Smart alternatives to SmartTrack avoid expropriation

(February 24, 2015) Toronto Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack Line will likely result in needless expropriation. 

This article was written by Elizabeth Brubaker, the Executive Director of Environment Probe.

Toronto Mayor John Tory’s proposed SmartTrack Line comes with a high price tag – not just for the taxpayers who will foot the $8-billion bill but also for those who may lose their homes and businesses to make way for new track or stations. There are smarter, less expensive ways to relieve congestion on Toronto’s roads and subways. City council should re-direct some of the $2.4 million it has approved to study SmartTrack to a thorough examination of these alternatives.

Even now, long before any decisions about SmartTrack have been made, those who live and work along its proposed 53-km route are undoubtedly wondering how it would affect their property. Mr. Tory has stated that the line would not require expropriation. But Metrolinx – the regional transportation agency that would deliver SmartTrack – differs, saying that some property acquisition may be necessary.

In fact, expropriation for transit projects is the norm in Toronto. In recent years, the city has expropriated for the Toronto York Spadina subway extension, the Agincourt GO grade separation project, and the Coxwell and Woodbine subway stations. Metrolinx has identified 258 properties it requires part or all of for the Eglinton LRT and has initiated the expropriation process.

Being targeted for expropriation can be the kiss of death for an owner. Almost no one wants to invest in a home or a business that might be destroyed in a year or two. Just ask the owners of the site of a former Knob Hill Farms store in Oshawa. Once Metrolinx let it be known that it might want the site for a GO station, the owners could do nothing with the stigmatized property. As they wrote in 2012, they had “lost multiple and more lucrative opportunities to sell/lease the site because the publication of Metrolinx’ interest in it and the potential for its expropriation have frightened off genuine prospects.”

This summer, Metrolinx took possession of the site. A spokesman would say only that the site could be a “possible future” station, adding, “It’s just too early to say more…. [I]f we do move forward we will definitely let the public know.” Such premature expropriation creates the same problems as the threat of expropriation. Neither the new public owner nor its tenant, if the land remains occupied, has any incentive to maintain a property that may soon meet a wrecking ball.

Ontarians learned hard lessons about premature expropriation in the 1970s, when the federal government expropriated 18,600 acres for the still-unbuilt Pickering Airport. The expropriated lands have sat in limbo for four decades. The government rented out 700-plus houses and farms to their former owners. But farmers were loath to invest in quota or infrastructure, and uncertainty made it difficult to attract workers. The government allowed the properties to deteriorate over the years, eventually evicting residents from dilapidated houses in order to demolish them. Once thriving communities became ghost towns.

Last year, when Ottawa announced it would proceed with the airport by 2027, it admitted it wouldn’t need all of the land it had expropriated. It planned to retain about 8,700 acres for the airport. It would give 5,000 acres to Parks Canada for Rouge National Urban Park – a troubling gift, since Canada’s National Parks Act prohibits the use of expropriation to establish or enlarge a park. And it would open the balance of the expropriated land for business development.

History repeats. In 2010, Hamilton acquired – through the threat of expropriation – and razed 13 houses and 7 businesses in the Barton-Tiffany neighbourhood in order to make way for the Pan Am Stadium. Then the stadium plans fell through, leaving the city with a derelict wasteland, which it now intends to sell to a developer. In the last two years, Edmonton, Wood Buffalo, St. John’s, and Moncton have likewise expropriated for uncertain projects.

Expropriation is legitimate only for sound projects that are certain to go ahead. Does SmartTrack qualify? Certainly not yet. SmartTrack’s price tag may be unrealistic, especially if the project requires unforeseen tunnelling. The project will require still hypothetical provincial and federal support. Mr. Tory expects the city to pay one-third of the cost out of the increased taxes that will result from higher property values along the proposed line, but skeptics point out that tax increment financing has never yet been used for such large-scale projects and that the growth required to generate the tax revenues may not occur as planned.

Earlier this month, city council approved spending an additional $1.65 million – on top of the $750,000 already allocated – to study SmartTrack. Instead of committing to a costly and uncertain plan, the city should explore innovative policies that would obviate the need for new transit, such as time-of-use pricing on subways to reduce ridership during peak periods, congestion pricing on roads to reduce car traffic, and ride sharing to increase the number of passengers in the cars that remain on the roads. Such alternatives would enable Mr. Tory to honour his commitment to forgo expropriation while getting Toronto moving again.

Elizabeth Brubaker, the Executive Director of Environment Probe.

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