The Ontario Auditor General released her 2018 annual report on December 5. Many topics were examined by the AG, but two related to Metrolinx bear examination by anyone concerned with the future of transit planning and management with more responsibility shifting to the provincial level.
This article deals with the station selection process and the controversial recommendations for new stations at Kirby and at Lawrence East. I have written about this process and related issues before:
Updated: Links to Articles & Interviews
The Auditor General appeared on Metro Morning on December 6 speaking about, among other things, the cost of policy changes regarding LRT lines, and the evaluation of potential stations.
Former Minister of Transportation, Steven Del Duca, wrote an opinion piece in the Toronto Star claiming “I wasn’t meddling, I was building transit”. This is rich considering the effort Metrolinx went to in revising its evaluation of new stations.
Del Duca was notorious during his Ministry as using Metrolinx as an unending source of profile-building photo ops. He uses the Relief Line as an example of his intervention to get the project going despite early reluctance at the City and TTC level. This is a convenient rewriting of history and, in particular, of the huge difference between an RL ending at Danforth, and the one later evaluated by Metrolinx running north to Sheppard. The RL became popular and scored well once its extent and projected demand produced a significant dent on the Yonge line so that the Richmond Hill subway might be feasible.
A Few Thoughts About the Metrolinx Board
Although the Metrolinx Board meets in public from time to time, the legislation governing this body allows most issues to be debated and decided in private. There is no reason that this will change for the better. The chronologies set out by the Auditor General reveal situations where the Board was advised privately as issues evolved and met publicly only for the formality and patina of respectability conferred by their “approval” of matters already decided.
Throughout the station evaluation process, Metrolinx revised both published analysis and supporting documentation. This obscured the net economic costs estimated in the original business cases, making the results of the business-case analysis—both on Metrolinx’s website and in the published report to the Board—much less clear and transparent. [p. 315]
What is unclear is whether the Board actively participated in directions to staff that would lead to the rewriting of reports and recommendations, or merely chose to avert their eyes from the mechanics of political sausage making.
In any event, the process detailed by the AG throws into question everything that Metrolinx has done. Can anyone trust an organization whose professional opinion is so pliable, and which will defend recommendations, threadbare though they may be, so strongly? This is not just an issue for Metrolinx but for many public agencies involved in transportation planning notably the City of Toronto and the TTC.
To its credit, Metrolinx is developing a standard methodology for Business Case Analysis and will publish this in April 2019. However, the problem remains of just how well this will protect against hidden interference from politicians and their friends.
Metrolinx Business Cases
For many years, Metrolinx has used a methodology to evaluate projects that purports to establish the worth of a scheme, which could be negative, such as a new transit line or a significant change to existing facilities. The framework includes multiple factors examining projects from different points of view.
The Strategic Case looks at how a scheme works within the network and the wider public goals of supporting regional development. Factors include:
- Ridership projections
- Revenue and Operating Costs
- Population and employment served
- Travel time changes
- The reach of a new/revised service
- Effects on greenhouse gas emissions from trips shifted to transit
The Economic and Financial Cases review a proposal from two different monetary viewpoints.
- The Economic Case measures benefits such as auto operating cost savings, reduced emissions and air pollution, travel time savings, health benefits and reduction of accidents.
- The Financial Case looks at the cost and revenue estimates to produce a net operating cost as well as a “net financial impact” stating the total revenue over the study period minus the capital and operating costs.
The Deliverability and Operations Case concerns the implementation plan, procurement, operations, maintenance and risk management.
These factors overlap and the calculation machinery includes many assumptions such as future population and employment patterns, fare structures, operating and capital costs, trip diversion rates to transit, and the value of various benefits both to transit riders and society in general. Many of these are not published at a level of detail that would permit an outsider to understand how each factor behaves, and there is considerable leeway to affect the outcome by “twirling the dials” on factors readers cannot easily review.
A big issue with these analyses has been the question of how benefits are valued. For example, if a new transit service attracts people out of their cars, then this reduces the operating cost of those vehicles and produces environmental benefits, but it can also reduce travel time both for new riders and those on existing services. The values assigned to these and other benefits do not accrue to Metrolinx, but to the wider population. These savings, whether they be tangible (lower driving costs) or intangible (the value of time saved) are used to offset the hard costs of actually building and operating a service. While there may be an overall balance, the savings do not pay the bills which must rely on future revenue and subsidy.
A major contribution on the “benefit” side of the analysis is almost always the travel time savings for riders. For example, in the recent GO Expansion BCA, this is the overwhelming contribution to “value” in the analysis. Any factor that increases travel speed affects this measure, and in the case of stations “less is more” is the rule. Fewer stations make for faster trips and that translates to a higher modelled benefit. This has been at the heart of Metrolinx analyses for years and drives a pressure for wider station spacing even on urban lines like the Crosstown project. Adding a station to any route triggers a requirement to find an offset elsewhere such as a stimulus to riding that will drive up total rides even if they are all a bit slower.
A further problem with Metrolinx analyses is that the time period for comparison of costs and effects has grown to a 60-year horizon with the effect that far-distant benefits are shown as potentially offsetting short to medium term costs. This requires assumptions about the future of the transit system, the economy and regional development far beyond a period where anyone can reasonably know what will happen. In an effort to temper this, Metrolinx performs sensitivity analyses by changing factors to see what the effect would be. For example, if a more conservative set of assumptions goes into the model, what happens to the benefits, or does the proposal even fall into negative territory? How “successful” does Metrolinx and the region have to be in order to achieve its goals?
Needless to say, with such a timeframe, most of the readers, let alone authors, of these studies will be long gone before we could challenge their long term validity. The more subtle problem is that showing such long term benefits tends to paper over the fact that in the short to medium term, new facilities (particularly those requiring large capital investments) will not achieve anything near profitability and this shortfall must be financed. I will turn to this in more detail in a review of the Metrolinx GO Expansion BCA in a future article.