Doug Ford pre-election mini-budget promises new highways for GTA –

Ontario’s Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy has earmarked $1.6 billion over six years “to support large bridge rehabilitation projects and advance key highway expansion projects, including the Bradford bypass and Highway 413.”

By Robert BenzieQueen’s Park Bureau Chief

Rob FergusonQueen’s Park Bureau

Kristin RushowyQueen’s Park Bureau

Thu., Nov. 4, 20214 min. read

Article was updated 36 mins ago

Premier Doug Ford is signalling that the Progressive Conservatives’ road to re-election next spring will be paved through the Greater Toronto Area.

In Thursday’s mini-budget, Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy earmarked $1.6 billion over six years “to support large bridge rehabilitation projects and advance key highway expansion projects, including the Bradford bypass and Highway 413.”

That is significant because Bethlenfalvy’s March 24 budget pointedly excluded any mention of or funding for the proposed 60-km Highway 413, connecting Highway 401 at Milton to Highway 400 at Vaughan, and the Bradford bypass, a 16.2-km connection between Highways 400 and 404.

“Without action, the projected population growth will overwhelm existing infrastructure and make life more expensive for families,” the fall economic statement said, projecting the Greater Golden Horseshoe will attract 1 million new people every five years.

Bethlenfalvy’s 179-page plan, entitled “Build Ontario,” sets out $189.1 billion in spending — up $3.2 billion from last spring’s budget.

The fall economic statement serves as both a template for the Tories’ June 2 re-election platform and a blueprint for the province’s economic recovery after almost 20 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It forecasts the four-to-six-lane Highway 413 alone would support up to 3,500 jobs a year during construction, generating $350 million in annual economic activity, and handle “300,000 commutes per day while cutting commute times by up to 30 minutes.”

A study for the previous Liberal government — which axed a highway that would raze 2,000 acres of farmland, cut through 85 waterways and pave over 400 acres of Vaughan greenbelt land — said it would only save drivers between 30 to 60 seconds on their commutes.

The Tories are also “committed to fully funding the Bradford bypass,” which will be four lanes and would cross 27 waterways and cut through environmentally sensitive Holland Marsh lands. It would support 700 jobs a year during construction generating $70 million in annual economic activity.

According to the government, construction “is expected to begin in fall 2022 and be completed by 2024” and would save commuters up to 35 minutes.

Highways were not the only transportation infrastructure touted in the economic outlook.

The Tories reiterated support for the new Ontario Line subway, connecting Ontario Place with the Ontario Science Centre, as well as the three-stop Scarborough subway, and extending the Yonge subway into York Region and the still-unfinished Eglinton Crosstown into Etobicoke.

While the treasurer’s mini-budget was optimistic about Ontario prospects after the pandemic, there were concessions the health crisis is very much front and centre.

Bethlenfalvy, who will table a full pre-election budget next March, said overall the government is spending $51 billion “to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and promote economic recovery.”

That includes money to hire more nurses and personal support workers for nursing homes — where all staff must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 15 — along with hiring more inspectors to keep a closer watch on long-term care, expanding home care for patients discharged from hospitals after surgery or with chronic health conditions, and improving infection control in nursing and retirement homes.

As first revealed by the Star on Monday, the Tories are increasing the hourly minimum wage to $15 from $14.35 on Jan. 1, which would boost pay for some 760,000 workers.

Not mentioned in the fall economic statement are any personal income tax cuts or about half the 10-cent per litre gas tax cut Ford promised in his 2018 election campaign, when a global pandemic seemed more in the realm of science fiction than science fact.

Also excluded from the statement was the focus on the she-cession previously promised by Bethlenfalvy, who created a task force last June to address how women have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic.

While the mini-budget talks about $1 billion for 30,000 new, licensed child-care spots, there is no mention of any progress in talks with the federal government on its $10-a-day child care plans.

Because of hefty spending on COVID-19, Ontario will be awash in red ink for years.

This year’s deficit is forecast to be $21.5 billion — which is $11.6 billion lower than projected in last spring’s budget — followed by annual shortfalls of $19.6 billion, $12.9 billion, $8.1 billion and $7.2 billion.

But revenues are expected to be $14.6 billion higher than projected.

There have been substantial increases in revenue forecasts as the economy has picked up since the government posted its first-quarter financial outlook, including personal income tax revenues projected to be $4.9 billion more than anticipated.

Sales tax revenues are forecast to be $3.4 billion higher, corporate taxes $2 billion higher and land transfer taxes $759 million more thanks to a bustling residential real estate market.

Borrowing to finance Ontario’s debt will cost $13 billion this year.

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie