Scrapping the GTA West Highway could open GTA to a world of possibilities

By: Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,  The Pointer
When he was asked to help shape Brampton’s 2040 Vision, Vancouver-based planner Larry Beasley was not given a blank slate.
It had already been filled with the dreams and aspirations of thousands of Brampton residents.
With the help of more than 13,000 citizens, he was shown what could happen if City Hall stopped its developer-driven planning policies of the past, which turned Brampton into a sea of sprawl.
Across 100 pages, he pieced all the input into an inspiring model for what Brampton might become if the right choices are made.
Beasley’s strength was that he listened to the people. Urban design experts, private-sector stakeholders, planning professionals, active transportation gurus and everyday citizens descended on him and his team. Two decades of dreams for their city came flooding in from the public.
All the man from Vancouver had to do was listen.
The document is full of ambitious declarations and visionary plans, but one paragraph, representing the desire of all those residents, stands out.
“The regional street system is fully intact with advanced traffic management,” the aspirational document offers, laying out how Brampton should look in two decades. “The highway network remains but has not been expanded significantly, except for direct access to Uptown.”
When considering how Brampton could get it right, Beasley and his team didn’t ignore highways. They acknowledged the current network and said: no more.
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown and his council colleagues have said on several occasions, including during a 2040 Vision speaker series last year, they’re committed to the concept. Yet, some can’t get over their connection to highways.
The GTA West, a relic of the past, looms over Brampton’s plans for the future.
The proposed provincial route, also known as Highway 413, will run through Peel Region. If the Province gets its way, it will be built from Milton to Vaughan via west Brampton and south Caledon.
During a seminal vote at the Region of Peel on March 11, Brown, Councillor Gurpreet Dhillon and Councillor Michael Palleschi all effectively voted in favour of the new highway. They sided against a motion that opposed any construction for the GTA West.
Both Brown and Palleschi have vocally promoted an alternative: a boulevard through Heritage Heights in northwest Brampton along the route of the proposed 400-series highway.
On multiple occasions, despite the province’s publicly stated rejection of the boulevard concept in place of the highway, Brown has claimed provincial officials have been supportive of the alternative. But no one has backed up his narrative.
It’s possible the boulevard was never a serious alternative, just Brown’s way of looking like he had room for a more environmentally sustainable option, so as not to put on the public record for the rest of his political career his unabashed embrace of an environmentally disastrous piece of transportation infrastructure. In reality, it’s too late. He can’t distance himself from it – Brown was the one who put the GTA West Highway on the PC election platform in 2018, when he was still the party leader.
He has failed to explain how the boulevard would even work, forcing speeding cars and trucks to slow down from upward of 120 km/h to 60 through an urban section with intersecting streets and pedestrian traffic alongside. The Pointer has tried, unsuccessfully, to get an explanation of how the design would work.
Most recently, City staff effectively admitted defeat on the boulevard in a letter to the federal government. “MTO (Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation) staff concluded that the proposed urban boulevard is not compatible with the functional and operational objectives which the province has identified for the GTA West Corridor and that the Ministry is therefore not able to support it,” Brampton City staff wrote to the federal government.
Even if the Province had a change of heart, the odds of which seem vanishingly small, the boulevard Palleschi and Brown hold up as an alternative to the highway is an alternative in the most limited sense of the word.
The road would follow the same route as the proposed highway, with the introduction of bicycle lanes along its edges, some trees and traffic interchanges. It would still leave Heritage Heights and northwest Brampton removed from the rest of the city for those who don’t drive and could only incorporate rapid transit for residents from Milton to Vaughan, bringing little benefit to Brampton.
The apparent impossibility and limitations of the boulevard could soon be irrelevant, as the future of the entire GTA West Highway project hangs in the balance. A decision on a request from Environmental Defence and Ecojustice for the federal government to take control of environmental studies around the highway, and potentially kill the project once and for all, will be made by May 4.
