The Big Move Requires a Big Re-Think

“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We need to break out of our current outdated model for developing the region.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.

Greenbelt Line

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.

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Proposed highway to pave parts of Greenbelt proving controversial

By: Noor Javed News reporter, Published on Fri Jan 02 2015 The Toronto Star

The province is in the midst of planning a new highway that will carry drivers across the GTA from Vaughan to Milton — in the hopes the infrastructure will help ease traffic congestion on roads across the region.

But drivers hoping for a scenic route will likely be disappointed.

The proposed four-to-six-lane GTA West highway, which is still in the early planning phase, has environmentalists deeply concerned as it will cut through protected Greenbelt lands in Vaughan, pave prime farmland in Caledon, and encroach on sensitive watersheds all along the route.

“We see this as a lose-lose proposal,” said Susan Lloyd Swail, the Greenbelt Program Manager with Environmental Defence. “There will be a loss to the Greenbelt, a loss of farmland, waterways and forests,” said Swail.

“But it is also a loss to the people of the GTA. Instead of investing in transit infrastructure, we are encouraging more people to get onto the roads.”

Swail, who is also part of the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance, estimates the proposed highway will pave over 2,000 acres of prime farmland in the Greenbelt.

The Greenbelt legislation was established in 2005, to protect 1.8-million acres of environmentally sensitive and agricultural land in the Golden Horseshoe from urban development and sprawl. The legislation, which is up for review this year, does however allow the province to build and expand infrastructure — such as the highway — as long as it serves growth and economic development in Southern Ontario.

Swail believes that is a slippery slope. “If we say this land is valuable needs to be protected (from) urban development, but then we know that highways are part of urban development and a precursor to sprawl, why are we doing this?” she asks.

“It boggles the mind and is not consistent with the ideas around the Greenbelt plan,” she said.

The proposed highway will start at Highway 400 in Vaughan and travel north through Caledon, down through Brampton to the junction of the 401/407 in Milton. The Ministry of Transportation is currently undertaking environmental assessments on a number of route options.

According to the province, GTA West will carry 300,000 cars and trucks per day by 2031. Without a change, the average commute times are expected to increase by 27 minutes a day by 2031.

But the problem is, there is no guarantee a new highway will actually get things moving, says Sony Rai, a member of the local environmental coalition Sustainable Vaughan.

“This highway won’t solve traffic congestion, it’s just rewarding sprawl,” said Rai, who notes that the majority of the highway will cut through the northern part of the GTA where infrastructure, including homes and transit infrastructure, has yet to be built.

In 2012, the Ministry of Transportation completed a study called the GTA West Transportation Development Strategy, to see how to improve the transportation network across the region. Building a new highway was one of those suggestions.

But it hasn’t been easy for the province to sell the idea of highways to GTA communities. In 2011, residents of Burlington and Halton Region put pressure on the province to kibosh plans to build a highway between Fort Erie and the GTA that would have run directly through the Niagara Escarpment.

This time around, the province is keeping the channels of communication open with the public. In December, the MTO held numerous public information meetings to keep residents informed about the project and the proposed routes. There are also advisory groups, and informational websites for those with questions.

The ministry says they are also cognizant the highway will have effect on the environment.

“The project team is examining numerous environmental considerations in order to assess route alternatives,” said Astrid Poei, a spokeswoman for the MTO. In 2013, the MTO published guidelines looking at the challenges of building the highway in the Greenbelt, and how to minimize impact on the environment.

But that means little to Rai.

“In Vaughan, all of the routes of the highway cut through the largest part of the Greenbelt that is intact,” said Rai. “Residents of Vaughan will directly feel and see the impact of the highway.”

Ministry officials hope to come up with a preferred route by the end of the year. A preliminary design of the highway will be presented to the public in early 2017. The ministry’s goal is to complete the entire environmental assessment process by 2018.

While it will be years before construction will even start on the highway, Rai believes that the province’s decision to build the highway is already outdated.

