Chapter 1: Introduction

Growth is occurring across the Greater Golden Horseshoe, but the area immediately northwest of Toronto in particular is currently experiencing significant increases in population and employment. This area includes portions of York, Peel and Halton regions, as well as Wellington County and the City of Guelph. According to forecasts in the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (2006), the Growth Plan (2006), by 2041, more than five million people are expected to call these municipalities home. This forecasted increase represents nearly half of all expected growth in the Greater Golden Horseshoe and will more than double the total 2001 populations in these municipalities. The Growth Plan also anticipates employment growth in the area of more than one million jobs between 2001 and 2041. Significantly more people and more jobs will lead to significantly more travel.

Over the past 20 years, concerns have been raised that congestion and travel demand in the area will become unmanageable and will have a significant negative impact on quality of life. A number of plans and studies have proposed a new transportation corridor as a possible solution. These efforts culminated in the Greater Toronto Area West Corridor Environmental Assessment (GTAW EA), which was begun in 2008iii. After several years of complex work and study, however, the EA process was suspended by the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) in December 2015. MTO committed to a review of the work undertaken to date in the context of emerging transportation issues, technological trends and government policies.

To assist the Ministry with the review, the Minister appointed an Advisory Panel to conduct a strategic assessment of the GTAW project. The Panel had the opportunity to review material dating back more than a decade, and it also consulted with the public as well as with internal and external experts. This report presents the results of the Panel’s assessment, recommendations for next steps and advice on a path forward for the EA process. This introductory chapter outlines the context of the GTAW EA, describes the applicable policy framework and provides an overview of subsequent chapters in the report.

1.1 GTAW EA Project Context

1.1.1 History

The province’s plans for new transportation corridors in southern Ontario have a long history. One of the earliest plans was Design for Development: The Toronto-Centered Region (1970). With the goal of encouraging growth north and east of Toronto, this plan laid out an expansive system of new transportation linkages, including one from Barrie to Orangeville, Guelph and Kitchener.

In 1992, MTO completed a Corridor Protection Study that looked at the possibility of an east-west corridor across the north of Toronto, stretching from Georgetown to Whitby. The study found that future demand to 2031 justified a new corridor in only two areas: between Highway 400 and 410, and north of Brampton. It also found that this demand could be addressed through an expanded regional road network, but even so, the study recommended corridor protection in case development moved further north than anticipated. At the same time, the study cautioned that this strategy could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the presence of a protected corridor could well encourage development to shift to those areas.

In the early 2000s, two more MTO studies looked at possible highway corridors in and around Toronto: the Central Ontario Transportation Perspective (December 2001) and Central Ontario Strategic Transportation Directions (January 2002). Both studies recommended numerous highway expansions and several new highway corridors, one of which aligns with the corridor proposed at the end of Stage 1 of the GTAW EA. These studies recommended that MTO begin preliminary needs assessment work for these highway corridors, and three of them appear on the Growth Plan’s (2006) Schedules 2 and 6, as “Future Transportation Corridors”.

1.1.2 GTAW EA: Stages 1 and 2

The GTAW EA’s terms of reference were approved by the Minister of the Environment in 2008. The purpose of the EA was to strengthen transportation links between the urban growth centres of Downtown Brampton, Milton and Guelph, and the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. Work was to be completed in two stages.

Stage 1 began by proposing a broad study area that included parts of York Region, Peel and Halton regions, the County of Wellington and the City of Guelph (see Figure 1-1). Looking forward to the year 2031, the study took an inventory of current and future economic and transportation conditions, considered important environmental features in the study area, created a number of alternatives and evaluated them.

preliminary study area

Figure 1-1: Preliminary Study Area

The image presents the preliminary study area for GTA West which includes parts of the York, Peel and Halton regions. The study area is bounded by King City to the North, Richmond Hill to the East, Guelph to the West, and Highway 401 to the south.

Altogether, 297 individual transportation actions were identified and sorted into four groups:iv

  • Group #1: Optimize existing networks
  • Group #2: New/expanded non-road infrastructure (i.e., transit)
  • Group #3: Widen/improve roads
  • Group #4: New transportation corridor

Based on policies from the Growth Plan (2006) and the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS; 2005) that called for optimizing existing networks and prioritizing public transit, the GTAW EA approached the evaluation of these four groups as sequential and additive. This meant that Group 1 would be evaluated first, and that Group 2 would be assessed only after Group 1 had been found inadequate to address the transportation problems and opportunities. Group 1 would then be folded into Group 2, and so on for Group 3 and Group 4. Group 4 thus would involve enacting the complete range of suggested actions.

