentiment in a statement.

"Mr. Ford's budget update has none of what Ontarians need now. There's nothing to make life more affordable, and there's no help for hospitals and a cut for our children's schools," she said.

And after putting $10.7 billion toward Ontario's COVID-19 time-limited funding this year, including school supports, the province plans to reduce it to $3.4 billion next year, and end it by 2023-24. Without including the COVID-19 time-limited funding, program spending is set to jump from $165.5 billion this year to $173 billion next year.

The phrase "climate change" only appears twice in the province's 200-page document.

Spending outlined in community care, health care and other sectors

The province is now also projecting a dramatically lower deficit projection for this fiscal year than was projected in the budget.

The 2021 budget deficit outlook pegged the deficit at 33.1 billion, though Thursday's outlook lists it at $21.5 billion.

A government official said at the province's briefing that this change is a reflection of Ontario's economy recovering from the effects of the pandemic, with improvement being driven in part by higher than expected tax revenues.

The update also says Ontario is putting an additional $549 million over three years into home and community care to expand home-care services, funding an estimated 28,000 post-acute surgical patients and up to 21,000 patients with complex health conditions. It will help in providing nursing and therapy visits and personal support services, the government says.

As well, the province is set to spend $342 million to add and upgrade the skills of more than 5,000 registered nurses and registered practical nurses and 8,000 personal support workers. Another $57.6 million will go toward hiring 225 more nurse practitioners in long-term care, starting next year.

Ontario is also planning to spend $22 million over three years to integrate clinical information between hospitals and long-term care homes in order to streamline re-admissions and give information to families.

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