“We are creating cities based on a very old model which is you have sprawl and so you provide a highway,” he said. “But the conversation has changed across municipalities. Everyone realizes that sprawl and car dependency decrease people’s quality of life,” he said.

“It would be smarter for the province to think about how they have been developing the GTA, and flip that around and think of the transit infrastructure first.”

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Farmers Market Flyer 2014

MArket Flyer 2014

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What is the Natural Heritage Network?

The City of Vaughan is embarking on one of the most ambitious and ground-breaking projects in its history, and you probably know very little or next to nothing about it. This project will increase the quality of life of the cities inhabitants and also re-imagine how the city will grow in the future. The Vaughan Natural Heritage Network is the cities best kept secret. The casino was rightly rejected by Vaughan citizens as the future vision of the city, now it’s time to make the Natural Heritage Network that vision.

Natural Heritage refers to the existing biodiversity that Vaughan is blessed with and has inherited thanks to the protection of past generations. This includes the ravines and river valleys, creeks, meadows, grasslands, woodlots and other natural features that make Vaughan unique within the GTA. The city is currently undertaking a study to understand how this biodiversity can be both protected and connected to form a larger network. Nature doesn’t work in patches of green. For biodiversity to thrive it must be allowed to flourish in a larger, connected system.

Many Vaughan residents live adjacent or close to one of many natural features the city is blessed with. Some newer subdivisions in Vaughan are built around storm water retention ponds, many of us also use city owned and operated parks and open spaces. All these currently disconnected spaces can potentially become part of this incredible system.

The Natural Heritage Network is ecological infrastructure, it is storm water infrastructure and it is recreational infrastructure all wrapped together. The cities natural spaces, storm water ponds and parks and open spaces should all be seen as part of this system.

The Network will be an invaluable and critical piece of infrastructure that cannot be replicated or replaced. This infrastructure already saves the city tens of millions of dollars a year in storm water retention and diversion. The more of the natural heritage we lose, the more taxpayers will pay to replicate this work through buried pipes.

We need to develop our city to incorporate some of this network as recreational lands. The city should also look into creating a cycling and trail system linking the city through this network, promoting fitness and reconnecting citizens to the outdoors. The health benefits of this network are invaluable.

Most importantly this natural heritage network represents our shared history and identity, the network surrounds and flows throughout the city, it connects us.

We need to look at the City of Toronto’s Waterfront to better understand and appreciate what we have. When Toronto built the Gardner Expressway over 50 years ago, we witnessed the harm that occurred to the land fronting Lake Ontario. It was severed from the city. Toronto forgot about the great asset the city was built on as it grew away from the lake’s edge.

It is only recently; through the great work of Waterfront Toronto that the city is realizing the potential of what was lost. Toronto is rebuilding the water’s edge, enhancing the city’s connectivity to Lake Ontario and reaping the financial gains of increased development. Developers take note, protecting the lake front as a connected public space has actually increased the development potential of the waterfront, not hindered it.

Development and the network can coexist and mutually benefit one another. The Natural Heritage Network provides value to surrounding property because of its beauty, increasing property values and tax revenue. A house close to natural heritage sells at a premium. The more of this network we preserve and enhance, the more valuable surrounding real estate assets become.

As the city increases in density, the more important this network will become. In fact it is because of this network that we will be able to create more density, as this open space is already in place.

Vaughan is blessed with something that is the envy of Toronto, a city surrounded by a robust and connected natural network. We are a city in a unique situation, a city that is developing a new downtown while still having the opportunity to protect natural heritage throughout the city.

We can choose to seize a great opportunity by protecting and enhancing this network or we can do as Toronto did generations ago when it built the Gardner Expressway, turning its back to Lake Ontario. Unlike Lake Ontario however, once we lose this network, we will never gain it back.

This city is great at championing infrastructure projects such as Highway extensions, the future hospital or the subway extension. What we tend to forget is the infrastructure we’ve inherited, infrastructure that was here. By understanding the true value of this network we can champion a vision of the city that is sadly lacking.

