Posted July 4, 2018
About three years ago, insauga.com started reaching out to businesses in the busy Hurontario corridor to ask them one very important question: Were they worried about the effect the incoming Hurontario Light Rail Transit (LRT) project would have on their establishments (at least in the short term)?
The answer was, surprisingly, neither “yes” or “no.”
It was “what train?”
That year was 2015, and now that it’s 2018, less people are asking “what train?” when the LRT—a grand-scale transit project that includes approximately 20 kilometres of rapid transit between Port Credit GO Station in Mississauga and Gateway Terminal in southern Brampton—comes up.
The $1.4 billion transit project, which will boast 22 stops and connections to GO Transit’s Milton and Lakeshore West lines, is scheduled to break ground this year and some members of the community are starting to worry—and to ask what Metrolinx, the agency in charge of the project, is going to do for them.
“I won’t be able to afford it [living in the affected corridor],” says Robin Vanderfleet, a clothing lead with Dixie Outlet Mall-based retailer Treasure Hunt. “It’s going to make rents go higher and make the city more unaffordable for people like me.”
Earlier this month, Vanderfleet and other concerned residents converged upon the Celebration Square area (Burnhamthorpe and Hurontario) to rally for the community benefits they believe Metrolinx must promise them.
They also took issue with the fact that private companies will be involved in the construction and maintenance process—something the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) also rallied against last year.
The rally, organized by Peel ACORN (an independent national organization comprised of low and moderate income families), was held so its members could demand Metrolinx “commit to building a community centre, green space, and job and childcare centres as part of any deal that Metrolinx signs with developers.”
ACORN says it will be bringing its demands to the companies that could end up building the LRT.
“The $1.4 Billion of public money being spent on the LRT must result in real community benefits for low income communities along Hurontario, in order to offset the destruction and displacement that occurs from construction,” ACORN said in a statement regarding the rally.
While the LRT has been controversial from the beginning (particularly in Brampton, where council voted to stop its route at Shopper’s World to prevent it from encroaching on the city’s downtown core), there has been more focus on the project’s north/south route (some insist east/west rapid transit would be more prudent) than on its potential impact on the Hurontario corridor.
But that’s changing—especially as more people acknowledge that the LRT, which could absolutely benefit the corridor and the city overall, will also increase the value of the property it’s being built near and on. While that sounds positive on its face, some residents and city officials have posited that the LRT could, indirectly, force people from their working class Cooksville neighbourhood by making it more costly to live in.
In other words, the LRT could ignite the gentrification process.
“I want Metrolinx to guarantee that people can afford it,” says Vanderfleet, who is involved with Peel ACORN. “ACORN wants to make sure things like the low income transit pass work for the LRT and that fares are affordable for low income people. We didn’t ask for this LRT. We need green space, community centres, a library, senior centre, job centre and good jobs. We need a real and legally binding community benefits agreement.”
Others worry the public will be excluded from the planning and development process.
“We at ACORN want to have a legal binding Community Benefit Agreement and that they keep the LRT public owned and operated,” says Virginia Vaithilingam, a school bus driver who transports special needs students.
“[Metrolinx] is failing to be upfront about keeping the transit system public. Although Metrolinx is public, the companies that are bidding are private. The construction will be private, but the operation does not have to be,” she says.
Metrolinx says it’s dedicated to enhancing the community the LRT will call home.
“Metrolinx is committed to ensuring that its transit infrastructure investments provide benefits to communities, including local employment, training, apprenticeships, local supplier and social procurement opportunities,” Scott Money, media relations & issues, communications & public affairs,” told insauga.com in an email statement.
“Metrolinx has included requirements in the Project Agreement for the Hurontario Light Rail Transit Project to ensure these benefits are realized, wherever possible. Specifically, the successful proponent will be required to submit a community benefits & liaison plan and an apprenticeship plan within three months of the contract being awarded.”
As far as other concerns go, some ACORN members feel the construction process will create long-term hardships for local residents.
