Metrolinx New Speak

Roger Brook passed on to me a formal reply from the Ministry of Transportation to various questions about the Metrolinx/GO merger.  In the quoted sections below, the questions are Roger’s, the answers are from Emna Dhahak, MTO Bilingual Senior Media Liaison Officer, Media and Issues Office.

Both Minister Bradley and Premier McGuinty have dug themselves into a rather deep hole with their convoluted explanations for the changes at GO and Metrolinx.  Rather than simply saying “Metrolinx and GO were always intended to merge and be governed by a board more like GO’s with few politicians”, we get bafflegab.  Not only that, it’s cut-and-paste bafflegab with the same paragraphs repeated in the answers.

1. The government decided to replace elected officials with independent appointees. What was the rationale for this? Please refer to specific examples of where elected officials on the board negatively impacted regional transportation decision-making.

The new board will be equipped with professional and corporate experience to help get shovels in the ground sooner on key transit lines in the Regional Transportation Plan.

We have acknowledged that the Regional Transportation Plan is excellent and thank the current board members for their visionary work in creating it. We are making record investments to take the Regional Transportation Plan off the drawing board and into service.

We recognize the value of municipal leaders in shaping the RTP and the important work Metrolinx did in consulting widely. Indeed, we will continue to value strong partnerships with our municipal leaders to achieve our goals.

2. Minister Bradley says that the new board is geared to implementation. Why would non-politicians be better at implementing than politicians like the chair of Canada’s largest transit agency or the mayor of the largest city?

The province will be investing provincial funds to develop these transit projects. The proposed legislation provides for provincial ownership and control of designated transit projects, allowing the costs of these projects to be amortized over the life of the asset. As when a homeowner buys a home, this allows the province to build the infrastructure now and enjoy the benefits while paying off the asset over a longer term.

The new board will also be equipped with professional and corporate experience to help get shovels in the ground sooner on key transit lines in the Regional Transportation Plan.

3. “Open meetings will no longer be required when the Corporation is considering adoption of its rolling five-year capital plan or its annual budget.” What prompted this change?

As Metrolinx’s annual budget and five-year capital plan are ultimately approved and funded by the province, it would be inappropriate for Metrolinx to discuss its draft budget and five-year capital plans in a public forum, as this would impact the province’s budgetary process. The Metrolinx draft budget and capital plans are considered advice to government, which has long been held to be confidential.

4. The TD bank had offered this warning:  The (Metrolinx) plan will fail because “the current configuration of Metrolinx is not conducive to private sector funding of public transit projects.” Does the Province agree? Was the stated opposition by some elected board members to certain aspects of AFP a major factor in the Province’s decision to replace the board?

The current Metrolinx Board did excellent work preparing a regional transportation plan for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. If the new legislation is passed, the new Board will be required to be guided by the RTP in their decision-making.

Now that the plan has been prepared, we are moving into an implementation phase. Merging GO Transit and Metrolinx will create an organization with the expertise to implement the transit infrastructure outlined in the Regional Transportation Plan. Metrolinx brings strategy development to the table and GO Transit has a proven record of transit operations and project management. Bringing these strengths together creates the right foundation to successfully implement projects. More and better infrastructure projects will mean better service and additional capacity to handle more riders.

The new board will also be equipped with professional and corporate experience to help get shovels in the ground sooner on key transit lines in the Regional Transportation Plan. The legislation allows the board to determine how best to get the job done, including the potential for entering into agreements with municipalities or others to develop, maintain and/or operate projects designated by the Minister as part of the regional transit system. For further information, contact Metrolinx.

The premise that getting shovels into the ground requires a new board is complete rubbish.  Metrolinx has been moving uncharacteristically quickly for a provincial agency (those words are even part of their logo).  They are midway through the very “Benefits Case Analyses” so dear to those who won’t spend a penny on public projects without some sort of “business case”, no matter how dubious, to give a patina of “private sector” thinking to their reviews.

Meanwhile, the TTC holds Transit City Public meetings, completes an EA for the Sheppard East line, and is hard at work designing the network.  Shovels could go in the ground any day, but for the EA process (which the Premier’s announcement shows won’t change) and the utter lack of funding (as opposed to announcements).

