Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Toronto's LRT mistakes could be Brampton's lessons

By: Metro Published on Tue Jul 07 2015

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

The provincial government announces funding for a transit project in an Ontario municipality. The project has been studied and studied again, and is generally recognized as a cost-effective and beneficial solution.

But instead of accepting the cash on the table and providing their seal of approval, local politicians demand changes that put the project at risk.

Sounds like Toronto, doesn’t it? But nah. Today we’re talking about Brampton and their ongoing political battle about the Hurontario-Main LRT.

If you haven’t been paying attention to our 905 neighbours lately, here’s the short version. The Hurontario-Main plan is a surface light rail line running in the middle of the street that will connect the Port Credit GO Station in Mississauga with the Brampton GO Station. The recommended line is a straight shot north-south route along Hurontario Street in Mississauga and Main Street in Brampton.

According to staff reports, an LRT along this route will offer significant benefits, improving transit travel times — from a projected 75 minutes to 46 minutes by 2031 — and drawing future ridership to the tune of about 34 million per year. After the provincial government announced they’d kick in $1.6 billion to cover the full cost of the entire project, it looked like a slam dunk.

But while the routing through Mississauga seems to enjoy broad support, some Brampton councillors and community members have dug up reasons to oppose the planned route through their city. Last fall, Brampton Council voted 10-1 against the Main Street route, asking for a report on a tangle of alternative options, all of which were ultimately rejected.

Now, with a new provincial commitment to fund the project and a new Brampton mayor at the helm, the LRT is set to return to council tomorrow for another vote. Despite the provincial investment, indications are that Brampton council could still vote to reject the Main Street route.

Critics cite the typical reasons people come up with to oppose LRT — traffic, noise, vague notions of wasted tax dollars — but one of the biggest bones of contention has to do, somewhat surprisingly, with heritage. The LRT line will apparently wreak havoc with Brampton’s historic downtown. In March, a representative from the Brampton Historical Society explained they “don’t think a railway and the heritage district are compatible.”

While I won’t dispute that Brampton has a very nice historic downtown area, the notion that LRT isn’t compatible with historic areas is ridiculous.

An analysis by transit advocacy group CodeRedTO counted 80 surface rail systems worldwide that began operation before 1896. Many of them run through areas more historic than Brampton, running alongside buildings that predate the Common Era. Hell, there’s an LRT that runs right by the Colosseum in Rome.

The Colosseum! That thing seems pretty old.

If those examples are somehow too European for you, consider our own streetcar system in Toronto. While not the same as LRT, Toronto’s surface rail lines don’t detract from our history — they define it. So it’s hard for me to understand how surface rail doesn’t fit with heritage.

But maybe I’m just missing something. After all, I'm an outsider looking in on this issue and I wouldn’t presume to tell Brampton’s elected representatives how to vote on a Brampton issue.

I will provide a cautionary tale, however. Because it’s relevant.

Back in 2010, Toronto was in a situation much like Brampton is today. The provincial government had committed about $8 billion for four LRT lines collectively called Transit City. Provincial agency Metrolinx had agreed to pick up the whole tab, including ongoing maintenance costs. The lines were studied. The environmental assessments were approved. Two of the lines — on Finch West and Sheppard East — were set to be open by now, in time for the Pan Am Games.

But Toronto politicians balked. The new mayor opposed the plan. Members of council didn’t speak up or fight for it. The plan changed, and then changed again. Subsequent elections at both the provincial and municipal level warped things further.

Five years later, as a result of political meddling, Toronto currently only has one of the four planned LRT lines under construction. Another might begin construction within the next decade. The third has morphed into a subway line, a decision that prompted a significant property tax increase. The fourth is probably dead.

For all that, Toronto was forced to pay the provincial government $75 million in cancellation costs.

The point is simple. There will be consequences if Brampton politicians decide to reject or significantly modify the studied and funded transit plan in front of them. Those consequences could come in the form of additional costs, or delayed and cancelled transit.

Trust me — we’ve been down this road before. Toronto politicians have a rich history of looking our transit gift horses in the mouth and then beating those same horses to death.

I hope Brampton can learn from those mistakes.

This post was originally published at on 2015-07-07T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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