“It will cause traffic jams and increase rush hour [traffic],” says Vanderfleet. “It’ll also cause rents to increase and force the people in the area to move out when developers start building condos and tearing down older buildings.”
Others are also concerned about the LRT’s impact on traffic.
“The LRT is a major transportation project in Peel,” says Vaithilingam. “It’s placement is in the heart of our city. The exact effects cannot be known for certain. However, knowing that the LRT will take up lanes on one of our busiest roads and will be a major component of our future transportation, it will affect us all.”
While it’s true that the construction process—projected to last at least four years—will be difficult, some have posited that the pain (and few can deny that there will indeed be pain) will ultimately be worth the gain if residents try to see the LRT as a dynamic and innovative city-building project.
“People go to cities,” City Councillor Nando Iannicca told insauga.com back in 2015. “In China, all of Canada basically moved into Port Credit and we’re afraid of an LRT. Our biggest problem is that we had to come together with a lot of hamlets and towns and decided to act as one big town instead of one big city. If China can move all those people, how can we be afraid of a train?”
“There’s trepidation, but you’ll love the Cooksville of the future,” he said. “We’ll never be NYC or Rome, but we can be a Portland, or Seattle or Barcelona. It’s right in front of us, and with the LRT, it’s a reality.”
While the LRT will ideally help revitalize Cooksville and provide Mississauga with a decidedly modern and more sophisticated transit system (which the city absolutely needs), there is concern that it will increase the cost of living.
In Mississauga (and other nearby Ontario municipalities), housing is already unaffordable for large swaths of the population.
According to Making Room for the Middle: A Housing Strategy for Mississauga (a draft strategy unveiled by the city of Mississauga in 2017) there’s a pressing and dire need to create affordable housing for middle income earners (not just lower-income residents) who are in danger of being priced out of the city.
A home is considered affordable when its inhabitants spend 30 per cent or less of their earnings on housing costs. Unfortunately, the report found that one in three households are already spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing and research suggests this number will rise.
Middle income households typically net between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, and middle income earners include nurses, teachers and social workers.
People who want to purchase homes can typically afford to pay between $270,000 and $400,000, meaning their only options are condos and a limited selection of townhouses. Renters aren’t much better off (even though more extensive rent controls have been proposed by the province). According to the report, the average rental unit costs $1,200 a month and rental inventory is low.
As for how much houses cost right now, recent data suggests that homes are still expensive (even if they’re not quite as expensive as they were during last year’s wild winter market). In fact, Toronto-based real estate website and brokerage company Zoocasa found that average prices for all home categories in Mississauga increased by 3 per cent from $631,672 in January 2018 to $655,804 in February 2018.
To be clear, the city is working to increase affordable housing. The Daniels Corporation is slated to construct an affordable housing project at 360 City Centre Drive in the near future and the city is also working to protect and increase existing rental stock. That said, it’s hard to say exactly how much the LRT will affect real estate values—but it’s prudent to assume it will elevate them.
The unknown is worrying ACORN activists.
“Metrolinx is failing to listen to people like me, low income people. Also failing to be transparent and open about the process. That’s why ACORN did the rally [earlier this month],” says Vanderfleet, who adds that she doesn’t feel supported by the city.
“We haven’t heard much from the city. It seems like the LRT is only being built for millennials and middle class people, not for low and moderate income people like those in ACORN. It is not a solution to the lower income families who want good jobs and a safe place to live.”
That said, Vanderfleet is reassured by the fact that ACORN is communicating concerns to Metrolinx on behalf of worried residents.
“ACORN is fighting to make sure that there will be apprenticeships on this project. ACORN is fighting to make sure the money is being put back into the community to create better jobs for people,” she says.
Others also feel the city isn’t listening.
“No. The City of Mississauga is not listening to the community,” says Vaithilingam.
“I have gone to various meetings, where individuals are confused regarding the operation of the LRT, many think that since Metrolinx is public that the operation of the LRT will also be public. Overall in our meetings, we see that there is broad support for keeping the LRT public. Also as members of this community, we should have some say in the discussions on community benefits.”
On the matter of private companies, Metrolinx said projects procured through the agency’s procurement model do remain publicly owned by Metrolinx upon completion.
“For the Hurontario LRT, Metrolinx proposed using a Design-Build-Finance-Operate-Maintain (DBFOM) procurement model, which means the consortium responsible for designing and building the project will also be responsible for operating and maintaining it for a set period of time (typically 30 years). This approach transfers risk to the consortium and provides a strong incentive for high quality design and construction since the same people building the project will be responsible and accountable for operating and maintaining it after it is complete,” Money explained in a previous email to insauga.com
“To be clear, projects procured as DBFOM remain publicly owned by Metrolinx once complete and the consortium operates the line on our behalf. A number of transit lines are currently operated by third parties across the region today, including the entire GO Rail network, York Region Transit, and the York VIVA Bus Rapid Transit project. DBFOM is also consistent with the delivery model used for the Waterloo LRT, and Hamilton LRT.”
Still, Vaithilingam remains concerned.
“Overall, the direction of Metrolinx seems to be that they are willing to grant a private company control of a major component of our transportation in this city. People do not see this as positive knowing that other private components of our transportation system have not delivered,” she says. “One comment I heard summed it up quite well: The LRT is basically like plopping down a 407 right in the middle of Mississauga.”
And while residents are afraid of the impact the LRT might have on home affordability, others are focusing on how it could disrupt businesses in the community.
Even Iannicca, who has always supported the project, agrees that the adjustment will be painful.
“It’s not going to get done overnight,” he told insauga in 2015. “[Shops] might have to move across the road in an interim way. We’re not tearing everything down at once. What’s disappointing is that everyone is focusing on the next four or six years. It’s going to be difficult. I don’t lie to anybody. It’s going to be horrific. I can’t change that. We’re going to do it efficiently and keep lanes of traffic open all the time, but in the history of these things, no one has ever built [something like this] and had the community say ‘that went pretty easily!’ It’s the nature of the beast. Having said that, years later it’s ‘wow!’”
Some business owners, on the other hand, are optimistic.
In fact, Nader Marzouk, the president of the City Centre-located &Company Resto Bar, once told insauga.com that the LRT will likely benefit local businesses in the long run.
“The train will absolutely help all businesses in the long run, but the short term will be painful,” he said in a 2015 email. “As construction work begins in what is already a very congested area, I’m sure there will be delays and bottlenecks everywhere.”
“In the long run there is no doubt that it is to the benefit of the area and the city as a whole. In the short term, I fear it will have a negative effect.”
Marzouk also said he’s excited about the ways in which the LRT could add value to the city’s real estate.
“[I’m] looking forward to the eventual increase in property value that the LRT will bring to the area as well as having a fast, usable transit system at our doorstep. Regardless of the short term pain it will cause, in my view it is necessary for the continued growth of the city.”
For ACORN members, more reassurance from Metrolinx is needed.
“I feel that we are heard,” says Vaithilingam. “Many politicians and members of Metrolinx have said they have heard us, but they fail to take action.”
But while the project will no doubt shakeup the landscape and pose challenges for community members, it’s hard to argue that a higher-order transit plan isn’t necessary for the city.
“Before Hazel McCallion [became mayor], it was determined that Mississauga was a growth node by the province of Ontario,” Iannicca told insauga.com.
“In the next 30 to 40 years, the greater Toronto and Hamilton areas will be adding the populations of Vancouver and Montreal. Our official plans always said this was coming. We built a downtown core and we can’t keep servicing [the city] on a bus line. So higher order transit is needed and, for a change, it’s government doing exactly what it said it was going to do. It’s kind of remarkable that it’s upon us.”
Article by Ashley Newport for Insauga