With all the attention on the Draft Regional Plan, another proposal lurks unnoticed in the agenda for Friday’s Metrolinx Board Meeting.
The agenda itself gives no indication, and the report of interest is called “CEO Report”, an innocuous title. However, within that report we find a detailed description of the “Metrolinx Project Delivery Process” which the Board is asked to endorse.
First as a matter of process, substantive policy decisions should not be embedded in reports whose title implies a status update, unless the real desire is to hope that nobody will notice. Second, the proposed process shows that Queen’s Park has no intention of letting Metrolinx operate as a truly independent regional authority, but instead will hold it very tightly under control by various Ministries.
Many have spoken as if Metrolinx would someday become the overarching authority for GTA transit planning, construction and operations. Not true. Even the proposed amalgamation of GO Transit with Metrolinx is sitting as unproclaimed sections of the GTTA Act, and my guess is that GO will fight every step of the way against being taken over by an agency that has never run a single transit vehicle.
The Metrolinx Board’s role appears to be, in some cases, to make recommendations to the Minister of Transportation about projects that should be undertaken. The Minister may (or may not) then assign these and/or other projects back to Metrolinx for execution although it is unclear just how much control the Board can exercise from that point forward. If the Minister wants a subway to Barrie, and wants to pay for it, it is unclear whether the Board can do anything about it.
That seems fairly simple, but there are many other steps. Before we even get to a Metrolinx Board recommendation, proposals must be vetted through a “Benefits Case” Analysis (the quotation marks are in the Metrolinx document) to determine whether the scheme fits into the fiscal and policy framework. The operation of this analysis is not defined, and there is no way to know whether it is inherently biased in any way. Of particular concern is the question of how alternatives get on the table, and what would actually be analysed.
There are also Alternative Financing & Procurement Analyses that will look at how a scheme might be financed and delivered.
At this point we are only at the Metrolinx Annual Plan and related processes. The Board’s recommendations go off to Queen’s Park for incorporation in the Budget, and after a sufficiently lengthy wait, a project may or may not be approved. Then it has to go through procurement which may very well land back in the hands of the original proponent agency (the TTC would likely build subways, for example) even though title to the resulting infrastructure would rest with Metrolinx.
Other agencies who get their oar in are Infrastructure Ontario and other affected Ministries such as Environment and Transportation. The whole process makes Environmental Assessments, even the old long process, look like a walk in the park. I leave it to the serious policy wonks to read the report and write a 25-word explanation.
One telling addition to the Metrolinx logo is the phrase “An agency of the Government of Ontario”. Don’t let that Board full of municipal politicians fool you, this is a Queen’s Park show. The problem is that the entire process for building a menu of projects, getting approvals, arranging funding and finally building something has a complexity showing that nobody trusts anyone to do things properly. Queen’s Park would rather create a vast machinery to study and administer projects than actually let an agency get on with the job of building a network.
I suspect that the Metrolinx Board already has its marching orders to approve this byzantine process “or else” as a precondition of money flowing for the next round of RTP projects. Indeed, a Benefits Case Analysis is already in the pipeline for seven projects (SRT extension/renovation, VIVA, Eglinton, Finch, Sheppard, GO Lakeshore, Yonge North) even though we don’t even know what these projects will entail. Where is the public input, the Board oversight, if a staff-run process can dictate the structure and fate of a proposal? How can we ensure that the process looks at the network role of each part rather than a narrow project-based focus? How do we have proposals reconsidered when the overhead of going back through the mill could discourage discussion of alternatives?
This scheme is all about vesting control of the transportation plan in Metrolinx staff, consultants and Queen’s Park. It is complex to the point of incomprehensibility, and threatens to undo Metrolinx’ boast of transparency.
The Board should demand a rework of this proposal, but they will likely be too busy with the RTP to pay attention.