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Ontario cuts transit red tape

Faster, more focused reviews

Environmental assessments for new transit projects will be faster and more focused under rules approved this week and expected to be law by June. Changes include:

An assessment must be complete in six months. Now there is no limit; a transit project review takes, on average, two years.

Public consultation is limited to 85 days. There is now no limit.

The minister of the environment has 35 days to review and rule on a project. There is no concrete time frame at present.

The scope is limited to environmental concerns. Right now, everything that was argued over during the municipal planning process, including how wide a dedicated bus lane should be or whether a streetcar project is even needed, is rehashed at the environmental assessment.

Provincial takeover of TTC cost proposed

Toronto should consider letting the province take over the cost of the subway system and other TTC services with “regional implications.”

Environmental reviews of proposed projects limited to six months

Feb 08, 2008 04:30 AM
Kerry Gillespie
Tess Kalinowski
Staff Reporters

People who don’t want new streetcars or subways running through their neighbourhoods will no longer be able to use prolonged environmental assessments to delay them.

Because the process was often used as a stalling tactic by not-in-my-backyard opponents, Premier Dalton McGuinty’s cabinet has approved a six-month time limit for environmental assessments on transit projects.

The new regulation, approved on Wednesday, is expected to become law by June. It will apply to all projects receiving provincial funding, sources told the Toronto Star.

“I think it’s going to make a real difference in terms of our ability to get public transit up,” McGuinty said yesterday.

Under existing rules, environmental assessments on transit projects take, on average, two years. The TTC’s Spadina subway extension assessment took three years and it was just an update of a previous assessment. Waterloo started a rapid transit assessment in 2004 that isn’t expected to be completed until this fall.

The dedicated lane for Toronto’s St. Clair streetcar, for example, was held up for months at the assessment stage with fights over curb heights, which had nothing to do with the environment. In the end it took two years to get through the assessment.

Under existing rules, if someone objects to a streetcar, the transit authority has to come back with a study showing the implications of a bus, train, or even a hot-air balloon servicing the corridor instead.

“If someone wanted to talk about a new idea using cable cars or catapults you would have to evaluate them,” TTC chair Adam Giambrone said.

This new regulation ends those fights by limiting the scope of discussion to environmental concerns about the approved project and, for the first time, limiting public consultation to 85 days. Right now, it can go on forever.

It also limits the government’s ability to delay. Once the assessment is complete, the environment minister has to decide within 35 days whether or not the project can go forward.

The six-month limit on environmental assessments applies just to transit projects, but sources said the government will consider whether a similar approach could shorten the process for projects such as highways and landfills.

It began with transit projects to ensure the province’s ambitious $11.5 billion transit plan, Move Ontario 2020 - designed to get people out of cars and on to transit - doesn’t get held up in red tape.

As one provincial official put it: “An environmental assessment process being used to hold up projects that are good for the environment is kind of ironic.”

As part of Move Ontario, Toronto-area transportation planners face the challenge of building 52 transit projects approved by the province. Those include extensions of the Spadina and Yonge subway lines, more GO service, enhanced regional bus service and Toronto’s ambitious Transit City light rail plan.

Getting those shovels in the ground would help the Toronto area catch up with cities that have spent the past two decades investing in public transit, says Rob MacIsaac, chair of regional transportation planning agency Metrolinx.

“When people look at what a place like Madrid has accomplished in 10 years, well the (environmental assessment) process is one of the things that slows us down,” he said.

Madrid, which requires significantly less public consultation for transit, has built about 150 kilometres of subway in the past 12 years at a lower cost per kilometre than Toronto’s Sheppard line.

It isn’t about taking away people’s right to object to a project, MacIsaac said.

“There are lots of public processes that allow people to have their say and make sure their concerns are heard. When a city does its official plan, when a city does its master transportation plan, those are the times that people need to get involved. There are plenty of ways in which they can do that. At some point we have to say, `Decisions have to be taken and projects have to move forward.’”

Toronto’s $6 billion Transit City plan, which would put streetcar lines on seven major routes stretching into the suburbs, can’t afford the delays encountered by the St. Clair streetcar right-of-way, said the TTC’s Giambrone, who hopes to have three light rail lines under construction by 2010.

The new regulations are “critical to advancing Transit City and getting the improvements that the people of Toronto expect and need,” he said.

The Eglinton subway is a classic example of an opportunity curtailed by the environmental assessment process, he said. The Conservative Mike Harris government wouldn’t have been able to kill the Eglinton subway if it had been further along in its development, Giambrone said.

Many believe that a subway would have made more sense than the Sheppard line that was eventually built instead.

The new regulation will be posted for comments before it becomes law. While there will be some who say this stifles public input, the government is expecting the feedback to be largely positive.

“Most people will realize what this is about and they’ll be happy about it,” a provincial official said.

  • With files from Rob Ferguson



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