Ontario has pushed through a regulation that gives residents no say in the type or location of most future transit projects. Ontario regulation 231/08, which came into effect June 24, exempts virtually all transit projects from conventional environmental assessment.
Instead, major transit projects will undergo a compressed, six-month approval process, which starts after the proponent decides the type and location of the project. Transit projects are also now exempt from public consultation through the Environmental Bill of Rights, the process that normally applies to government permits.
Once a proponent (such as a municipality or Metrolinx) decides to proceed with a transit project, very little can stop it. (There are to be no more repetitions of the St. Clair streetcar delay.) The Minister of Environment can stop or put conditions on a project only if it will negatively affect “a matter of provincial importance that relates to the natural environment or has cultural heritage value or interest or on a constitutionally protected Aboriginal or treaty right”. While no one knows exactly what this means, there are clearly a lot of potential objections to a subway, bus route, intermodal hub, etc. that will not be included, probably including all local impacts, such as traffic, noise, road closures and property values. All larger questions of “need” and “alternatives to”, the usual focus of environmental assessment, are also expressly excluded.
Even on those relatively few questions where public consultation might be effective, neighborhoods and aboriginal groups will have a maximum of 30 days to review a proponent’s documents and submit their comments, in writing. No additional time is available, even if the 30 days fall during Christmas or summer holidays.
There’s no question that we need more transit projects, and that we needed a better way for them to survive the approval process. However, this regulation contains few of the classic elements of environmental assessment, and seems to sacrifice all competing values to the single objective of speed. This “brute force” approach could be self-defeating, as it may elicit more outrage and opposition than acceptance. Wise proponents may find that they are well served to do far more public consultation than the regulation requires. If an approval process fails, it is not the MOE that will ultimately suffer — it will be the proponent.