The Metrolinx Board met on September 26, and I am pleased to report that Board members bit hard into a proposal to establish a complex process for project approval and procurement. (See “Project Management and Delivery” in this report.)
Chair Roger Anderson (Durham Region), already in a feisty mood over omissions in the Draft Regional Transportation Plan, led off by noting that a major policy decision was buried in an “Information Report”, the CEO’s monthly status update. He discovered this scheme when he read his meeting agenda at 1am, and clearly he was not amused. Even more clearly, this whole idea had not been discussed at all by the Board even in private session.
Anderson moved to defer the item to a future meeting, and this triggered concerns by Rob MacIsaac, chairing the meeting. Watching him in action, it’s obvious that he doesn’t like to lose votes, but as the debate went on, it was clear that Anderson was not alone, and MacIsaac wisely got out in front of his troops to lead them where they were already headed.
A common thread in remarks by Anderson, Mayor David Miller (Toronto) and Mayor Hazel McCallion (Mississauga), among others, was whether Metrolinx exists to work with the municipalities as a regional agency, or as a provincial overseer interfering with and dictating to local bodies. Anderson noted that municipalities have the staff to design, manage and deliver projects, and that they should not have to fight Metrolinx to get things done.
Michael Fenn, Metrolinx CEO and author of the report, replied that Queen’s Park, through the Ministry of Transportation, has a role in project evaluation. If so, I must ask whether Metrolinx is simply providing cover for MTO interference, and what role, exactly, is expected of a Board composed of leaders of the very municipalities that originate most of the transportation plans.
Another concern was the need for Metrolinx to staff up (or hire an army of consultants) to provide it with independent advice about municipal plans. This would involve a huge duplication of effort, and there is no guarantee that the staff or consultants, many of whom have fed at the public trough for decades, would be any more “independent”.
Notoriously, consultants say what those who pay them want to hear, and the same consultant can take diametrically opposite views as the situation requires. Consultants, unlike staff or Board members, are almost impossible to reach or to hold accountable for the assumptions made in their studies.
Metrolinx is already proving to be tight-fisted with information and unwilling to entertain real public oversight or criticism, and the last thing we need is for the real decisions to vanish into an inpenetrable cabal.
David Miller argued that direct discussions are required between municipal staff in transit agencies and finance departments with Metrolinx about how the proposed process would operate. One important concern is the definition and control of project scope if Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario pursue “Alternative Financing” for projects.
In the classic model of project delivery, change management is an internal process because the proponent and the builder are the same entity. However, once a project is outsourced, the project definition is set by the original contract and changes become matters of negotiation and, probably, added cost. It’s no secret that profits on large projects are made on the change orders. This places greater demands on “getting it right” in the original design, and this could both delay project delivery and lead to unexpected added cost.
One aspect of Fenn’s proposal that attracted comment and some friendly ridicule was the idea that Metrolinx would bill projects for its oversight role. Roger Anderson referred to this as the “Watch me dig a hole fee”, and Mayor Fred Eisenberger wondered how he might go about billing Metrolinx for all the work already paid for by municipal budgets.
Chair Bill Fisch (York Region) was concerned that project costs be properly accounted for so that the real cost of a plan be known, not just the portion officially carried by Metrolinx itself. Already in presentations of the draft RTP, we have heard remarks that the cost sharing between Metrolinx and the municipalities may vary from project to project, and some portions may not be approved as Metrolinx expenditures. Nobody has explained whether it is Metrolinx staff, MTO or the Board who will determine what constitutes “eligible” costs.
Chair Peter Smith was concerned about the implications of staffing up Metrolinx to provide a program management role based on his own experience at GO Transit, and he echoed concerns about duplication of resources.
Hazel McCallion worried that Metrolinx could be building a bureaucracy second to none, and that all the agency had managed to date with many consultants was to come up with plans close to what the municipalities had already produced. If this was to be the future of Metrolinx, she wants no part of it.
Mayor McCallion noted that an advisory committee of municipalities for the Presto card project never met until she pressed the Minister.
From my own sources, I know that meetings and information sharing between municipal staff and Metrolinx have come grudgingly and on at least one occasion only after intervention by the Premier’s office. This is not an agency that wants to share or debate anything, and the Board is right to be suspicious of its motives.
Through this debate, Michael Fenn made a number of points. The detailed capital budget (expected in October of November) will show the project costs, the expected split in charges between Metrolinx and the municipalities, and possibly the inclusion of past costs for full accounting. Fenn argued that it is not Metrolinx’ intent to duplicate expertise, only to provide arm’s-length information to the Board. (It’s worth noting that finding that “long arm” has taken Metrolinx across the pond to England for consulting advice on the benefits case analysis of transit projects.)
Rob MacIsaac argued that the Board must find a good balance, but that it should respect its role as providing due diligence on behalf of the Province for its tax dollars. He agreed that the Board’s comments were good, and that the report should be referred back to staff for further information on a number of topics. This will come forward on either the October or November Board agenda.
Throughout this debate, I couldn’t help wondering just who is working for whom here. There is a strong attitude of Provincial control against which the Board wrestles just to preserve some semblance of independence. The Mayors and Chairs representing half the population of Ontario should not be treated as rubber stamps.
Amid all the praise for the “achievements” of Metrolinx in such a short time, many forget (or choose to ignore) that years of work by municipal agencies provided the foundation for MoveOntario 2020 and in turn the Metrolinx Regional Transportation Plan.