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Vaughan’s Natural Heritage Network


Show your support for Vaughan’s Natural Heritage Network. Join The Friends of Vaughan’s Natural Heritage Network Facebook Page and stay posted for more information and upcoming events.

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Don’t hold breath for real debate on casino in Vaughan

Vaughan is ramping up a one-way conversation about bringing a casino to the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, our future downtown area.

Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua, with help from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG), say they will have “an open debate about the issues”.

You can expect an orchestrated sales pitch championing a potential casino and its benefits to the city over the next few weeks. The OLG is mandated by the province to expand gambling across Ontario, not debate the issue.

Are you still on the fence about the idea of a casino in the city?

Google the words “MGM casino debt”, then do a search for “Caesars casino debt” and then, simply, “casino debt”.

Read through some of the headlines and you will start to see an image of an industry in a desperate state.

The cash-strapped casino operators mentioned here would be a potential operator of a casino in Vaughan and both sent representatives to speak at the city’s casino meeting in May.

There is no need to look up “province of Ontario debt”. We are all aware of the state of Ontario’s books.

Combine a government desperate to pull itself out of debt with the world’s largest casino operators who are losing money globally and you have the makings of a questionable partnership, one in which the city seems eager to get involved.

Over the next several weeks as our local politicians try to sell us on a casino, expect the potential harm casinos could cause to individuals to be downplayed. Count on the monetary benefits to be oversold, job creation potential inflated and the impact to our not yet developed downtown not discussed.

We witnessed this campaign already when Toronto flirted with the idea of a casino.

The OLG’s dubious claims were easily refuted by staff, public health officials, scholars, journalists, concerned citizens and grassroots community organizations.

One example is the claim regarding the job creation potential of a casino.

The majority of casino jobs, in fact, are not high-paying, management positions, as the crown corporation repeatedly claims.

Toronto’s own website reports that casino workers in the city earn about $25,000 annually, before taxes.

The more opposition to a casino grows, the longer the list of promises and benefits increases.

This month we are to believe that a convention centre, trade centre, five-star hotel and entertainment and arts centre will be part-and-parcel of a casino in Vaughan.

As one resident said at the May casino meeting, what we really have here are “unicorns and rainbows”.

Will all of this be delivered by a for-profit casino operator, in poor financial health, that also has to share its profits with the province and city? The business case has not been revealed.

What a casino operator will ultimately deliver is what is being called an “integrated entertainment and gaming complex”.

The future casino would be comprised of the gaming floor, retail shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs, an entertainment venue and, potentially, a hotel. But don’t count on it being five stars.

Casinos do not make most of its money on the casino floor. Casino operators are quite open about this fact.

The slots and gaming tables lure visitors into the gaming facility. Once there, the casino attempts to keep visitors in the facility with shopping, food, drink and entertainment options.

These are the type of amenities that are already planned for the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre.

Once our future downtown starts to take shape over the next five to 10 years, the restaurants, bars, nightclubs and other entertainment facilities that will make the new downtown vibrant should start to appear.

Allowing one corporation to build a large complex that concentrates a full range of retail, food, drink and entertainment offerings under one roof is a recipe for a poor downtown. Ask any professional planner.

Casinos don’t generate spin-off economic activity, they suck it away.

This type of facility will cannibalize businesses adjacent to it and undo the planning work that is already underway to create vibrant, pedestrian-oriented streets and open spaces throughout the new downtown.

Ottawa Public Health recently came out strongly against a casino in that city, understanding the dangers of gambling addiction.

Similarly, Toronto public health spoke out against a casino because of its ability to create an increase in problem gambling.

But you can expect the social costs of a casino to be down-played by Vaughan politicians and the OLG.

You won’t get the real facts regarding a casino over the next several weeks.

Instead, you will get the prepackaged sales pitch, full of exaggerated claims, unproven numbers and underrepresented harms the OLG has become known for.

It is a shame our elected officials have decided to follow suit.

Let the “debate” begin.

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No Casino Toronto shares wisdom with Vaughan

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