The Ontario PC government has introduced measures that would expand the province’s power to expropriate property and reduce requirements for environmental approvals, in a move that it says will speed up the construction of badly needed new transit projects.
Speaking in the legislature Tuesday, Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said that the Building Transit Faster Act and associated regulatory changes would “would help deliver a transit system for the 21st century faster, for the benefit of the people of the Greater Toronto Area.”
“To deliver transit on time and on budget, we have a responsibility to think differently,” she said.
“We can’t keep doing the same things, the same way, and then be surprised when projects are chronically over budget and delayed for years.”
Opposition MPPs said they would have to wait for more details on the government’s proposals before they could give them a full appraisal, but raised concerns about what they’d seen so far.
“The biggest challenge we’re facing to quickly rolling out transit in this province is the fact that the current government actually ripped up existing plans and undermined years of transit planning,” said Green party Leader Mike Schreiner (Guelph).
If passed, the act would eliminate the right of landowners to have what’s known as a hearing of necessity if their land is being expropriated for a new transit project. The hearings, which are non-binding, are supposed to determine whether a proposed expropriation is fair and necessary to execute a government project.
A separate regulatory change not included in the legislation but that the government said would be introduced by the Ministry of the Environment would allow Metrolinx to move ahead with early works for a transit project before its environmental assessment process is complete. The measure applies specifically to the Ontario Line, the $ 11-billion centrepiece of Premier Doug Ford’s $ 28.5-billion transit expansion plan.
The Progressive Conservatives’ legislation would also:
- require permits for development activity on or near lands required for transit construction
- give provincial representatives the authority to enter transit corridor lands to remove obstacles to construction without the consent of the owner, but with proper notice and a guarantee of compensation for damage
- institute an “enhanced process” for relocating utilities such as phone and sewer lines that lie in the path of a transit project
- grant the transportation minister the authority to allow Metrolinx, the arm’s-length provincial transit agency, to close city roadways or access city services like water and sewer provisions without an agreement with the municipality
The legislative and regulatory measures would apply only to the provincial government’s four priority transit projects, which in addition to the Ontario Line are the Scarborough subway extension, Yonge North subway extension, and Eglinton West LRT.
The government described the new tools as backstops if amicable agreements can’t be reached with affected parties in a timely manner.
“We’re still going to respect property rights, negotiate in good faith, and treat people fairly. But we’re not going to spend 12 months getting permission to remove a tree,” Mulroney told reporters.
NDP transit critic Jessica Bell said her party was “all for identifying barriers that slow down the expansion of transit projects.”
“But we can’t forget that we need to do our due diligence and we need to respect stakeholder and community concerns at the same time … In order to build right, we need to plan well,” said Bell (University-Rosedale).
The province says eliminating expropriation hearings could reduce the land assembly process for new transit projects from 12 months to seven months.
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The law would replace the hearings with an as-yet-unspecified process under which landowners could submit comments to the minister of transportation about the proposed expropriation.
Guillaume Lavictoire, an expropriation lawyer and the president of the Ontario Expropriation Association, said scrapping the hearings would “very much limit … the ability of an owner to contest an expropriation and to be heard in a hearing.”
But he pointed out that as it stands, the government doesn’t have to abide by the outcome of a hearing, and it already has the ability to waive hearings on a case-by-case basis through an order in council.
Lavictoire said the hearings do provide landowners a formal setting to make their case against expropriation. If the independent officer presiding over the case finds in the property owner’s favour, the government can still expropriate the land but may face political pressure not to do so, Lavictoire said.
Kate Hilton is a member of the steering committee of the EastEnd Transit Alliance, which represents residents of Leslieville, South Riverdale and Riverside who oppose the government’s plans to run the Ontario Line above-ground through their neighbourhoods.
She slammed what she described as the “speed and aggression” of the government’s legislation.
“To the extent that there were some protections for citizens prior to this legislation, they’ve really effectively been eliminated,” she said.
“If the government wanted us to trust them, I think that they wouldn’t be delivering such an iron-fisted response to legitimate concerns raised by citizens about a poorly conceived transit plan. This is not the way a government builds trust with its citizens.”
The province’s introduction of measures to speed up transit came a day after Metrolinx confirmed the Eglinton Crosstown LRT won’t open by the province’s deadline of September 2021, and instead will be delayed until some time in 2022.
Mulroney has claimed repeatedly that if the government’s proposed measures had been in place earlier, the line could have opened three years sooner.
However, under questioning from reporters Tuesday, she acknowledged that the legislation and regulatory changes wouldn’t address what Metrolinx has said is one significant cause of the Crosstown delay: the discovery of a defect in decades-old infrastructure beneath the TTC’s Eglinton station, which is impeding construction of a connecting LRT stop at the same site.
“I wish we could find ways to solve those kinds of issues, but we can’t. The measures we proposed today are just meant to address things that are within government’s control, but … there were other issues as well with respect to the Eglinton Crosstown that caused the delay,” she said.