Significant public backlash and a delayed admission that the highway contradicts growth and planning priority based on climate change resolutions, caused the City of Mississauga and Region of Peel to formally oppose the project. Even the Progressive Conservatives have cooled their enthusiasm for the route they put back on the table when they came to power.
But, even if the project is cancelled, Brampton’s 2040 Vision won’t suddenly and magically come to life. In reality, the work Beasley and his team did was largely a composition of ideas already created by a number of local stakeholders, Brampton property owners, local developers and consultants who had worked with them. Along with input from thousands of highly informed citizens, many who had for years made recommendations to council, the 2040 Vision was effectively an organic concept conceived by the people of Brampton. Beasley essentially put 20 years of reports, documents, ideas and private applications and plans into one cohesive document.
The master concept was what thousands of Brampton citizens and influential private-sector stakeholders had wanted all along.
To achieve this, business-as-usual planning, even minus the backwards idea of the GTA West Highway, will not equal a dense, green and walkable future for Brampton. Instead politicians, opposed to and in favour of the proposed 413, will need to consider how to make it easier to move around the Region of Peel without a car and how to encourage dense, transit-oriented development.
One potentially ambitious option is the Orangeville Brampton Railway.
On December 31, the freight line between Orangeville and Streetsville, Mississauga, will cease to operate under its current agreement. The line has been run for more than 100 years as a small freight route that cuts from Orangeville, through Caledon, into Brampton and Mississauga.
It’s future is in flux.
As a public transit option, there are tempting arguments to be made. Unlike building rapid transit on a road that is currently in use, the land has already been set aside and construction activity wouldn’t disturb anyone. Its route already passes the Meadowvale business park, Streetsville GO, downtown Brampton and north Brampton. If Highway 413 is defeated by environmental activists, the route could offer a rapid transit lifeline to future residents of north Brampton.
In the past, a vintage passenger leisure train, the Credit Valley Explorer, has even run on the rails.
“Design it like the Ottawa O Train as much as possible and then make it a very simple north/south Peel Region line, supplementing, extending and paralleling the Hurontario LRT,” Jonathan English, the director of policy for transportation and infrastructure at the Toronto Region Board of Trade (TRBOT), told The Pointer. TRBOT recently released a detailed report urging politicians and bureaucrats to explore expanded and more regular regional rapid rail transit, making reference to the potential held by the Milton Line and Orangeville Brampton Railway.
The O Train English references was a spartan project launched in the early 2000s, where a local train link was built on existing Canadian Pacific (CP) tracks in Ottawa. The initial pilot cost just $21 million, with passing tracks, station platforms and locomotives built alongside the infrastructure that already existed.
“Add some stations: Meadowvale business park, downtown Brampton, one inbetween at Steeles and run it up to Mayfield,” English added. “Now you suddenly have a rapid transit line, if you ran it like the original O Train, you could have service every 15 minutes. You have a quick north//south Brampton transit line that will serve all those areas in the north of Brampton that are growing very quickly.”
The feasibility of the idea is unclear, but here’s the point: Why use yesterday’s thinking for a new and dynamic future.
The idea of a 400-series highway to support economic activity and commercial transportation needs is completely backward. The highway would bring on warehouses, logistics operations and fulfillment centres, in between sprawling low-slung mega-retail big box stores. Throw in some spread out subdivisions and, voila, the worst of the ‘70s and ‘80s all over again: Few jobs, those created would be low-income, poor tax returns for all three levels of government, massive tracts of land eaten up and more environmental damage. Oh, and Brampton residents would get to enjoy even more commercial truck traffic through their city.
On the other side of the world, an entirely different approach to regional economic planning has left the North American economy in the dust.
In China, the high-speed Fuxing Hao bullet train carries more than 100 million passengers between Beijing and Shanghai each year at 350 km/h. A trip from Toronto to Thunder Bay would take about four hours, less than a third of the driving time.
The country has also designed a freight train that travels the same speed, moving cargo across vast distances in a third of the time it takes commercial trucks.
Canadian firm, Bombardier, is involved in a Chinese joint venture, Bombardier Sifang Transportation (BST), and has already begun manufacturing high-speed trains.
