Is McGuinty Impatient With Metrolinx?

A story in last Sunday’s Toronto Sun claimed that Premier McGuinty is miffed at delays by municipal politicians that  get in the way of spending money on transit.  Reaction from sitting members of the Metrolinx board reads quite the opposite (both in that article and a followup piece), and my own take on the Board from personal observation is that they are getting on very well.  They would love to spend money if only Queen’s Park would actually let them.

The problem lies with the part-time chair, Rob MacIsaac, who doesn’t understand the difference between being a leader and being a dictator.  Some of the decisions have not gone his way, and major debates are still in progress on two large groups of projects:

  • Eglinton and Scarborough RT/LRT.  Before the draft regional plan even came out, MacIsaac plumped for an updated RT technology line along Eglinton in complete defiance of Toronto’s stated desire to build this route as LRT.  Moreover, Eglinton and Scarborough are pushed as one continuous route from Malvern to the airport.  MacIsaac was rightly criticised for jumping the gun on his own regional plan, but he wasn’t too happy about it.
  • Yonge Richmond Hill Subway.  This is a high priority project for many, but Toronto had the temerity to suggest that more was involved than just building more subway track.  There is the capacity of the existing line and its stations to take into account.

In both cases there are valid technical and planning arguments to be heard.  Some at Metrolinx seem to think the Regional Plan, which describes itself as a guideline, not as a cast-in-stone design, is inviolate and to question it is just about treasonous.  This is total hogwash.

Metrolinx screwed up badly in two ways.  First it conducted much of its planning in secret, despite a lot of pro forma public consultation, and changes to the general direction of the plan were not well received.  Second, Metrolinx has produced a network and associated demand model for 2031 that may work perfectly well provided that we built it all and the wheels don’t come off anywhere in the meantime.  What they did not look at is a “Plan B” in case we don’t have enough money, or even a staging exercise of how interim versions of the network will perform.

There are things to like and things deserving of valid, constructive criticism in the plan, but the word “NIMBY” is heard more and more these days as a catch-all epithet to drown out real debate.  This is unworthy of the plan and of the Premier’s goals with MoveOntario 2020.

The Sun reports:

But instead of a dragon slayer, there is growing concern that the Metrolinx board, dominated by municipal politicians, is enabling red tape, funding disputes, resident opposition and parochial decision-making.

Those who have expressed concern with the “consensus” goverance model include its chair and, sources tell Sun Media, Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Dalton McGuinty doesn’t sit in the meetings, and we have to assume that someone is whispering in his ear claiming all is not well in Metrolinxland.  Chair MacIsaac does, but his Board has a mind of its own.

Red tape?  Look no further than the byzantine approval process for projects that were already proposed by municipalities and annonced as part of MoveOntario. 

  • The TTC can study all it likes, but it’s on the City of Toronto’s dime unless Metrolinx feels the project is worthy of design funding.
  • Then we get a super-fast Transit EA, but it’s so fast that we have to do a lot of work before even officially starting it so that we have some idea of what we might be building.
  • Then we have to submit not only the EA, but also put up with the “Benefits Case Analysis”, a process that brings a bunch of dubious economic arguments to evaluating options for a line.  They sound good, but the intent is to wrap some quasi private sector value for money analysis around the project, and the methodology is open to question because so much underlying information is not published.  The BCA may completely overturn the results of the EA, or of other network plans, but there is no way to challenge it, much less review its content.
  • When the BCA doesn’t come out the way it is expected (see Scarborough RT BCA which actually supports conversion to LRT), we have to find some way to delay even further such as linking this with another project (the Eglinton line).
  • Construction is dependent on provincial budgetary decisions, even though MoveOntario was supposed to be financed with borrowed money and paid for after lines actually started to run.

Funding disputes?  Well, that’s no surprise given that the original $11.6-billion from MoveOntario assumed that Ottawa would kick in a 1/3 share and top up the pot to about $18-billion.  Fat chance, but it allowed McGuinty to announce a list of projects he couldn’t possibly pay for, never mind the inevitable inflation in projected costs for all of them.  When money is tight, politicians jockey for position in the queue.

Toronto isn’t trying to block the Richmond Hill subway, but there are many valid questions about the timing of various projects such as Richmond Hill GO improvements and alternative ways of adding to subway capacity.  The problem here is as much with TTC staff as with the politicians.  When Metrolinx own demand projections show that there may be a better set of projects that would accomplish all of the goals, and Toronto says “we think you should look at these options”, that’s not obstructionism, that’s trying to build the network in an optimal way.

Resident opposition?  That sounds like the Weston Corridor debate, something that has been largely outside of Metrolinx until the recent reassignment of the study from GO.

Parochial decision making?  The Metrolinx Board is a model of co-operation.  If anything, Metrolinx itself has failed to address funding concerns for local transit systems without which the regional plan is meaningless.  Local policians may be forgiven for wondering how they will pay for their share of the whole system.  That’s a policy problem from Queen’s Park, not the Board.

If the Premier’s has sleepless nights thanks to such a biased view of Metrolinx operation, it doesn’t say much for his ability to collect political intelligence.  On the other hand, if he has a private agenda requiring hands on management by his office, he should tell everyone what it is and stop pretending the regions have anything to do with transportation.  Wear the problems and the challenges, don’t just show up for the photo ops.

If the Sun article clearly reflects Rob MacIsaac’s view of his own Board, then he has some explaining to do.  “Leaders” don’t slag their own.  That part-time job at Mohawk College should become full time.

[For those who are just coming to this article, there is a long comment about the role of politicians and “professionals”.]