Plan for new 400-series highway draws growing pressure from across the GTA to hit the brakes
Mississauga is the latest council to come out against Highway 413 plan
As the Ford government forges ahead with a plan to build a 400-series highway in the northwest of the Greater Toronto Area, a growing patchwork of city councils, agricultural and environmental groups and residents is pushing back.
Highway 413, also called the GTA West corridor, would run through Vaughan, Caledon, Brampton and Halton Hills, connecting Highway 400 with the Highway 401/407 interchange.
First suggested about 15 years ago, the 59-kilometre project was killed in 2018 by the Wynne government, then resuscitated a year later when Doug Ford took over.
"We call it the zombie highway, because it keeps dying and being revived," said Sarah Buchanan, Ontario climate program manager with Environmental Defence.
"It's very surprising to us, because each time it's proposed, there seems to be huge public outcry and a lot of evidence to support cancelling it."
The province argues the highway is necessary to serve a rapidly growing region, telling CBC News that by 2051, the population of the Greater Golden Horseshoe is expected to hit 14.8 million — and that roads need to keep up.
But with the Ontario budget set to be revealed in late March, scores of organizers and residents are now turning to a grab-bag of online events, council meeting deputations, lawn signs, petitions and social media posts to argue for a different approach to moving people in the region.
"People are recognizing that it's an economic and environmental disaster, given that it's going to pave over 400 acres of the Greenbelt and 2000 acres of prime farmland," said Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner.
"I'm going to be pushing on the government from a fiscal standpoint," he continued. "My hope is we will not see money allocated for the highway in the budget."
Mississauga latest to denounce project
On Wednesday, Mississauga announced they had unanimously passed a motion opposing Highway 413, with Mayor Bonnie Crombie writing in a statement that it will "encourage residential sprawl and increase our dependence on cars."
Orangeville and Halton Hills have taken similar stances, and other councils have backed motions calling for more assessments or consultation.
Mississauga Council unanimously voted to OPPOSE the GTA West Highway cutting through farmland, green belt and waterways. Joanie Mitchell would be proud. We are not “paving paradise to put up a parking lot”! Onward to Region of Peel tomorrow!—@carolynhparrish
Buchanan, who has been working against the project for two years now, says she's sensing a change in the political winds.
"When the province first proposed reviving Highway 413, we first saw a flurry of motions mostly supporting that highway," said Buchanan.
"Now those are all starting to crumble. Just in the last month we've seen York Regional Council pass a motion … calling for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority to take another look at it."
Caledon also came out as pro-highway, but at their most recent meeting, Buchanan said, the council there passed a motion in favour of a federal environmental assessment and more consultation on the project.
There are signs Brampton council may be of two minds as well, with Mayor Patrick Brown recently telling the Toronto Star that the highway was "contrary to Brampton's economic interests."
Worries over shrinking farmland
Decrying a fast-tracked environmental assessment process, Environmental Defence has been calling on the federal government to step in and perform an assessment of its own on both Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass, another controversial highway project.
In response, Ottawa has now reached out to all seven regions, towns and cities that would play host to the highway for their input on that request.
Environmental groups are also finding allies in agricultural organizations such as the National Farmers Union - Ontario and the Ontario Farmland Trust (OTF).
"The loss of farmland from this project will result in fragmentation of the agricultural land base and a weakening of the provincial agricultural system," wrote the OTF in a submission to the province in October of last year.
The province told CBC Toronto it will be conducting an agricultural impact assessment "or equivalent study" on Highway 413, and that the preferred route for the highway, unveiled in August, was developed to avoid as much farmland as possible — but Schreiner isn't convinced.
"Once you lose that farmland, it's gone forever," he told CBC Toronto.
Will the highway reduce traffic?
Critics also question whether the highway will, in fact, speed up travel times, with opponents often citing a study that found the highway would shave between 30 seconds and one minute per trip in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area.
The province disputes that study, pointing out it takes unrelated trips around the region into account, and says motorists will take 30 minutes off their trip by driving the length of 413 instead of using the 400 and 401.
To some residents, the highway's location still doesn't make sense.
"It's ridiculous," said Rene Vlahovic, a Kleinberg resident who made a deputation against Highway 413 at York Region council earlier this month.
"This highway doesn't help very much," he added in an interview with CBC Toronto. "The east-west traffic isn't the issue ... This highway is way too close to the 407 to be of any use."
His thoughts were echoed by another opponent, Irene Ford, who asked the same council how the highway would ultimately help Vaughan residents.
"Major pain points are nowhere close to the highway. It seems more likely to create traffic congestion and negative community impacts," she wrote to the council.
Both Ford and Vlahovic are involved with a group called "Stop the 413," which, via a busy Facebook group, shares petitions and articles about the project and now has more than 1,200 members.
The province is planning a public information session on Highway 413 in fall 2021, and says comments can be submitted any time at the project's official website.
Price tag estimated at $6B
Opponents of the highway estimate it will cost $6 billion at a minimum, if not significantly more — money they say would be better spent on increasing GO service and getting trucks onto the 407.
The province, meanwhile, says the project's estimated cost has yet to be determined and points out that construction will include "infrastructure dedicated for transit and passenger stations."
Jane Fogal, a councillor in Halton Hills and a vocal opponent of Highway 413, says she's been questioning who stands to gain from its construction since the concept was rebooted two years ago.
"Certainly land owners along a 400 series highway could expect their property to be re-zoned for primarily industrial or potentially residential use," she said. "Their property value is certainly going up."
"The biggest beneficiaries are going to be the land speculators," he said.
But both Schreiner and Fogal see hope in the voices of opposition around the region.
"We have seen this government, in the face of significant opposition, backtrack," said Schreiner.
"I would say for people who care about this … continue the opposition to it.