Forsaking Orangeville’s transit future

January 6, 2022   ·   2 Comments

By Neil Orford

Like many smaller cities and towns at the outer fringes of the Greater Golden Horseshoe, Orangeville’s house prices have gone wild during the pandemic. The latest figures show the average home sold for $873,000, up almost 30% in a year. People want to live here, which speaks to both the success of this community and the longer-term impact of Covid-19.

So how has Town Council responded to this surge in demand?

In the most perverse way possible – by selling off pieces of a potential commuter rail route down to Greater Toronto that could, someday, give residents of this community travel options besides getting in their cars and fighting the congestion to the south.

The Town, at the request of an industrial users’ group, has terminated operations of the Orangeville Brampton Railway (OBRY), and instructed staff to sell off or find new uses for the rail corridor, which, I’d argue, is Orangeville’s most valuable asset. For reasons that defy explanation, Mayor Sandy Brown placed a full-page ad, attempting to justify an opaque decision made without proper public consultation, analysis or a sense of the bigger picture, namely the future relationship between Orangeville and the GTA.

More curiously, the decision appears to directly contradict Council’s 2018, Economic Development Strategy. That plan sought to ensure the long-term viability of the rail corridor as part of a broader plan focused on advocating for other transportation infrastructure investments, including links to Pearson International, better GO Bus service and improved local transit.

Brown wants to get OBRY’s $10 million losses off Orangeville’s books, then sell off the southern parts of the corridor and repurpose the rest as a trail – the perfect vote-getting scheme to tee up an election year. Brown’s numbers are, at best, dubious (and unverified), exemplifying the old adage about knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing. 

As a point of principle, selling off transportation corridors is never a smart idea: they are far more difficult to re-assemble than to maintain. More importantly, assets like OBRY and the land upon which it operated must be viewed as something to be banked for the future – a future, I should add, that must include a lot less driving (emissions) and a lot more transit.

Those of us who have been trying to make sense of the Town’s murky decision-making are well aware of the larger issues at play here.

Metrolinx has showed little interest in the line, largely because its numerous level crossings complicate commuter rail service. It’s also true that regional growth plans have focused on cities to the west of the GTA — Guelph, Waterloo, even London. Yet we can all see that many people in the GTA are also choosing to move further afield, in directions not anticipated by the provincial (and local) planners.

Given these trends, I wonder what Mayor Brown makes of the decision, announced last summer [2021] by the federal government, to re-invest in passenger rail service to Peterborough by 2030? That project, which is connected to major improvements in the Toronto-Quebec rail corridor, came about because of advocacy and far-sighted thinking on the part of local leaders who are capable of thinking beyond the next municipal election cycle.

I see little forward-planning taking place within Orangeville town council, nor from our representative at Queen’s Park. After all, MPP Sylvia Jones, who has said nothing about this issue, sits at the cabinet table and should at minimum be advocating for property tax breaks on the corridor lands that would give the Town some space to consider its future.

The trail scheme advocated by the mayor is popular. Yet in a region with ready access to Island Lake, the Bruce Trail and numerous conservation authorities, it’s crucial for the residents of this community to understand the full spectrum of opportunity costs associated with foreclosing on future rail service by creating what will effectively be a permanent recreational amenity.

To prevent more short-sighted decision-making, we need, at the minimum, to press Council to commit to never selling off the rail lands along the right of way; pressing Metrolinx and the provincial government to conduct a proper commuter service study, including a needs assessment and an engineering evaluation for options like light rail and EV bus rapid transit; conducting full public consultations before any further disposition of assets; and, finally, making public all relevant documents in the possession of the Orangeville Railway Development Corporation, which owns the land. 

I understand that OBRY is dead. But we must preserve the corridor, so some future council, which has more imagination and foresight, can find better uses for those assets.

Readers Comments (2)

  1. Phelps Goodman says:

    Abandoning the OBRY was questionable.
    Preserving it as a transportation corridor is vital.

    “While the Liberals and NDP constantly fight our infrastructure projects that reduce gridlock and get Ontarians to where they need to be, we are the party that gets things built,” read an email blast sent out Oct. 13 by Ford’s Progressive Conservatives“.

    Reduce gridlock and get Ontarians where they need to be? This from the Doug Ford Conservatives while our local MPP

  2. R. Williams says:

    Very thoughtful piece Neil! You have made the case for investigating the repurposing of the railway for commuter rail. While I agree with your sentiment, it would surprise me if the Town of Orangeville followed your recommendations.
    On the other hand, can you imagine Orangeville becoming a regional transportation hub? It could serve commuters from Orangeville and areas to the north and west. A similar development proposal has been put forth for Bolton, but I do not believe that development of the commuter rail line is on the agenda of Metrolinx.
    As you explained, development of commuter rail lines requires support from all levels of government. I hope that the provincial or federal government intervenes to provide the opportunity for study. In the meantime, I believe that a moratorium on the sale of these rail lands is necessary.


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