The Regional Plan is intended to be a living document, not cast in stone without review.  Indeed, the Premier’s own announcement adds the Finch to Don Mills extension that has never been in the RTP.  Will the new Metrolinx board have the power to tinker with the plan behind closed doors?  Is there anything more to the plan than a shopping list that Queen’s Park can cherry pick whenever it wants to announce transit funding, say on a four-year cycle?

The question of amortization is purely one of accounting, and it allows the cost to be spread out into future years on Queen’s Park’s books.  When you buy a house, you have a debt whether you pay it down in 10 years or 50, but you can always sell the house and, with luck, recover your money and effectively transfer the debt to the new owner.  If you build a transit line, the resale market isn’t huge except to outfits like those who bought Highway 407 and were given the right to jack up fees whenever they felt like it.  Is this how we want to develop our transit system?

As for confidential advice to the government, “hogwash” is too polite a term.  Nothing prevented the TTC from putting together 5 and 10 year capital spending projections including tentative plans for new lines.  The issue is not planning (which should be a public process) but of funding and budget allocations (which is a private matter assuming Queen’s Park will be funding most or all of the RTP).  The debate about project priorities and alternatives should occur in public because that is the only way people will understand, buy into the decisions, and have the chance to raise meaningful alternatives.

For example, the entire debate about the Downtown Relief Line stems not from NIMBYism, that much overused term to denigrate public discourse, but from a desire to resequence the RTP projects to improve network performance and avoid major spending on the Yonge Subway and Bloor-Yonge Station.  These are not just operational tradeoffs, but the very sort of “business case” analyses we hear so much about.

The TD Bank reference above is to “Time for a Vision of Ontario’s Economy” published last year shortly after the draft RTP was released.  It’s worth looking at the text of that document to see how the private sector views what is (or was at the time) going on.

Last week, Metrolinx released its draft integrated transportation plan for the GTA mapping out some $50 billion in projects over the next 25 years. A final plan will be released later this year following public consultations. However, in our view, the plan is unlikely to proceed under current circumstances:

The current governance structure needs to be altered to include representation by the province and the private sector. Given their varying interests, it is unlikely that the mayors on the board will agree on the plan’s details.

Not only does Metrolinx lack the legal authority to get things accomplished, funding for the plan (amounting to $11.5 billion or about one-fifth of the total) will likely have been fully used up by 2013. Efforts to secure project funding provides early assurance that a complete plan can be carried out and that there is value for money. Put another way, it reduces the risk of a fiscal hangover at the end.

The current configuration of Metrolinx is not conducive to private sector funding of public transit projects. There are undoubtedly many aspects of the plan where it would be efficient to fund through the private sector. Indeed, it is likely that parts of it could be hived off and done virtually completely as private operations.

A public transit plan must be put in a broader policy context including land use and private transportation
policies. Metrolinx does not have the authority or governance structure to ensure complementarity across
pollicy areas. A number of policies encourage urban sprawl, such as property tax structures that give incentives to move jobs out of the city core. By only having control over public transit, Metrolinx’s plan would inevitably exacerbate sprawl and the negative externalities it inflicts by making it more convenient for people and companies to locate further away from Toronto.

Public transportation must be put into a context of all modes of transportation and how they are costed. For example, the opportunities to cost recover through rider fees on public transit is determined to a degree by the cost of private transit. With the use of road tolls, local gasoline excise taxes and/or registration fees, there might be more scope to cost recover. As well, these type of broader transit policies could support the objectives of moving people from private to public modes and, hence, be complementary with the Metrolinx Plan.

In sum, these issues greatly lower the chances of success of the regional transportation plan. Metrolinx requires
legal authority, long-term funding and a provincial leadership role. And there needs to be greater recognition that the massive funding requirements will require a draw on private resources.

The statement about the mayors on the Metrolinx board being unable to agree is fascinating when one considers that they’ve been doing a rather good job.  However, those mayors do present two problems for Queen’s Park:

  • The suburban mayors deeply resent any efforts to tell them how to plan their municipalities.  An attempt by board member Paul Bedford to have the force of the RTP increased to take precedence over local plans was soundly defeated.  The mayors want their transit network, but they want their suburban developments too.  Oddly enough, the new Metrolinx legislation puts teeth into the RTP, but it remains to be seen whether Queen’s Park will actually force the 905 regions to bring their planning into line with various provincial policies.
  • The Metrolinx board was very concerned about financing of the network, and wanted to engage in detailed discussion about revenue tools this year.  Queen’s Park wants to put that off to 2013, well beyond the next election, but just in time for another round of financing announcements.