Group 1 included transportation system management (TSM) and transportation demand management (TDM) strategies, as well as improved rail service. A high-level assessment concluded that this Group would provide an important foundation for helping to manage congestion, but found that “they will not address all of the identified transportation problems and opportunities” (Transportation Development Strategy (TDS), 2012, p.31).

Group #2 actions included grade separation of road and rail, improved integration of rail and air transportation, transit-supportive corridors along 400-series highways and improved inter-regional transit hubs, among others. A high-level assessment of these initiatives concluded that they, too, would not address all of the identified transportation problems and opportunities in the study area. Proposed rail improvements, though, were assumed to result in a 10-per-cent shift of long distance truck traffic to rail. Altogether, Groups #1 and #2 were assumed to result in a four-per-cent reduction in travel demand.v

The EA then turned to alternatives that included adding new roadway capacity. For Group #3, MTO described three options: alternative 3-1 involved only expansions to 400-series highways, while alternatives 3-2 and 3-3 also included a variety of regional road widenings. An evaluation of these options in the Area Transportation System Alternatives (2011) report concluded that while the Group #3 actions (which also incorporated actions from Group #1 and Group #2) addressed many of the transportation problems, a new corridor would provide additional opportunities (p.64).

Based on this conclusion, the EA moved to a detailed analysis of five possible new corridors. All five alternatives had the same eastern end point: Hwy 400 in Vaughan. Alternative 4-1 extended only as far as Hwy 410. Alternatives 4-2 and 4-3 joined Hwy 401 at or near Milton (4-2 at the Hwy 401/Hwy 407 interchange and 4-3 further west). Alternatives 4-4 and 4-5 ended at or near Guelph. All five alternatives also included a unique configuration of highway widenings and extensions. Alternative 3-1 was carried forward to this stage of analysis, while 3-2 and 3-3 were not.

The EA’s analysis, which included additional consultations undertaken in Halton Region, arrived at a preferred option: the corridor from Alternative 4-2 (approximately 48 km long), accompanied by a revised suite of highway expansionsvi. This preferred alternative also included actions from Group #1 and Group #2, most of which were not location-specific. This final suite of recommendations is illustrated below in Figure 1-2, it is referred to as the GTAW Recommended Actions

recommended actions stage1.jpg

Figure 1-2: The Recommended Actions from Stage 1 of the EA (TDS, 2012)

The image presents the Transportation Development Strategy which traverses the regions of York, Peel, Halton, and Waterloo. The transit improvements include potential rapid transit lines, highway road expansions/extensions, and new corridors. Potential transit connections among the Western Urban Growth Centres are depicted (between Guelph, Waterloo, Cambridge, Hamilton and Milton), in addition to highway extensions along highways 400, 401, 407, and 410.

The specific recommendation of a new corridor was carried forward to Stage 2 of the EA for detailed route planningvii. The EA advised that this highway corridor also included a possible transitway and goods movement priority features. This stage was expected to take a total of five years to complete, at which point the EA would be submitted to the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change for review and approval. The rest of the recommended actions from Stage 1 were referred to the appropriate ministries, departments, agencies and municipalities for their further consideration and action.

1.2 Review of the GTAW EA

1.2.1 Ministry’s Suspension

In December 2015, work on the GTAW EA was temporarily suspended by MTO in order to review the work undertaken to date. The Ministry advised that the suspension would allow review of emerging transportation issues, technological trends and government policies, including the government’s commitments to addressing climate change.

1.2.2 The Panel’s Mandate

To assist the Ministry in reviewing the GTAW project, the Minister appointed an Advisory Panel in 2016. The Panel was to conduct a strategic assessment of the GTAW EA, make recommendations on next steps, and give advice on a path forward for the EA process. The Minister also asked that the Panel address five topics (see Appendix 1 for the full terms of reference):

  • Assess the extent to which emerging technologies, trends and policy objectives may impact future travel demand for goods and people in the corridor;
  • Examine potential alternative approaches for meeting future transportation demand and infrastructure needs using emerging technologies and service solutions, including enhancements or expansions of existing infrastructure;
  • Assess options for the existing EA process;
  • Assess the extent to which existing technical studies can inform future infrastructure needs of partner ministries in the corridor (e.g. rail, hydro and other purposes); and
  • Assess the need for protecting the GTAW corridor for other transportation uses.

