“GO Rail represents an underdeveloped asset that has more potential to take cars off the regional highways than any other scheme.” Michael Schabas from The Review of Metrolinx’s Big Move, Neptis
Most residents in the GTA are unaware that the province has been planning a 400 series highway across the GTA, west of Highway 400. Known as the GTA West “Corridor” this new six lane highway will extend across Vaughan to Milton and cut through Peel and Halton Regions. Unfortunately it will also sacrifice large swaths of the Greenbelt. At a price tag of approximately $4 billion the province believes this highway is required for future commuter and shipping needs.
What’s most unfortunate about this project is the lack of public debate regarding its cost and need. Every time public transit infrastructure is considered, we have an exhaustive and long debate as to how to pay for it and what form it should take. Every time a new highway is planned, we seem to not have the same debate. This needs to change.
What this Highway represents is a very old idea about growth within the GTA, rewarding sprawl and encouraging car dependent development. The GTA is under tremendous pressure to accommodate people and jobs. Growth isn’t an issue; it’s the pattern of growth that needs to change. This pattern has continued for decades and has resulted in the traffic congestion that plagues the entire region.
When the Places to Grow Act and Greenbelt were enacted, they represented a fundamental re-think about how we grow the region. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that same re-think about how we move throughout this region. The Big Move Plan, Metrolinx’s transportation and transit plan is largely an amalgamation of new and existing public transit and highway plans. The Big Move was never conceived as a real regional network connected to new growth.
Shortly after these plans were created we started to understand the impact of traffic congestion and the lack of public transit infrastructure to our quality of life and economy. This should have stimulated a larger conversation about how we move people in the northern boundary of the GTA where car dependency is highest. The Big Move requires a big re-think and this highway represents the best place to start.
We need to break out of our current outdated model for developing the region. That pattern involves highway and road infrastructure investment first, followed by low density housing development followed years later by public transit investment in the form of infrequent and poorly connected bus service. This entire formula should be turned upside down. The province should be planning for higher order transit first, followed by housing and jobs concentrated around transit stops and connections, with regional and municipal road infrastructure to service local traffic. If commuters in this area of the GTA wish to use a highway, the 407 is close by, and not plagued by traffic congestion. However, like transit, it comes with a fee for use. All highway use, like transit should come with a fee for use. Only then will we start seeing a reduction in traffic congestion across the GTA.
The question elected officials across the GTA should be asking is, what type of public transit infrastructure network should we be creating north of the GTA, and how can this infrastructure alleviate car dependency? Municipalities across the GTA are starving for public transit infrastructure, and the Province continues with the planning of an outdated mega Highway.
Rail is the key to reducing traffic congestion throughout the region, not highways. We need to consider an east west rail network linking to existing commuter rail lines. What’s missing from our current commuter rail network is a line to connect to existing “spokes”. This Greenbelt Rail Line would help alleviate the grueling east west commute that many GTA residences find the most difficult.
The stations and connection points along this rail corridor should become places for higher density housing and employment uses. We can start to conceive of vibrant, walkable towns concentrated around rail stations and connected to the entire region through rail infrastructure. This idea is not new; unfortunately we have a Province planning for cities of the past 50 years, not the next 50 years.
We will not get a second chance to come back and fix the problems this highway will cause if built and it will be next to impossible to add this level of rail infrastructure once this area becomes urbanized. It’s time for real debate about the future of the Greenbelt and the Region.