Region of Peel votes to oppose GTA West Highway despite efforts of Brampton & Caledon mayors

·11 min read

The Region of Peel is planning its growth 30 years into the future.

The employment and population figures it’s currently considering extend to 2051, by which time many around the council table will have long since retired.

But the decisions councillors make today will shape the world future generations inhabit.

“We want real, long-term solutions,” Lajanthan Prabaharan, co-presenting with Divya Arora on behalf of Community Climate Council, told councillors Thursday. The young pair presented to the Region of Peel begging officials to stand in opposition to the GTA West Corridor, a 400-series highway the Province hopes to build through Peel between Milton and Vaughan. “We want a sustainable, green future,” Prabaharan said.

Eventually, the majority of Mississauga and Brampton councillors, listened to the two young advocates and signed up to fight the route. Most Caledon members did not. They spent hours discussing the need for new highways, praising single-family homes and putting forward their positions on growth.

The Region of Peel’s position on the GTA West Corridor, also known as Highway 413, has been highly anticipated. Two weeks ago, councillors deferred a decision on the planned 400-series highway so staff could study what would happen if the Province listened to them and killed the project.

A lengthy staff report, which admitted it could not predict all the results of cancelling the GTA West, said opposing the project “would not be in conflict with the Region’s interests”.

Mississauga had already opposed the highway, while Brampton and Caledon supported calls for a federal environmental assessment (EA). If Ottawa decides by May 4 take over the process, it could kill the entire plan being pushed by Premier Doug Ford and his PC government.

More than 60 letters were sent to Peel council regarding the project, the vast majority calling for it to be scrapped. Five different delegations also presented; four voiced their opposition to the highway. The large volume of public engagement is uncommon at Peel council. According to the Clerk’s office, the number of letters sent to elected officials on the highway issue fell just short of the record.

Those who attended the meeting Thursday to support the highway represented Ontario’s development industry. Phil King, president of industrial real estate developer Orlando Corporation, told councillors Peel’s employment growth relied on the future corridor. A letter from landowners in Alloa, south Caledon, whose former agricultural properties are already being planned for residential and commercial development, said the Province should be “aggressively moving forward” with the project. The highway would dramatically increase the value of their properties. Real estate firm CBRE estimates GTA land for industrial use is currently worth $1.6 million an acre.

“This road is really being built for future generations who will thank you for your foresight,” Greg Sweetnam, executive vice president of James Dick Construction, wrote.

When future generations were asked, they wholeheartedly disagreed. Arora and Prabaharan explained induced demand to councillors, telling them the highway would fill up quickly and offer no benefits, while causing profound environmental damage. They asked elected officials to plan cities for them to live and thrive in.

“If we are to be this region’s next generation of talent, we need the region to be an attractive place to live and for us to raise our families in,” Arora said.

Mississauga Councillor Dipika Damerla pushed back against much of what the two young delegates said.

“A lot of people today who may have delegated one way or another, sometimes they’re not fully aware of the facts,” she said, repeating assertions she made earlier in the week that residents want a “patch of grass” and claiming vertical sprawl was as damaging as subdivisions. “Many of them probably live in large homes, but are now advocating for intensification,” she said. It’s unclear why she thought these claims are facts. Damerla did not explain how she concluded density is as bad for the environment as sprawl.

The motion before council eventually voted on after hours of debate, written by Mississauga Ward 5 Councillor Carolyn Parrish and added to by Brampton Wards 1 and 5 Councillors Paul Vicente and Rowena Santos, had several clauses. It included opposition to the construction of Highway 413, support for a federal EA, replacing the highway with an urban boulevard through northwest Brampton and reinvesting funds in public transit. Each issue was voted on separately and passed, with varying levels of support.

Damerla was not alone in her skepticism. Several Mississauga councillors, including Ward 4’s John Kovac and Ward 1’s Stephen Dasko, shared concerns about scrapping the highway. All 12 Mississauga representatives eventually voted to oppose construction of Highway 413, request a federal EA and to ask the Province to reinvest the funds in public transit.

After months of pursuing an optimistic plan to replace a portion of the planned highway with complete streets, supporting an urban boulevard in Brampton and a highway through the rest of the route, the city’s regional council members splintered.

Mayor Patrick Brown originally told his colleagues he could not support Parrish’s motion because it did not make reference to the boulevard. After Parrish added support for what Brown wanted into the motion, he still voted against opposing the highway. He has previously bragged that he was the one who put the GTA West Highway on the PC election platform in 2018, before he was ousted as party leader and after the previous Liberal government had scrapped the project.

His actions Thursday, will now make it difficult for Brown to continue sitting on the fence, using the boulevard idea to hide his support for the highway. His vote shows he will not oppose the developer-driven plan being pushed by Ford and his PC government.

Brampton Wards 2 and 6 Councillor Michael Palleschi and Wards 9 and 10 Councillor Gurpreet Dhillon also voted against opposing the construction of the highway. Dhillon, who told councillors his family had invested in a truck stop, voted against every aspect of the motion, including Brampton’s boulevard proposal. It’s unclear if his investment represents a possible conflict of interest. He did not declare one and participated in all votes.

Caledon members — including Mayor Allan Thompson and Wards 3 and 4 Councilor Jennifer Innis who have recently tried to rewrite their positions — were also split. Ward 5 Councillor Annette Groves and her Ward 1 colleague Ian Sinclair voted to oppose construction of the highway, but Ward 2 representative Joanna Downey, Innis and Thompson all voted against the move, once again revealing their position in support of the construction of a 400-series highway through the southern part of Caledon. They have recently said they have not shown support, and have only voted for an EA process to determine whether or not the project should move forward.

