Ontario keeping costs of Highway 413 hidden from public

Transport ministry estimates of how much it will cost taxpayers, and who will benefit, from building Highway 413 is being kept secret.

Paul Webster – Special to the Toronto Star

Monday, August 28, 2023

Opening-up thousands of acres of protected Greenbelt lands will be an $8 billion win for a small group of land developers close to government officials, says the provincial auditor general.

But the Greenbelt land carve-out isn’t the only mega land deal the Ford government is cooking-up.

At the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO), officials are in overdrive to kick-start building the 60-kilometer Highway 413 through much of the GTA’s last remaining nearby open countryside. And that means hefty cheques could soon be issued to the owners of well over 2,000 hectares of prime farmland along the highway’s path.

Government records show that many of those cheques may go to a select group of land speculators and property developers who’ve been buying up these lands in recent years, spurring a huge increase in land values along the highway corridor,

According to a January 2022 assessment for the MTO released under the provincial freedom of information law, “large developers have begun assembling parcels” all along the proposed highway corridor.

Amidst this speculative feeding frenzy, the “real estate pricing is highly volatile” along 413’s path, the assessment noted.

“The price of agricultural land through the corridor has gone up at a logarithmic scale,” explained Jim Dyment, a land cost consultant working for MTO, in a Jan. 28, 2022 email to officials that MTO released under the provincial freedom of information law.

But just how much MTO estimates these purchases will cost taxpayers and just which land speculators and property developers will get them, is something government lawyers are keeping secret.

Their reasoning? Because the Highway 413 construction cost estimates — including estimated property acquisition amounts — may have been discussed around Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet table, they qualify as state secrets and have been redacted from all information released under the freedom of information law.

That’s the message Dina Anderson, a lawyer for transportation minister Caroline Mulroney, recently sent to Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner in response to an appeal for greater government transparency about the cost of the 413.

When pressed further to justify the government’s wall of secrecy in the face of the clearly compelling public interest in knowing the size of the payout to developers, speculators and other landowners, Mulroney’s lawyers doubled down and insisted that the “compelling public interest” in knowing these costs cannot override cabinet secrecy.

And when pressed further to justify their secrecy, Mulroney’s lawyers said the details of their reasonings were, you guessed it, secret.

At this point, members of the public are forgiven for abandoning hope of puncturing the government’s obsessive secrecy. But the public has a right to know how much these land parcels will cost and who will be getting paid for them. And despite the MTO’s secretiveness, it’s still not unimaginable the public will find out.

With help from the information commissioner, in recent months the MTO has been compelled to lift the lid on a couple of key financial facts relating to the Highway 413 that it originally kept secret in its freedom of information releases.

After years of refusing to disclose any estimates for the highway’s construction costs, under pressure from the information commissioner, the MTO recently revealed that just one kilometre-long section of the highway spanning the Humber River could cost as much as $444 million.

And after years of refusing to release the cost figures for the ongoing 16-year environmental assessment of the highway, again under pressure from the information commissioner, the MTO recently revealed it has spent at least $36.5 million on the study.

As to the secrecy of the rest of the government’s cost estimates for the 413 — including the dollar figures on all those big cheques land speculators and developers are salivating over — it’s possible the information commissioner will now further step-up the fight for transparency.

Thanks to the huge attention the Greenbelt land scandal is attracting, the case of full disclosure regarding Highway 413 land costs seems to be growing more compelling by the day.