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”.]

17 thoughts on “Is McGuinty Impatient With Metrolinx?

  1. Nice closing graph. I’ve heard the argument that MacIsaac isn’t needed now that he has ‘led’ Metrolinx to putting out The Big Move. But what about execution of his plan?

    Politicians should not be making these decisions – civil engineers and planners should. They have the know-how and experience to make decisions. Perfect example would be the Shepperd Subway. What a mess.

    Steve: I believe that execution of the Metrolinx plan can and will be performed by agencies and companies who have expertise in this just as the TTC and GO have been handling major projects for decades. However, political input is still needed.

    We need to reconcile the reach of the RTP with the actual financial resources available. This was always swept under the rug during the RTP’s creation. Draw maps now. Raise money later.

    To do this, we need detailed, accurate estimates of the cost, impacts and benefits of various network components, and groups of components that together achieve some goal in part of the GTAH. For example, the Richmond Hill subway is only one of at least half a dozen related projects. Without realistic estimates of costs and staging, and without proper evaluation of how the network will behave, nobody, not a politician nor a professional, certainly not we who will actually pay for it, can make an informed decision.

    The process needs to be transparent, not hidden under a bunch of pseudo private sector hocus pocus that purports to come up with a score indicating the value of each line. Leaving aside the methodology, such a process is fundamentally flawed simply by the assumptions behind each proposal and by the fact that each line is reviewed in isolation, not as part of a broader network.

    That idea about civil engineers and planners sounds good in theory if we could assume that they are true professionals who have the good of the city at heart. It doesn’t work that way.

    The politicians and the lobbyists (both those with technology to sell and those with property to develop) have all sorts of influence even in something as simple as drafting the evaluation criteria for new routes. The engineers and planners then work within those political (obvious and otherwise) directions. Indeed, planners are very good at cooking up evaluation schemes that will produce the desired output before the studies are done. It all depends on what is “important” from a scoring point of view.

    If you want an example of engineers with a monomania, look no further than the Bloor-Yonge expansion project and related schemes to increase capacity on the Yonge subway. This is a TTC staff project, and they’ve been itching to build it for years. However, the Metrolinx demand projections, the work of another set of professionals, show that if you build ALL of the regional plan including the Downtown Relief line and substantially increased GO capacity, then you don’t need any more capacity on the central part of the existing subway system.

    Two sets of “professionals” can come to different conclusions, in some cases for their own selfish interests.

    A while ago, the TTC was gung-ho to install new ventillation systems throughout the subway “for safety”. This happened to correspond with a dry patch in engineering and construction work. Once they found out how complex this would actually be, and other things like a few subway extensions and Transit City started bubbling away, “safety” for the subway wasn’t quite so pressing.

    If it were not for various physical and technical issues that can’t be resolved for a decade, the TTC would be out there tomorrow building platform doors as a make work project. No evaluation of the cost effectiveness. No wider discussion of whether money would be better spent on improved psychiatric facilities in the community. Just go build something because it gives the impression of doing something and keeps the professionals (and their army of consultants) in small change for a few years.

    Remember that we got Sheppard not just because of Mel Lastman, but because the TTC professionals cooked up a demand simulation for it that ignored the possible role of GO Transit in handling regional demand from the northeast. With no place else to put the projected demand, the model showed huge riding on the Sheppard Subway.

    At some point there needs to be public oversight of the way the “professionals” want to spend our money. How often have people railed against spendthrift bureaucrats wasting taxpayer dollars on idiotic schemes? How are these people transfigured from worms eating their way through tasty leaves into glamourous butterflies?


  2. So…what are you saying, Steve? Who should be planning, designing, and building transit systems? Who should the governments hire to do the job? If it’s not engineers and planners, who else? Transit advocates?

    Steve: That’s a snotty comment, and shows you didn’t read the post. Every area — transit, education, health care, social services — brings a mixture of professionals in the field, politicians who take an interest in the portfolio, informed citizen advocates and the public at large.