The EA is not a policy position, it is a requirement under the PC decision to have the highway built. A government-appointed panel in 2018 already detailed why the highway should be scrapped.

But Brown, Thompson, Innis and Downey have recently tried to distance themselves from previous support for the 400-series highway. The Caledon members now say they only support the EA and Brown says he only supports Brampton’s proposed boulevard concept.

The decision Thursday by the three Caldeon members was foreshadowed by their own council initiatives and communications intended to help get the highway built, such as their Caledon Council Work Plan for 2018 to 2022 which highlights advocacy to get the GTA West Corridor built and shows it was a top priority.

Mayor Thompson addressed a delegation by Sarah Buchanan, a policy analyst with Environmental Defence who had provided updated data projections showing the carbon emissions that would be created if the highway is built.

Thompson told her another policy, at the federal level, is the real issue.

"Immigration stops at the federal level and you're Canadian Environmental Defence, maybe you should be asking the federal government: cut immigration. That way we can control our footprint."

Downey and Innis also voted against a clause that asked the Province to reinvest funds from the GTA West Corridor into Peel Region public transit.

Some councillors who voted against opposing the highway made claims that appeared to contradict research and data that has been publicly presented by the former government and a number of organizations challenging Ford’s plan.

Projections show the highway will not improve congestion, will do irreversible damage to the area’s ecosystems and will contribute to temperature increase. Issues around flooding and species loss would also worsen.

Some who would not support the motions said they would oppose a major highway and “if” that’s what Queen’s Park settled on at the end of the EA process, they would fight it. None acknowledged that the plan has always been for a 400-series provincial highway and completion of the EA is the final step to allow construction to begin.

The positions taken by Brown, Palleschi, Thompson and Innis were hard to understand.

“If we come back from here a year from now and the Province says we’re not entertaining any of that [boulevard plan], then I would be the first to say no,” Brown said. He could have shown his words are not empty with support for the motion Thursday that included the boulevard. Innis claimed if the assessment process recommends a “six-lane mega highway” then she would oppose it. It’s unclear what she thought she has been supporting for years while pushing the 400-series highway plan.

“The new multimodal transportation corridor is anticipated to be a 4-to 6-lane highway,” the Province’s GTA West official webpage reads.

In August, September and now, again, in March, the Ministry of Transportation has dismissed Brampton’s boulevard plan. Despite Brown regularly referencing unsubstantiated backroom conversations with provincial officials, the line from Queen’s Park is that the boulevard is incompatible with the highway plan.

“Our review of Brampton’s boulevard option indicates that the roadway design, as presented, is not compatible with the functional and operational objectives established for the GTA West corridor,” Michael O’Morrow, senior issues advisor for the Ministry of Transportation, told The Pointer Thursday, restating what the ministry has previously stated, despite Brown’s claims he is hearing otherwise in private conversations.

He has failed to explain how a boulevard could work, sandwiched between two sections of 400-series highway on both sides. It’s unclear how he proposes to have trucks and cars slow down through the boulevard and then speed up again when the road transitions back to the highway.

The lengthy council discussion Thursday was a sharp contrast to the summer of 2019 when councillors quickly and enthusiastically declared climate emergencies. Conversations at the time were limited to self-congratulations and repeating the need for action, with no policy commitment to meet their stated goal of reducing carbon emissions.

Those who refused to help stop the GTA West Highway failed to explain their contradiction.

“It’s hard to hear these promises on climate change and on declaring climate emergencies and climate targets. It’s hard to hear them happen and then have the same old conversations again and again about pieces of infrastructure that will obviously increase greenhouse gas emissions,” Buchanan, presenting on behalf of Environmental Defence which has led recent campaigns to scrap the 413, told councillors.

Mississauga Ward 11 Councillor George Carlson also noted the contradiction: “Most of us in our career have said, ‘If we had a chance to build a city over again, we wouldn’t do it like those damn fools in the ‘40s did. We wouldn’t do what they did.’ And here we are, just replicating the same sort of system in the north end of the Region of Peel”.

In the end, the majority took a stand. Despite the votes of Brown, Dhillon, Downey, Innis, Palleschi and Thompson, council resolved to oppose any construction of the GTA West.

The others tried their best to keep pushing sprawl.

“I think the format of that was really the biggest problem,” Prabaharan told The Pointer. “Sitting here, four or five hours after we’ve done our delegation, it feels like they didn’t really take much of what we said in. When I was listening, for a lot of them it felt like a bunch of lip service.”

Pleased with the result, but disappointed by much of the discussion, Arora agreed.

“We are not seeing the type of innovation and bold leadership we want councillors to have,” she said, referring to those who continue to say one thing about the climate emergency then contradict themselves when it’s time to take action.

“They are still very backwards thinking.”

Email: isaac.callan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @isaaccallan

Tel: 647 561-4879

COVID-19 is impacting all Canadians. At a time when vital public information is needed by everyone, The Pointer has taken down our paywall on all stories relating to the pandemic and those of public interest to ensure every resident of Brampton and Mississauga has access to the facts. For those who are able, we encourage you to consider a subscription. This will help us report on important public interest issues the community needs to know about now more than ever. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you.

Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer