Today the Government of Ontario announced that GO Transit and Metrolinx would be merged together in one agency. Some sort of takeover was contemplated in the original Metrolinx legislation which proposed that GO become a division of Metrolinx, but this part of the bill was never proclaimed.
Since last fall when the Regional Transportation Plan emerged, some at Metrolinx have spoken darkly, and usually privately, about how the politicians are getting in the way of accomplishing Metrolinx’ manifest destiny. Not long ago, a report on the innocent matter of cross-border fare integration showed Metrolinx’ staff’s true colours and their hunger for power over local transit agencies. Now Queen’s Park has stepped in.
This is hardly a shotgun marriage, but it came as a big surprise to the local politicians who make up the current Metrolinx board. This group has been accused of being dysfunctional and obstructionist when in fact anyone who actually watches the board at work sees a truly collegial group of senior politicians who are trying to do the right thing both for their own cities and for the region as a whole. The 416-vs-905 dynamic everyone thought might doom Metrolinx never developed.
Problems lay, however, in Metrolinx staff and its Chair, Rob MaacIsaac. Although the agency professed to want as much public input as possible, this was stage managed to produce feel-good support for Metrolinx work, and dissent was actively discouraged. When the Board asked for a few extra months to fine-tune the RTP, a process that anyone who saw early drafts will know made a huge improvement to the final product, they were seen as delaying progress even though the plan did come out on time.
If anything, the foot-dragging lies at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa, neither of which has shown much love for actually paying for transit projects. Lots of promises, but no money. Indeed, the whole concept of multi-party funding schemes is a guarantee of inaction.
What will be the effect of this merger? In the short term, many things are unknown, but there is good reason to worry that Queen’s Park may actually have derailed the very agency that was on the verge of building a regional network.
The New Board
There will be a Transition Advisory Board and eventually a formally constituted first Board of the new Metrolinx. The legislation explicitly forbids a politician or an employee of a local municipality from sitting on the Board.
The Advisory Board includes
- Rob MacIsaac and Peter Smith, chairs of Metrolinx and GO respectively,
- Paul Bedford, former Chief Planner for the City of Toronto and Metrolinx Board member,
- Stephen Smith, Vice-Chair of GO Transit
- Jennifer Babe and Lee Parsons, members of the GO Board,
- Rahul Bhardwaj, President and CEO of the Toronto Community Foundation,
- Tony Gagliano of St. Joseph’s Communications,
- Rose Patten of BMO Financial Group,
- Nicolas Mutton of Four Seasons Hotels,
- Elyse Allan of GE Canada, and formerly head of the Toronto Board of Trade,
- Robert Pritchard of TorStar, and formerly of the University of Toronto.
Robert Pritchard has the special title ot “Transition Advisor”, although I could not help wondering whether it’s more one of marriage broker, someone who will find a way to get the two organizations living under one roof.
Only five of fifteen are sitting members of GO or Metrolinx, and transit experience is not thick among their resumés. No doubt they are all experts in their own field, but I can’t help wondering how long it will take them to digest the Regional Plan and understand how it works. If they are particularly clever, they will see its faults including problems with financing, the sequencing and cost of projects and the lack of integration with local transit systems. Would the new board start to second guess the plan, or will they be expected to leave it untouched? What is their real job?
The new board is directed by legislation to discuss certain things in public meetings, as well as anything else it feels like exposing to view. The old Metrolinx was secretive enough, and I doubt a board consisting of “private sector” representatives will like to conduct its work under glass. The board meets in public:
- On any occasion it determines,
- When the board is adoping or amending a regional transportatioj plan,
- When the board is considering approval of an investment strategy,
- When the corporation’s annual report is presented,
- When the corporation is considering a by-law to change the fares charged on its system.
Notable by their absence are requirements to actually discuss the investment strategy or anything to do with capital planning and projects, or the Metrolinx budget in public. This is a change from the previous Metrolinx legislation [See Greater Toronto Transportation Act S11(3)].
The new Metrolinx is charged with producing an Investment Strategy, including possible new revenue tools, before June 1, 2013, but conveniently beyond the next Provincial election. The current board, worried about its ability to actually fund the great scheme, was on the verge of launching such a discussion this year, but such rash behaviour doesn’t fit with today’s economic and political climate.