    I didn’t say that engineers and planners don’t have a role, only that they, like any group including advocates, need to operate in a framework that brings informed, open debate. No group has a monopoly on “the solution”. Difficult though it may seem at times, we all have to work together for the better of the GTAH’s transit system.

    We have a political system by which we elect governments to provide services and expect to retain, through that political machinery, some sort of control over what is done.

    Why is it OK for the Board of Trade to lobby to get the politicians out of the way at Metrolinx (an act, itself, that requires intervention by other politicians), but not OK for the public at large to have a voice in what is going on?

    Last year, the Board did hold up approval of the regional plan, but the final document was out the door by the end of the year. The Board had legitimate questions about the plan, and some changes improved the final product. The schedule for development and approval of the plan was incredibly tight, and we’re now playing catch-up with the detailed background work needed to underpin final selection and prioritization of the work.

    What we are seeing is a bunch of political spin, not professional advice, that undermines the role of local politicians. If someone wants to know why Metrolinx seems not to have done anything, then ask the organization, the staff, the Chair, about interference from Queen’s Park that didn’t want the issues of tolls, taxes and other funding mechanisms debated. Ask the staff and the Chair why there is little more than a bunch of lines on a map supporting multi-billion dollar decisions. Lots of nice pictures, but no detail.

    The Board can’t pick priorities because there’s no overall financial strategy or technical review of the “top 15” projects on which to base decisions.


  3. Steve, there is no need to take my comment personally – I did read your post. My comment was made in reaction to your response to Matthew, and I just wanted to read more of your view point on the subject matter. If your post was clear, I guess you wouldn’t have to write a 7-paragraph response to my comment, would you? 😉 Please don’t take this personally as well 🙂

    Steve: Thanks for the clarification. I wrote the long responses because both comments brought out levels of detail regarding my philosophy of how Metrolinx and public agencies in general should work that didn’t fit in the original piece about Rob MacIsaac’s distrust of his own Board.


  4. Meanwhile, here’s a warning for Toronto NOT to invest in Articulated buses (one of the main problems with them in Ottawa, probably the problem not refered to in the report because it would be too embarassing, is the fact that City Council decided it would be more effecient to use 4-cylinder instead of 6-cylinder engines. In a 60-foot bus!! No wonder three of them caught fire!)

    OC Transpo bent wrong way
    Quarter of articulated buses kept off the streets

    On a good day, OC Transpo can put about 84% of its buses on the road.

    But its 60-foot articulated buses, which cost about $750,000 apiece, are considerably less reliable.

    Due to “design deficiencies’ and other factors, on average fewer than 75% of these buses are running, the city’s transit committee was told yesterday.

    OC Transpo officials say the “reliability issues are well known” and their solution to correct the problem is purchasing new articulated buses.

    “Transit services will assess the investment plan to correct for the most pressing design deficiencies,” says the staff report, though it does not state what the deficiencies are.

    Steve: You can read the rest of the article by following the link above.

    Two points worth noting here. The artics in question have been around for a while, and the problems lie partly in their design, partly their age and partly in maintenance practices. A generally anti-artic outlook is worthwhile only to the point of ensuring any vehicles Toronto buys are going to be reliable. That’s one big reason we have not seen any orders for such buses — there hasn’t been an available design that the TTC is comfortable with.


  5. What is wrong with the artics used by Viva (in terms of reliability)?

    Steve: As far as I know, they work fine. The Ottawa issue is with an older fleet. However, the Viva artics are not built in Canada, and that’s a touchy issue these days.


  6. The important thing is that whenever a document comes out and says “Option A is better than Option B”, it needs to say *why*, and show it’s methodology.

    I’ve noticed you tend to be rather down on cost-benefit analysis, in part because they consider each line in isolation. That’s not a problem with CBAs in themselves – that’s a problem with how they are used. There’s no reason why you can’t do CBA for all sensible combinations (especially those where the whole is going to be better than the sum of its parts).

    Steve: Yes, I agree. Any methodology can be abused to “prove” whatever a project’s sponsors might want to achieve. What annoys me immensely is the patina of private sector respectability with which they try to cover evaluation of projects that are almost by definition never going to make money in the traditional sense. There are many social intangibles (value of improved connectivity, improved labour mobility, improved diversity of home and workplace location) and they are very hard to quantify. Yes, you can assign them a value, but the debate then becomes what their “worth” is in comparison to a $10-billion price tag.

    Seperately, aren’t transport planners paid to plan transport? I wouldn’t want a politican planning my healthcare system…

    Steve: Yes, transport planners plan transport and health care planners plan hospitals. However, politicians make decisions about funding for things like training health care professionals; operating expenses for hospitals; the balance between critical care, long term care and communuity clinics. Even the professional planners will only study the options they are told to study rather than advocating a range of alternatives some of which may not be politically popular.

    We live in a political system. Everyone complains about being overtaxed, about wasteful spending. Who is supposed to make decisions on our behalf? Politicians. However, we the public need to ensure that the politicians are not simply hiding behind “professionals” to advance specific options without a full, open debate.


  7. Oy vey! If the ENTIRE fleet of OC Transpo artics are old, then we do live in a throwaway society! (also bad for the environment, so much for green transit!). The first batch of these Flyer artics were built between 2001 and 2004, the last fifty within the last 12 months! What a poor excuse for bad technology and even worse maintenance proceedures!

    Steve: Interesting — the spin being put on the problem by OC Transpo is that the vehicles are elderly. Odd that the local press don’t pick up on such blatant nonsense.


  8. Low floor articulations seem to have a high rate of problems. I’ve never understood why, rather than have a 65% low floor bus they cannot have a 35% low floor bus, with the step-up before the articulation, and extra space down below.


  9. I can’t help but throw my two cents in on the issue of letting professional staff work without interference (or oversight). Steve, you have covered the political dynamic rather thoroughly, but we also need to keep in mind that the other thing that influences the decisions that staff make are the established institutional discourse. Left to their own devices even professional staff can get caught in the trap of over cautious inward looking planning. Knowing that a well informed vocal band of citizens will be critiquing every decision that is made can give staff the confidence to plan outside the Toronto context, or to say ‘yes’ this time when the corporate answer in the past has always been ‘no.’

    I often lament that citizens in the city are all to willing to let professionals, politicians and poorly written legislation decide their city’s future. Keep in mind that professional staff are human and that they inevitably bring their own set of values to every decision. They have made some great decisions in the past, but any reader of this blog will know that they have made some very bad ones. The more voices we have at the table the less chance this will happen again.

    Steve: Precisely. I do not advocating shutting the professionals out of the process. All voices need to be heard, but the argument “I’m a professional and therefore infallible” is self-serving crap that has no place at the table.

    What is quite amusing in all of this is that the two big arguments right now seem to be (a) the sequence in which major transit investments for the Yonge / Don Mills corridor should be built and (b) the technology appropriate for the future Eglinton line. We’re not arguing against transit in either case, only for what each side regards as an appropriate way to address the problem.

    Now if it were to turn out that one side has an interest that has been hidden from public view, that would change the dynamic, but we’ll never know whether we are getting unbiased advice unless we have the debate where everyone can hear it.

    If that’s obstructionism or NIBMYism, then someone is reading from a very warped dictionary.


  10. The somewhat ironic thing is that even in first year engineering classes, they emphasize the need to get everyone’s opinion and factor it into your technical knowledge to come up with a solution that not only works, but makes as many people as happy as possible. The only unfortunate thing that I see is that although I think political involvement is important in terms of the overall financial status of the government and for relaying the needs of the people in their ridings, it seems that it overrides other basic principles, leading to overbuilding of projects, and a preference over major corridors instead of a true network. In engineering we’re taught to lead projects and keep an open mind about all different perspectives but when politicians tend to head these projects, it becomes hard for the ‘professionals’ to do what they were taught to do, since they’ve now been delegated to a role of being a technical sided person only.


  11. I’d suggest there are a couple of other large areas where the “planning” isn’t really good enough. Basically west of Bathurst in the Lakeshore corridor and up through the Weston rail corridor and not necessarily to the Airport, but onto Jane St. or some similar north/nwestwards route.

