Community members and elected officials worried about the conservation of the Don Valley are fighting a plan to build a GO Transit railyard on a vast green space in Toronto's east end.
Around 200 residents picked up trash in the area that's home to parkland, trails and wildlife and then held a rally at St. Matthew's Clubhouse at Riverdale Farm Sunday to voice their opposition to the proposed facility, where GO trains will be stored when not in use.
"It's really important that people start to become more aware of the impact that we are having on the environment," said Shaunelle Gregory, who attended the rally with her young daughter.
"It's so crucial and critical that we start to make a change and try to see the intrinsic value that our environment has."
The protest is the latest example of tensions between local residents and Metrolinx — the provincial agency responsible for regional transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area — as it undertakes a multi-billion dollar expansion.
Metrolinx intends to build a nearly 4.5 hectare "layover" facility along the old rail line that lies next to the Don Valley Parkway and underneath the Prince Edward Viaduct, which connects Bloor Street to Danforth Avenue.
The company says building the facility using existing track is the most environmentally friendly way to increase the capacity of its rail network with the goal of offering two-way, 15-minute service on a number of GO Train routes.
Yet residents at Sunday's event said the facility's construction will damage nearby wetlands, lead to the loss of mature trees and disrupt critical wildlife habitats.
"Half of the area is an environmentally sensitive area," said Floyd Ruskin, a board member with Don't Mess With The Don, a volunteer conservation group formed by trail users.
"Unfortunately, Metrolinx doesn't view that as an issue."
Ruskin said he and his allies aren't opposing the expansion of transit, just Metrolinx's chosen location.
"Why would we decimate 1,100 trees, crush meadows or decimate a wetland when there are other, more suitable locations for their operation?"
Facility to ease Union Station 'bottleneck': Metrolinx
Metrolinx chose the site, in part, because of its proximity to Union Station, which makes it an ideal place to store up to three train sets during off-peak hours, according to an August 2020 presentation. The downtown station is a "bottleneck" that is expected to see a huge increase in train traffic as part of the GO expansion project.
Additionally, the agency has said an existing access road would help mitigate the environmental impact on the site, because a new one won't have to be built.
Metrolinx spokesperson Anne-Marie Atkins said it's the only site among several considered that met all of the criteria, including access to existing GO rail lines servicing the downtown core.
"We understand and actually appreciate their concerns because one of the things we've done is reduce the footprint, incorporated many of their ideas into the site development, and we're still listening," she said.
Atkins said for every tree that is removed, three will be planted in its place.
No firm start date
Several local politicians also spoke at the rally, including Coun. Paula Fletcher, NDP MPPs Peter Tabuns and Chris Glover, along with Liberal MP Julie Dabrusin.
They were surrounded by signs reading "Respect Toronto ravines," and "Stop the trains! Build the park," in reference to a separate movement calling on Metrolinx to turn the unused CP Don Branch train tracks into a walking trail and park called Wonscotonach Trail.
"For years, we've tried to bring back the Don," Fletcher told CBC Toronto. "The city and the province and the feds are spending a billion dollars naturalizing the mouth of the Don [River]. And now, unfortunately, Metrolinx wants to spend a lot of money unnaturalizing the valley."
While Atkins said the location is final, there's no firm date for when construction will begin and Metrolinx is still accepting community feedback on the final design.
Metrolinx has held public consultations, including a virtual town hall last summer, that led to design changes.