TD notes that the then-announced funding of $11.5-billion would run out long before the RTP was completed, and that secure funding is required.  This has been the single most-repeated call of transit agencies and politicians throughout the GTA for decades:  give us ongoing, predictable funding, not one-of announcements.  In this context, “funding” does not preclude some sort of private participation, but the mechanism must exist to continually plan and execute projects without years of delay in the funding process.

I have to say something about private sector funding here to clarify my position.  Queen’s Park uses the home mortgage example to explain their proposed financing.  If I buy a house, I agree to a fixed capital value of the mortgage and an interest rate that will run for some term.  Varying schemes might apply, but the manner in which the interest rate is set is agreed to as part of the mortgage contract.  In a worst case scenario, I can pay off the mortgage and move to another lender.  That’s private sector financing.

What I do not expect is that the mortgage holder can arbitrarily change payments for the use of my house with no mechanism for appeal and no way for me to anticipate or understand the rationale other than pure greed.  That is the highway 407 model, and is much more akin to my occupying a rental property with no mechanism for control, appeal or enforcement of maintenance standards.

When people talk about private sector partnerships, they do not clarify which model they propose (and those models may lie at either of the two extremes here or somewhere in between).  Our experience in Ontario is that the government gives away the store, the private sector takes little risk, and if it all falls apart, the taxpayer foots the bill anyhow.

What would happen if, for example, Bombardier were to privately finance the Eglinton line, but the costs and operational headaches went out of control?  Would Ontario negotiate a tight enough contact to enforce compliance?  Would transit service suffer?  Would Bombardier simply walk away from their investment, as they did in London, if staying in the business no longer made sense financially?

TD Bank concludes by saying that a regional plan won’t work without the clout to make municipalities conform to planning standards, without long term financial security and without leadership from Queen’s Park.

If that had been Premier McGuinty’s and Minister Bradley’s statement, they would have won no popularity contests among the GTAH mayors and chairs, but they would have made a lot more sense than the bilge pumped out of the media office.

12 thoughts on “Metrolinx New Speak

  1. Watch for Emna Dhahak to run for some office at some point. Emna is really sharpening the skill of answering a question with words that in no way come close to touching the subject of the question. Still, those skills need some more work: the answer to question 3 actually deals with open versus closed meetings! 😉

    By the way, what is official: GTAH or GTHA? I had been using the former until I was reminded recently that it was created to describe Metrolinx’s scope and they use ‘GTHA’ consistently.

    Steve: The recent announcements contain references to the GTA, to the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton, and to the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area. There does not seem to be any consistency yet.

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  2. Hi Steve:-

    When it comes to politics, didn’t one of the most influential, intelligent leaders that the world has known in this century say to the effect that “democracy isn’t perfect, but is by far and away better than any of the known alternatives?” Metrolinx was approaching that imperfect ideal, but no more it seems. I believe Winston Churchill meant, preferred to closed door dictatorial committee organizations. Yes, all powerful, single entity decisions can indeed be the best for us. ‘Take your medicine with a smile son!’ comes to mind! But we are not children of the supreme Metrolinx Mama, are we?

    Our elected officials, no matter what we think of them, are indeed our representatives. Fawning, beholding appointees are not necessicarily working in our best interests. Without transparency (a word that has been adopted in current governments ‘New Speak’) is encouraged to be practiced, not sidestepped! Us poor, we’d better know what’s good for us, minions are about to get our cod liver oil intravenously it seems, for the transparency is now gone. Too many are not going to realize, that while Metrolinx at inception wasn’t perfect, it was a damn site better than the remolded organization just passed and I fear that what little power we may have had is now gone and the world won’t even care.

    Dennis

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  3. Is it possible to get a copy of the questions that Metrolinx answered? The answers are obviously not for the questions that were printed above them. Were they?

    Steve: That is a direct copy of the email from Metrolinx. All I have done is to format it to clarify where the question ends and the “answer” starts.

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  4. I found Christopher Hume’s column on the topic (http://www.thestar.com/article/612966) enlightening and disturbing at the same time.

