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The Ontario government approved a long-term development plan for Innisfil, which will focus the build out of the town on a new transit hub dubbed Orbit.Town of Innisfil

Whatever else one might think about Ontario Premier Doug Ford, there’s little doubt that his Progressive Conservatives came away from the June election with a convincing electoral mandate to press ahead with the contentious Highway 413 project. The proposal – to build a major transportation corridor that links Vaughan to Milton and traverses thousands of hectares of agricultural land in the north-west reaches of Greater Toronto – wasn’t buried in fine print in some campaign platform document. Ford & Co. led with it, and won a majority.

The question to my mind is this: can a project such as 413, which reflects the assumptions and land use patterns of a very different era, be salvaged and even transformed into something less ecologically damaging and potentially even innovative?

A few important caveats: First, the federal government, which has inserted itself in the environmental assessment process, may yet reject the plan on ecological grounds. As a Toronto Star/Narwhal investigation earlier this month discovered, Ontario’s ministry of transportation (MTO) has itself acknowledged in internal documents that the route will cut through conservation areas and threaten several endangered species.

Second, the actual form of the proposal – which has been on MTO’s books in one form or another since the early 2000s – is still up in the air. Planning and consultation documents talk about the growing need for a corridor for truck traffic as a work-around to the congestion on the 401, and also refers, vaguely, to the creation of a “transitway” that would share the route. For all of Ford’s rhetoric, the review process is nowhere close to complete.

It’s not at all difficult to see how this thing becomes a land use disaster – a truck bypass that spurs the development of a long arc of sprawling distribution centres, such as those that now line the 401 between Brampton and Milton. Or, worse, all of that sandwiched between low-rise suburbs and malls sprouting from farmland once protected by Ontario’s Greenbelt law.

But perhaps we can think about an alternative future – one informed by a significant investment in the transit component of 413 and a new approach to fostering medium density, mixed-use development along the route that yields compact communities linked by regional transit to Brampton, Mississauga, York Region, and the Guelph-Kitchener-Waterloo hub.

Unthinkable?

Consider current political pressure: The Ford government has set extremely ambitious housing targets to confront real estate prices. It has also demonstrated a willingness to make multi-billion-dollar investments in transit. Municipal affairs and housing minister Steve Clark has not been shy about using ministerial zoning orders to accelerate development approvals (some necessary, others deeply problematic). Finally, the Tories, responding to calls from organizations such as the Urban Land Institute Toronto and the Toronto Region Board of Trade, have clearly signalled an interest in promoting missing middle-type development.

In many parts of Europe, large metropolitan regions are surrounded by medium-density satellite communities linked to employment hubs with highly efficient regional transit. We’ve had a half-hearted version of that model for two generations, in the form of the GO rail network. But unlike Europe, the stations are situated at the peripheries of places like Oshawa or Oakville, and have thus generated their own commuter-sheds and parking headaches.

Can we learn something the shortcomings of the GO hubs in the 905?

Of course, and it’s not even necessary to look especially far afield. Last year, the Ford government approved a long-term development plan for Innisfil, south of Barrie, which will focus the build out of the town on a new GO station/hub, dubbed Orbit. Unlike the GO stations built in the 1960s and 1970s along the Lakeshore corridor, Orbit will become the central point of a compact community planned to bring sufficient density to sustain commerce, limit car use, encourage walkable communities and contain sprawl.

There’s no reason some variation of the Innisfil model couldn’t be applied in select nodes along the proposed 413 route. After all, the corridor itself will be bisected in two places by expansions or enhancements to the GO rail network, and terminate close to a third. What’s more, the corridor itself could be readily linked by light rail or bus rapid transit to the Hurontario LRT, which is expected to run from the GO Lakeshore line in southern Mississauga to an interchange with a Züm transitway planned to traverse north Brampton.

Given the skyrocketing price of gas, single-family homes and basically everything else, as well as the escalating costs of financing the municipal infrastructure needed to fit out sprawling subdivisions with basic amenities, the economic case for scaling up the Innisfil approach makes abundantly sound fiscal and commercial sense.

Young families and newcomers are looking for housing that offers more than what high-rise condos can provide, but without the crushing sticker price of a single-family home. As the Boomers and GenX retire, employers across the region desperately need to hire people who will only earn average incomes – nurses, teachers, even land use planners – and prefer to use transit than private vehicles. Finally, local governments want the new tax assessment but don’t want the fiscal burden of building and servicing pipes and roads that extend great distances.

Ever since Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals passed the Places to Grow Act, in 2006, Queen’s Park has played an increasingly assertive role in shaping regional land use and transportation planning across the GTA and Hamilton, and even west to Kitchener-Waterloo. The Ford government, if anything, has doubled-down on that approach.

The key to improving the 413 plan lies in thinking creatively about 21st-century forms of development and transportation that are better aligned with the most fearsome challenges of our era: housing affordability, climate, mobility.

There’s no question that driving a ribbon of asphalt across the rural landscape of the north-west GTA is the wrong way to proceed. But if the government is hell-bent on creating that corridor, as seems to be the case, it is incumbent on residents, planners and advocates for sustainable growth to contemplate a third way – one that will at least mitigate some of the impact of this piece of regional infrastructure while making key gains with other policy files.

A fairly convincing answer is taking shape south of Barrie. The Ford government would be well advised to begin thinking about applying Innisfil’s approach to prevent its 413 scheme from becoming yet another over-congested white elephant highway.

Special to The Globe and Mail