The Canadian transportation manufacturing giant is part of China’s master plan to continue transforming its economy and urban landscape into the future, as many of the world’s largest technology, health sciences and green energy companies are drawn to rapid, efficient movement and the types of markets highly educated workers flock to
Next to planning and transportation innovation and investments in parts of Asia and Europe, the GTA West Highway seems like something from a museum.
Steve Ostrowski, a founder of Municipal Transit Solutions, has a different idea, to take Peel into a much more dynamic future.
He and his business partners want to buy the Orangeville Brampton Railway to pilot a new technology they believe could revolutionize the transit industry.
His company recently filed a patent for a technology that converts electric buses into LRT vehicles, known as ultra light rail transit or ULRT. The setup, which Ostrowski says his company is currently demonstrating on a pickup truck, would equip buses with small steel wheels for rail and larger rubber wheels for the road. It would, in theory, allow buses to provide the comfort of rail travel, combined with the utility and flexibility of conventional rubber tires that move independent of rail.
“Are there those that have told us we’re stake raving mad? Yes,” Ostrowski told The Pointer. “I kind of throw it back and say, ‘Why does this not make sense?’ We’re not asking for money, we’ll privately finance it. We’re not asking for a license to operate, we’ll hand it over to the City. All we’re asking for is a price so we can put together the financial package to make it happen.”
Municipal Transit Solutions is at the early stages of approaching Brampton and Mississauga to ask for the support to trial its technology. The company says it will finance the project itself on condition an agreement can be put in place to buy the route if its successful. Ostrowski imagines a short timeline and minimal capital costs to convert the Orangeville Brampton Railway into a pioneering demonstration of their new technology.
“We’re prepared to do the following — as long as we can get a price,” he explained. “All we need to do is buy that thing, lay the rails at 96 inch wide spacing and we could operate electric buses on it inside of a year.”
Are English and Ostrowski’s plans ambitious? Certainly.
Will they work? There are no guarantees.
But compared to the six-to-ten billion provincial dollars being poured into the GTA West Highway, they offer an interesting alternative. Running passenger services, even just in the form of a BRT route, along the Orangeville Brampton Railway, could have a massive impact on how Peel develops and Brampton’s chances of reaching anything resembling its 2040 vision.
As Mississauga and Brampton demonstrated through their growth, highways spawn subdivisions. High speed routes connecting to retail or other urban centres are the perfect justification for developers to build planned communities of identical housing.
“I wouldn’t even say the development community is [supporting the GTA West Highway],” Green MPP Mike Schreiner, a leading opponent of the route, told The Pointer. He pointed to a series of developers, examples like RioCan or Oxford Properties, who are focused on bringing walkable density to suburban cities and some in his riding of Guelph he says are building zero emissions communities. “The people who bought land, who speculated on land in the region, know the minute the highway starts getting built, the value of the land they purchased is going to go way up. This is more about land speculators cashing in — and some of those land speculators are developers as well. It’s more about that than it is being pro or anti-development.”
It’s two types of developer he distinguishes between: Those building the cities of tomorrow, and the ones betting on the GTA West, who want to slap up the same subdivisions of the past.
Instead of pandering to subdivision developers, Brampton and Caledon in particular can look to attract more investment from progressive planners. The addition of public transit projects like a converted Orangeville Brampton Railway could be the perfect bait to tempt forward thinking developers to fill the void a cancelled highway could leave.
“I would say we’d be much better off building transit in the region than facilitating more highway development,” Schreiner added. “Let’s build a GO station and run a GO line to Bolton, actually deliver on all-day, two-way-GO through Brampton on the Kitchener-Waterloo corridor. Let’s have enhanced electrified GO bus service in the region, so we don’t have car dependent development.”
Public infrastructure is the key: highways will bring sprawl, railways will not.
“I think that will affect the way development on the whitebelt happens,” he said. “If you’re designing communities that are transit oriented, connected communities, you’re going to see more compact developments, more mixed use developments, which then creates more livable communities.”