    Enlightening as it gave me an insight into Hume’s peculiar obsession with, and contempt for, ‘NIMBYs’ (a pejorative and near-useless term).

    Disturbing because it showed he finds anyone who shows a scintilla of scepticism towards any project-of-the-month isn’t to be entrusted with a vote, still less given a voice. The words ‘democratic mandate’ seem to mean nothing to Hume.

    The final paragraph is downright … ugh:

    ‘But if Torontonians today don’t thank McGuinty for what he has done, their children will.’

    This whole tone of “you’ll thank me for this when you’re older” is patronising in the extreme.

    Would it be extreme to think that this cheerleading of the redesign of the Metrolinx board (I include a Star editorial from April 1st) has anything to do with a former TorStar executive now being on the board?

    Dennis – the Churchill quotation is: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

    Steve: For as long as I can remember, the Star has been a champion of big government meddling in local affairs, right back to the formation of Metro Toronto in the 50s.

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  5. Those answers look like the scripted answers Sarah Palin gave in the debates. They just wanted more control to privatize. Don’t be surprised if you see GO/Metrolinx own the new lines and Bombardier operate them.

    Steve: It would not surprise me at all to find out that Bombardier already has a sweetheart deal for some of this. So much for planning and competitive tendering. If the 400-series of routes were not already taken for community buses, I would suggest using these numbers for the new PPP lines.

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  6. My comment is a very simple question: When is the money coming for Transit City? Were the announcements of this past week no more than a new set of announcements for the province to keep announcing over and over as the circumstances suit them?

    Steve: The difference here is that Queen’s Park has pre-empted the process it started of having Metrolinx launch projects from its “top 15” list. It is now clear that we’re back to having major project announcements come from the government, not from Metrolinx. Metrolinx plans, the government announces, and Metrolinx builds.

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  7. M. Briganti said : “Don’t be surprised if you see GO/Metrolinx own the new lines and Bombardier operate them.”

    Ah. You mean just like the O-Train in Ottawa (and any future potential O-Train line). Watch out Toronto, with Metrolinx, Bombardier is out to own you!

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  8. I really don’t get it – How did Bombardier ever develop such political sway in Ontario? I thought it was the Feds who bent over backwards for The French because it was the only way to win national elections.

    Steve: Bombardier = Jobs and they play that advantage at every opportunity. They are also big into design-build-operate-maintain contracts that provide ongoing revenue (and probably better markups) than just building vehicles. Their business plan fits right in with the view that the private sector can do it “better”. I am not convinced, especially when we need a full accounting of the tax benefits that flow to a private operation and amount to an indirect subsidy not available to a public undertaking.

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  9. If design-build-operate-maintain contracts is Bombardier’s idea of service and maintenance, then God help anybody who buys Bombardier. An example: if an O-Train unit breaks down in service, effectively shutting down the line (single-track, with one passing track at Carleton Stn.), they have to wait until someone from Bombardier’s facilities in Montreal to come and fix the problem.
    Imagine a disabled LRT somewhere along the Eglinton corrdior. Better bring personal emergency supplies with you.

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  10. Steve said: “Metrolinx plans, the government announces, and Metrolinx builds”.

    But is the money actjually coming? At this point I don’t greatly care if the President of Uganda sends it. I just want to know if the money is actually coming this time. The mayor certainly seemed pleased but I’m afraid those shovels waitng to go in the ground are starting to rust.

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  11. Steve,

    I live in Scarborough and I have mentioned it many times to you at TTC commission meetings and trac gtha meetings as well … we get the shit end of the stick.

    So Metrolinx will be governed by private bed-mates of Dalton who most likely will think regionally (or whatever makes them look like they do something). I am sure these private board members will be paid more than politician board members.

    So now the Scarborough-Malvern LRT is bye bye (not that it was at the top of the list of the TTC much – comparing to the other LRT lines).

    Steve: This is not confirmed, and the study of this line is still underway.

    Eventually Metrolinx will take over all the public transit. Toronto has the best transit system in the GTHA. So having full Transit agency across the region, Toronto will suffer.

    The only non-politician “transit person” I trust is you. What’s to stop these Dalton bed-mates from not doing their jobs properly/screwing up? If my councilor does a very miserable job…my neighbours and I can “fire him” during the next elections.

    What will my options be as a citizen if this giant Godzilla doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do? My rights have just being burned away.

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