Ontario is considering alternatives to a planned multibillion-dollar high-speed rail corridor between Toronto and Windsor, with the government saying it wants to ensure the region gets served by a mode of transportation best suited to its needs.
An ongoing environmental assessment for the project will continue, but the Progressive Conservatives say they're expanding the scope of their studies to determine if other options, such as increased Via Rail service, more bus capacity or improved highway infrastructure, would work better.
"It's a huge project," Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek said in an interview. "We've got to make sure we're taking the right steps going forward."
The previous Liberal government planned to connect Toronto to London, Ont., by 2025 and extend the line to Windsor, Ont., by 2031. They committed $11 billion to high-speed rail in their final budget, delivered in March, but gave no final pricetag for the project.
Concerns over farm land slowed project plans
The Liberals promised that trains would travel up to 250 kilometres per hour, cutting travel times between Toronto and Windsor from four hours to two. Former premier Kathleen Wynne said the project would serve as an economic driver along a corridor home to more than seven million people and over 60 per cent of Ontario's economic activity.
But critics of the plan expressed concern about the large swaths of prime farm land the project could eat up.
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture said the line would have to be built on expropriated farmland, creating a permanent division across the province and disrupting wildlife corridors and natural drainage patterns.
Yurek said the previous government ignored the concerns of farmers, and said the Tories would consult with members of the agricultural sector.
An advisory board on the project, headed by former federal transportation minister David Collenette, has been disbanded, Yurek added.
"Mr. Collenette and his board were only looking at the high speed rail option," he said. "We want to make sure we cover all the bases."
Collenette, who was the government's special adviser on high-speed rail, had concluded in a report released last year that there was a business case for the project. He wrote that it would alleviate pressure on the heavily-travelled Highway 401, free up air travel capacity by lessening the need for short-haul flights and spur regional development.
'It's going backwards' Windsor MPP
The Tory government's move to look at alternatives to high-speed rail for the project has raised concerns in some quarters.
NDP legislator Lisa Gretzky, who represents a riding in Windsor, said her community will be disappointed at a delay in moving ahead with the project.
"On the surface they say they're supportive of high-speed rail but now they're possibly looking at ways get out of their commitment," she said of the government. "It's definitely going backwards."
Liberal legislator Marie-France Lalonde said the high-speed rail corridor has the potential to be a "game changer" for the region.
"We have not yet heard if this project will go forward. We only know the team assigned to this project has been dismantled, and we have no timeline for their review," she said. "We hope that this government takes a long-term approach, instead of relying on short-sighted cuts."
The mayor of Sarnia, Ont., which would stand to benefit from project, said indications that the Tory government might be backing away from high-speed rail were disappointing but he noted that his community needed more short-term transportation options as well.
"Sarnia has one train in and out a day," said Mike Bradley. "High speed rail is a nice lofty dream and I'm a supporter of high speed rail. I'm just trying to be realistic about what can happen now. I did not sense before, during or after the election that the new government was committed to it."
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the Tory government needs to prioritize the foundational elements of transit, like better bus service throughout the province, while continuing work on high-speed rail.
"My fear with the Liberal government was that they were using high speed rail to distract from the fact that they actually weren't delivering on the solutions that are short and medium-term," he said. "My fear with the new government is they're not going to do any of those — the short, medium or long-term solutions."