Although today’s statement to the House by the Hon. Jim Bradley, Minister of Transportation, claimed that the new agency would be required to consult with local municipalities, it is unclear from the legislation just how much actual discussion or input the locals will have in decisions taken at the regional agency.
Who Owns the Projects?
The new Metrolinx is charged with building, or causing to be built, the lines in the Regional Plan. Moreover, Metrolinx will own any new assets it builds and will treat them as capital property including depreciation. This may seem like a nice bit of accounting, but it will place the ongoing cost of debt servicing and eventual capital repayment in full view. Or it would if the agency had to discuss its budget in public.
If Metrolinx also becomes a revenue generating agency either through dedicated streams such as tolls or regional taxes, or through ongoing grants, the question remains whether it will attempt to place some of that capital burden on the customers of its system. There’s no reason to suspect this is the case today, but the secrecy about budgeting makes it impossible to know in the future how money is flowing through the Metrolinx accounts.
The ownership issue raises thorny questions about the future of “local” projects like Transit City, the subway extensions, and many other projects that were developed and sponsored at the municipal level. Will the cities continue to fund and manage development of these schemes, or will Metrolinx appropriate them to the regional level? Have we lost all of the momentum, all the experience of teaching politicians, professionals, the media and the general public about LRT, about forms of transit that don’t cost the earth to build, extend and maintain?
Will the municipalities even be able to launch studies into schemes that are not blessed by inclusion in the RTP? How do we integrate discussions of changes such as an earlier build of the Downtown Relief line? Where do the TTC’s add-ons such as the Bloor-Yonge reconstruction and the need for a much larger subway fleet sit in?
What happens to major funding requirements for local operations and capital? Metrolinx was just starting to grapple with these issues, a major point for all of the regional politicians who have now been dispatched from the board table.
When the TTC selects a vendor for new streetcars in April, who will pay for them, indeed, will the TTC even be allowed to make such a decision?
Will Metrolinx with its resolutely regional outlook on transit even understand how Transit City and other proposals address fine-grained local demands and planning goals? Will the desire to get to the airport quickly from Pickering take precedent over supporting medium density land use on Eglinton Avenue?
The legislation contains many references to agreements with municipalities either for the provision of transit services by Metrolinx, or commercial arrangements with municipalities to build and operate parts of the regional network. However, the political question is whether the municipalities have lost the ability to determine the character of the components of that network. The regional plan is only lines on a map, some without even a definitive choice of technology, much less implementation specifics such as station location and alignment. Who directs the detailed design?
Where, exactly, the new Metrolinx is headed won’t be clear for a few weeks at least until its new Board has a chance to meet and we get a sense of how involved, if at all, the public will be in the process of reshaping the combined entity.
Both partners bring less than stellar records of sensitivity to public criticism, and this really has to change. Calling everyone who doesn’t agree with every detail of a plan a NIMBY and working to discredit them is unworthy of a public agency. If a plan is good, it stands on its own, and can benefit from constructive criticism.
Plans are treated as if they were carved in the stones of Queen’s Park when, in fact, they are only a collection of lines on a map. The Premier’s MoveOntario 2020 announcement was little more than a compendium of every then-extant local transit proposal, many of them with flaws that needed changing for a truly regional plan. That’s what Metrolinx was about. In turn, the Metrolinx plan needs fine tuning, but the plan overall is not so delicate that it cannot survive.
Even though Metrolinx is a regional agency, many of its proposed services are local in nature. GO itself will evolve beyond recognition once it operates frequent, all day, two way service on its major corridors. Neither Metrolinx nor GO shows much interest in local, off-peak, and non-core-oriented services, but these will be essential to the success of the regional network.
If the new Metrolinx chooses to meet mainly in private, to become a little club for people with some but not much actual knowledge of the region and its transit needs, to enter into contracts without benefit of public scrutiny, then we will have made a huge step backwards. The new Metrolinx has a chance to engage the public, and it should do so, meaningfully, at every opportunity.