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Residents feel railroaded

Roads may close to make way for rail link to airport

Homeowners want answers from GO, private firm


Fearing a deal to run high-speed trains between Union Station and Pearson airport is irreversible, Weston residents have armed themselves with lists of questions for GO Transit and private officials about the $350 million project.

Residents are unhappy with the answers they’ve received regarding the possible closing of some streets and the potential expropriation of some homes to make way for Blue 22. The privately operated train service, run by SNC-Lavalin Engineers and Constructors Inc., will cut through the heart of their historic neighbourhood.

“It all is very murky,” said Mike Sullivan, spokesman for the Weston Community Coalition. “It’s been very difficult to get hard information about what exactly is going on.”

They’ll have another chance to get some answers when GO Transit holds a public meeting a week today at Faith Sanctuary Pentecostal Church at 1901 Jane St., a venue that can hold up to 3,000 people. When GO Transit held the last public hearing, more than 1,000 tried to cram into a room for 450, forcing the fire marshal to cancel the meeting.

“I hope we have enough space for everybody,” said Toronto Councillor Frances Nunziata, whose ward includes Weston. “Residents have more information now. They’re not happy and they have questions. We’re hoping GO Transit has the answers. If they don’t, people are not going to be happy.”

GO managing director Gary McNeil promised last night that residents would get straight answers, but shouldn’t worry about all three roads in Weston getting closed down.

“As part of the (environmental assessment) process, you have to look at alternatives; that includes closing roads,” McNeil said.

“Our guys looked at that for, like, five seconds. We all knew you can’t close all the roads in Weston.”

Residents are heartened by one victory: Toronto City Council recently declared that it wouldn’t support any road closings related to creating a rail link to the airport. Up to six roads in Toronto — three in the heart of Weston — might have to be closed for safety reasons because of the frequency of Blue 22 traffic.

Nunziata says the motion gives the city grounds to appeal if GO’s environmental assessment recommends road closings.

That victory may come with a cost. Instead of closing roads, the environmental assessment may recommend expropriating private property to clear enough space for underpasses.

But many issues continue to make residents uneasy. They find flaws in the environmental assessment process and worry that public money is being spent on privately owned infrastructure and wonder why GO, a public entity, is the proponent for Blue 22, a private enterprise.

Blue 22 is the name of the train service to be operated by the Union Pearson AirLink Group, which is owned by SNC-Lavalin. That company is also part of the Union Pearson Group consortium, which won a 100-year-lease from the city to renovate and operate Union Station.

GO Transit came under fire because it’s running the environmental assessment. It stands to gain more frequent service on its Georgetown line, but on its own wouldn’t generate enough traffic to warrant closing of roads for another 10 or 15 years.

‘It’s been very difficult to get hard information about what exactly is going on’

—Mike Sullivan, Weston Community Coalition

But GO is paying SNC-Lavalin up to $600,000 as a consultant on the environmental assessment, and it’s because of the private company’s desire for frequent train service that Weston faces expropriation or road closings.

“There is no conflict,” said SNC-Lavalin senior vice-president Albert Sweetnam, adding his company will spend $200 million on the project by the time service begins in 2009. “SNC was awarded the ability to develop the Blue 22 concept by the federal government, so obviously we are proponents, along with GO, along the corridor.

“Because the two major users would be GO and the air-rail link, both GO and SNC-Lavalin are co-proponents in the (environmental assessment). This is normal.”

But this situation differs somewhat in that upgrades to the existing rail corridor — costing about $150 million for extra tracks and required bridges — will ultimately benefit private companies: CN and CP will own the new tracks laid down and bridges built in the areas they currently occupy. (SNC-Lavalin will own — and also pay for — new tracks laid down on the spur line from roughly Woodbine Race Track to the airport.)

The public purse will pay for most of the improvements, and GO will still have to pay CN and CP annually for the right to run trains on those tracks. The $150 million is coming out of a $1 billion federal/provincial agreement to expand GO service across the GTA.

GO Transit officials have admitted that environmental assessments are by nature conflicts of interest because project proponents have to make their case. But GO has taken the unusual step of promising a “peer review” by outside consultants of the recommendations of the project to answer some of the concerns raised by the public.

“Every proponent wants its project approved,” said McNeil. “The environmental assessment process recognizes that inherent conflict and that’s why it’s subject to significant stakeholder review to make sure that everything is addressed properly.”

Sweetnam said 18 provincial agencies, eight federal agencies, Toronto, Mississauga, CN and CP all have to agree on their recommendations, with final approval resting with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment.

Sullivan wants GO’s environmental assessment to be broader than the one undertaken so far. GO is pursuing a “Class” environmental assessment — which limits the kinds of “concept alternatives” that need to be examined.

Residents have the right to ask the environment ministry to “bump” the assessment’s status to “full,” requiring GO to look at transportation alternatives.

“What about Highway 427? What about a busway? What about the use of GO Transit as the provider rather than the private sector, or having the TTC operate the service?” said Sullivan.

“If it’s being put in by public money, why couldn’t the TTC put a train from Union to Weston and on to the airport?”

Cynics in Weston fear it’s a done deal. Nunziata says that’s not the case, that she’ll fight to save Weston.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t support some kind of link to the airport,” said Nunziata, suggesting a subway is a better idea.

“But not at the cost of the people who live in Weston. It’s their life. You can’t ask them to live through the trains, the inconvenience, and to divide the community in half.”

McNeil says the city will have to decide whether it wants a Union-Pearson link. “They’re going after the 2015 World’s Fair,” McNeil said. “One of the key components of that is the rail link.”