    We haven’t been thinking of using Front St. – to harp on a theme – for some medium to heavy transit until just fairly recently with the DRL coming back up again.

    Meanwhile, piecemeal planning and piecemeal EAs and projects are making some decisions for us. ie. we may be committed to the WWLRT even though it’s not the best deal, and perhaps if we could get GO doing the Etobicoke to Union run every 20 or 30 minutes with 4-car trains, we wouldn’t need the WWLRT, though we likely do need some form of backup.

    Steve: The critical piece in all of this is fare integration between GO and the other regional services so that GO does not charge a premium fare. People travelling into downtown, especially off peak, are likely not bound for walking distance from Union.


  12. Does Mississauga have similar problems with its fleet of artics? I believe that they bought a number of them quite recently from New Flyer, the same models owned by OC. Also, what ever happened to the Nova design, or are they simply plugged up with Quebecois orders?


  13. The last thing the GTHA needs is a Metrolinx Board comprised entirely of Liberal Party hacks. And rest assured, if McGuinty is allowed to appoint the entire Board, it will be comprised entirely of his friends and supporters who, no matter their professional credentials, will only be too happy to rubber stamp whatever direction McGuinty gives them.

    I think local political representation on the Board is an effective way to protect local interests and to prevent multi-billion dollar decisions that are good for the Liberal Party of Ontario, but bad for the City of Toronto or the City of Hamilton or wherever else.

    I agree with you, Steve. The delays encountered thus far have little or nothing to do with the composition of the current Board and everything to do with the Premier and his cabinet. To try to portray it as anything else, to try to make the current Board out as the cause, is pure, unadulterated spin.


  14. Frankly, as far as I am concerned, if Rob MacIsaac wants to put RT technology on Eglinton (no matter how updated) he is disqualified for the chairmanship of Metrolinx.

    I don’t want to stereo-type exurbanites but so many of them seem to prefer ANYTHING to Streetcar/LRT technology. Having been finally weaned off of expressways they seem to lunge for either subways or something that appears futuristic. (How about flying saucers along Eglinton?).

    LRT is a proven technology which is adaptable to almost any situation. It is also proof that many of the streetcar and interurban lines that were torn up during the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s of the last century should instead have been upgraded.

    Anybody who doesn’t know that really isn’t qualified to be planning transit for this city and for the GTA.


  15. Re: Jonathon’s question about Mississauga articulated buses…

    Yes, Mississauga had about 35 of those same type of articulated New Flyer buses – except they were 1997 models, maybe 2-4 years older than the OC ones…

    And, Mississauga has scrapped all of them after about eleven years. The ones they have now are mostly the 2008 model, which replaced the ones from 1997. There is also ten from 2001 that are still in use – but they will likely be gone within the next two or three years.

    I absolutely cringe as a Mississauga taxpayer at how the powers that be have deemed a bus to be a twelve year asset. Of course we are talking about New Flyer here..but nevertheless, I would love reassurance that the dollars being spent on these vehicles are actually a good value and not just a cheap solution for today. The money that we have spent on God knows how many new buses since the 2005 Mississauga Transit spending orgy began is scary – the thought of having to repeat that and then some every twelve years is worrisome.

    But perhaps the REAL reason for the twelve year number is the general degrading of workmanship and materials used by the manufacturers today…lowering of the bar, so to speak…and so long as we are hooked on buying domestically we may get just what we pay for.


  16. Interesting rumour heard from an unnamed GO employee who says that GO has access to more money than it knows what to do with and that Metrolinx is poised to take over the operation of GO Transit. Have you heard anything along these lines?

    Steve: This is all part of the sabre rattling by Metrolinx trying to find a justification for its existence. I rather think that if Metrolinx takes over GO, they will quickly find that GO has taken over Metrolinx. GO actually knows one end of a train from another.

    If Metrolinx becomes an operating rather than a planning authority please, please do not let them use Lynx paws for the bus stop signs. Orlando Lynx or what ever it is called transit does this and it looks sick.


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