Will Highway 413 actually cut 30 minutes from your commute? A Ministry of Transportation analysis obtained by the Star suggests it won’t

“The real winners will be the owners of the warehouses, distribution centres and big-box stores that are being built along the proposed route.”

By Paul Webster  Special to the Star

Sat., May 28, 2022

It’s a gift no commuter could say no to: a drive to work that’s up to 30 minutes shorter. That 30 minutes could be spent with the kids, watching TV, making dinner — rather than stuck in traffic, horns blaring, while your blood pressure goes through the roof.

That’s the promise that appears right at the top of the official website for the proposed Highway 413: the new highway will save commuters as much as 30 minutes each way when crossing the Greater Toronto Area.

It’s an appealing message for commuters — and voters — but a Ministry of Transportation analysis obtained by the Star suggests it’s not true.

That’s because the calculation doesn’t take into account the existing 407 ETR, a major toll highway commuters can already use. If that highway is factored in, according to a briefing note prepared Sept. 16, 2021, by a team of Ministry of Transportation officials led by senior policy adviser Mauricio Alamillo, as of 2041 commuters using the already-existing 400, 401 and 407 highways could cross the GTA 16 minutes faster than they could using the proposed Highway 413 alone.

A group of opponents to the highway say that finding supports their view that while commuters may support the new highway, they will not be the main beneficiaries.

The opponents suggest one of the main reasons for building the new route is the transport of goods — not people — and that the real winners will be the owners of the warehouses, distribution centres and big-box stores that are being built along the proposed route.

“The message that the 413 will help commuters save time is misleading,” said Peter Miasek, president of Transport Action Ontario, an advocacy group that promotes sustainable transport. “The Ford government is deliberately cherry-picking the numbers.”

When Alamillo and his team set out to calculate the time it would take to cross the GTA with and without Highway 413, they used traffic flow projections from what the briefing note called the “2041 regionwide forecasts from the Greater Golden Horseshoe Model,” a data set they said came from the Ministry of Transportation (MTO).

The MTO data set, they said, showed that by 2041, crossing the GTA between Vaughan and Milton using the proposed Highway 413 would take an estimated 59 minutes in 2041, compared to 89 minutes using the existing 401 and 400 highways to travel the same distance — so the new highway is indeed 30 minutes faster.

But the analysis also assessed a third route: using the 407 ETR — the existing toll road that was privatized in 1999 by the Conservatives — along with Highways 400 and 401.

Using that route — which includes a toll highway commuters currently have to pay to use — the Ministry of Transportation calculated it would take 43 minutes to drive the same distance — or 16 minutes less than it would take on the 413 alone.

When asked by the Star, Ministry of Transportation spokesperson Dakota Brasier said Alamillo was not available to answer questions about the findings, but provided a statement that said “every major highway in the region, including the 407, will be at or exceeding capacity within the next decade.”

A highway can serve more than one function of course, and if built, the 413 will undoubtedly shorten driving times for some commuters while easing the delivery of goods in the GTA, which benefits all of the area’s residents.

But up in Caledon and Vaughan, two of the places most affected by the new highway, researchers Irene Ford, Jenni Le Forestier and Kathleen Wilson, founders of a citizen action group called the Stop the 413, say the Ford government has focused almost exclusively on commute times in its messaging, while being relatively silent on the benefits to the trucking, warehousing, big-box retail and e-commerce industries.

Using data from municipal land planners in Caledon and Vaughan, the group has mapped out the locations of a series of warehouses, many of which have already been built along the proposed path of the 413 by companies including Amazon, The Beer Store, Canadian Tire, DHL, UPS and Walmart.

Those corporations have all made huge financial bets on the 413, said Irene Ford, a self-described Vaughan hockey mom who has spent much of her spare time in recent years fighting the highway.

Meanwhile in Caledon, Le Forestier, a music teacher when she’s not digging into Highway 413 data, said she is concerned about a 260-acre tract of agricultural land crossed by two West Humber River tributaries near the proposed 413 route that was recently bought by Tribal Partners, a Vaughan-based land owner and developer.

On its website, Tribal Partners says that in 2020 the company secured “parcels of lands for a total of 260 acres located in Caledon at the corner of Mayfield and Dixie.”

Construction of a massive new development that will include 4.5 million square feet of industrial building space “is expected to commence in 2022,” the website says.

Tribal Partners referred questions from the Star to Ottawa-based communications consultant Keelan Greene. After discussing the questions raised by Le Forestier, Greene said he would respond, but no response was received by press time.

In a phone interview, Amazon Canada spokesperson Dave Bauer confirmed that Amazon bought about a third of the site from Tribal Partners in Caledon.

“Amazon has not been involved in the 413 highway process,” Amazon said in an emailed statement. “We look forward to working closely with the town, province and community to thoughtfully consider a future development that creates great jobs and better serves our customers in the area.”

Caledon-based software designer Kathleen Wilson, who works with Ford and Le Forestier on the Stop the 413 project, said the Town of Caledon has advocated for the transformation of farmlands in Caledon into a trucking and warehousing hub to serve companies such as Amazon, which now operates two vast warehouses in Caledon near the planned route of the 413, in addition to the proposed Tribal Partners site.

“The Town asked for and got the provincial government to issue a Ministerial Zoning Order to push the Tribal Partners application through without public consultation,” Wilson said.

“The provincial government has issued numerous other MZOs to allow warehousing and other real estate developments along the path of the 413 to bypass normal legally mandated public planning consultations,” Wilson added.

MZOs allow the minister of municipal affairs to expedite zoning for development after a request has been made by the local council, allowing rezoning of a piece of land to fast-track development and bypass public participation. The province says MZOs are a way to fast-track affordable housing, infrastructure projects or long-term-care facilities. Critics, however, argue Ontario’s Conservative government is approving development projects without adequately assessing their environmental impact.

Documents obtained by the Star through freedom of information requests from MTO show that although the ministry has consulted extensively in private meetings with numerous business lobbyists — including the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan — that support the 413, it has not had a single face-to-face meeting with any of the environmental groups that oppose the highway, including Stop the 413.

In an email, Brasier said that among the major retailers and e-commerce corporations that built or are now building distribution centres along the proposed path of the 413, only Canadian Tire Real Estate Investment Trust has directly met with the MTO.

At an April 19 Caledon planning committee meeting, Caledon councillors Ian Sinclair and Annette Groves expressed concerns about the Tribal Partners project and called for open public consultations on it.

In an email to the Star after the meeting, Caledon Mayor Allan Thompson declined to discuss the controversy over the project, but said he supports more public consultations.

With files from Star staff