As the basis of its strategic assessment, the Panel reviewed material dating back more than a decade related to the GTAW EA itself, and to transportation planning in Ontario generally. The Panel also benefited from the input of external experts such as the Mowat Centre and the Munk School of Global Affairs. As well, it heard from MTO, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, and the Ministry of Energy, and from government agencies and public entities such as Metrolinx and the Independent Electricity System Operator (see Appendix 2 for the complete list).

Although its original terms of reference did not include new opportunities for public input, in the fall of 2016, the Panel conducted consultations at the Minister’s request (see Appendix 2 for the bulletin). Key stakeholders were invited to share their concerns ‒ including municipalities, the development industry, passenger and freight transportation, the agricultural sector, conservation authorities, environmental non-governmental organizations and Indigenous communities. Submissions were also solicited on the GTAW website and via e-mail. The findings from this consultation process are discussed in Chapter 2, Consultation.

The Panel also commissioned a number of travel demand forecasts to re-examine the anticipated benefits of the GTAW Recommended Actions in light of emerging trends and technologies (such as self-driving vehicles). The forecasts also enabled the Panel to explore potential alternative approaches to meeting future transportation demand and infrastructure needs, and to test these potential alternatives as well as the GTAW Recommended Actions for alignment with current government policy.

1.3 Changing Policy and Institutional Context

The two decades leading up to the start of the GTAW EA were prolific years for Ontario with regard to the release of policy documents and legislation to guide planning across the province. These major changes began with the passage of a new Planning Act in 1983, and culminated in the creation of new provincial plans which provided geographically-specific policy direction for select regions in Ontario. Moreover, the changes required decisions to “conform with” provincial plans, and “be consistent with” policy statements, and these obligations applied to “the council of a municipality, a local board, a planning board, a minister of the Crown and a ministry, board, commission or agency of the government, including the Municipal Board, in respect of the exercise of any authority that affects a planning matter” (s.3).

new Provincial Policy Statement (PPS), released in 2005, marked an important directional shift for the province. The policies in the PPS supported redevelopment, intensification and compact form. Applied to transportation, this planning approach aimed to optimize existing infrastructure, reduce private vehicle use, shorten trips and encourage travellers to choose other modes. The Growth Plan (2006), further articulated this direction for a specific region of the province, with growth forecasts, density and intensification targets, and an emphasis on complete communities.

The Province also released the Greenbelt Plan (2005), which offered protection to the countryside, as well as key natural heritage and hydrological features across several regions of southern Ontario. The Greenbelt Plan included and built upon the ecological protection in two pre-existing plans: the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan (ORMCP; 2002) and the Niagara Escarpment Plan (NEP; 2005). All three of these plans permitted infrastructure, even in their most highly protected areas. However, they also required that the infrastructure be shown to be needed, and permitted it only in the event that no reasonable alternatives were available.

In addition to these new policies, the Province created the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority (later renamed Metrolinx) in 2006. Metrolinx is a provincial agency with a mandate to lead the coordination, development and implementation of an integrated, multi-modal transportation network within the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). After two years of work and consultation, the new agency released a Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) called The Big Move (2008). The plan laid out a mixture of actions and policy objectives, which were supported by the province through an initial commitment of $11.5-billion in funding for key transit projects. The RTP (2008) also offered strategies and actions for increasing highway efficiency. However, highway planning continues to be the responsibility of MTO.

1.4 Report Chapter Overview

The content of the Panel’s report is outlined below.

Chapter 1, Introduction, describes the GTAW EA project, the Panel’s mandate and process and the policy and institutional context that is relevant to the environmental assessment.

Chapter 2, Consultation, highlights key themes and concerns that emerged through the Panel’s public consultation process.

Chapter 3, Innovation, Change and Uncertainty, explores in greater depth the ramifications of some of the large-scale, external trends that make Ontario’s future transportation landscape uncertain.

In Chapter 4, Alternative Approaches and Transportation Benefits, the Panel examines the relative benefits of numerous alternative approaches available to policy-makers in the GTAW, and tests the robustness of the GTAW Recommended Actions against alternative future scenarios.

Chapters 5 and 6, Policy Context and Environmental Assessment, consider how the GTAW EA’s evaluation has been carried out to date in order to inform the Panel’s advice on a path forward.

The final Chapter, Recommendations and Conclusions, contains the Panel’s recommendations for next steps and its advice on a path forward for the GTAW EA process

Finally, the report includes appendices for selected chapters. These appendices contain additional background material and in some cases more detailed discussions of issues covered in the text of the report.

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