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Avoiding hard questions about what is ‘getting done’ in Ontario.

March 7, 2024

Avoiding hard questions about what is ‘getting done’ in Ontario.

Version published in Policy Options, March 25, 2024

At the end of February, the Ford government introduced a package of measures under the banner of ‘getting it done’ whose stated intention is to facilitate the construction of major infrastructure projects and housing. The package actually consisted of two major components – Bill 162, the Get it Done Act; and changes to the province’s environmental assessment process.

The ‘get it done’ theme in relation to infrastructure projects was a central element of the Ford government’s 2022 election platform. The key question that arises from the February 2024 announcements is whether what is ‘getting done’ makes sense in economic, planning, or sustainability terms.  The government’s initiatives seem designed to avoid and prevent the asking of precisely those kinds of questions.

In addition to facilitating the expropriation of public and private lands by the province, and banning road tolls (except on the privately owned segments of the 407), Bill 162 has two key components. The first is a putative ban on carbon pricing in the province, subject to a future referendum. These provisions are political theatre, given that legislation can’t bind the actions of future governments, should they choose to enact legislation providing for a carbon pricing system.

It also ignores the consideration that Ontario residents already pay a carbon price on heating and transportation fuels, imposed by the federal government and upheld as constitutionally valid by the Supreme Court of Canada. Ontario residents receive rebates for the charge from Ottawa, but the upfront carbon price (C$80/tonne as of April 1) paid by Ontarians is substantially more than would be the case if the Ford government hadn’t scrapped the province’s own cap-and-trade based carbon pricing  scheme (US$41.76/tonne in the Quebec-California market as of February 2024) in 2018.

The second major component of the Bill is an extraordinary and unprecedented series of amendments via legislation to municipal official plans in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Region, mandating urban boundary expansions to facilitate development. These types of provincially imposed expansions were supposed to be ‘walked-back’ as part of the fallout from the Fall 2023 Greenbelt land removal debacle. Obvious questions have to be asked about the origins of these amendments, given the government’s well-established relationship with the development industry, to say nothing of the implications of this kind of use of provincial authority for what remains of the integrity of the planning process and more basic principles of local governance and democracy.

The government’s moves on the environmental assessment process have profound long-term implications. The government had already adopted legislation moving the province from a system where all public sector projects (provincial and municipal) were subject to some form of environmental review, unless explicitly exempted by the cabinet, to a ‘designated project list’ approach where such reviews are  ultimately discretionary. The February announcements further expanded the list of types of major projects that would only be subject to a minimal ‘streamlined’ review, including all new highways (provincial freeways and municipal expressways), rail projects and electricity transmission lines and stations. Transit and electricity projects were already covered by de facto exemptions or self-assessment processes.

The changes to the EA process further reinforce a situation where the province is undertaking major infrastructure projects, with enormous long-term economic and environmental implications with little or no meaningful external review or oversight. Many of the projects at the centre of the government’s efforts, including Highway 413, the Highway 404-to-400 Bradford Bypass, and the Pickering B nuclear station refurbishment projects, had been subject to previous reviews either under the Environmental Assessment and other planning processes and determined to be unnecessary and uneconomic. In the cases of the highway projects, they were seen to be likely to induce further urban sprawl.

With respect to transit projects, serious questions remain, for example, around how the Ontario line Toronto subway project expanded from a modest and long-planned Pape-to-Queen station downtown relief line into a massive project stretching from Ontario Place to the Ontario Science Centre. The sudden decision to transfer the Science Centre to Ontario Place, with little economic or operational rationale, in the midst of a controversy over the province’s signing of a 95-year lease on the Ontario Place site to a private spa developer, further reinforced questions about how the province was making decisions about major infrastructure.

The scale of the projects the province is pursuing is enormous – a $100 Billion program of nuclear power construction and reconstruction projects, $28 Billion on announced highway expansion projects, and at least $20 billion on the Ontario Line Transit Project alone. Past experiences with these types of megaprojects indicate that all carry risks of major delays and cost-overruns; all have centuries-long implications for the province’s energy systems, urban development and transportation patterns, environmental and climate sustainability; and, particularly in the context of increased interest rates, long-term fiscal capacity.  None have been subject to any meaningful external review or assessment, despite widespread suspicions around their political motivations. As it stands, none of these projects will be subject to any effective independent oversight in their execution.

Where such projects have been subject to meaningful review, their rationales have often collapsed under serious examination. In some cases, governments have proceeded anyway, as with the Site C project in BC, and Muskrat Falls Dam in Labrador. The consequences have been economically and environmentally disastrous.

All of this means that serious questions need to be asked about megaprojects before they proceed, but these are precisely the kinds of questions the Ford government seems determined to avoid. Infrastructure projects are essential to the province’s well-being, but the choices they embed can lock-in long-term pathways around which better, less costly and risky and more flexible alternatives may exist. Transparent and independent assessment processes are essential to addressing those risks, and making sure that the choices that are made don’t turn out to be ones that Ontario residents will regret for generations to come.