For the past few months, Metrolinx has been rather quiet as Queen’s Park worked through the legislation abolishing the old board and merging GO Transit into Metrolinx. How is “Metrolinx 2” going to work? What are its priorities? The transitional board has been meeting informally, and signs of change have been obvious in recent announcements such as the GO Electrification Study.
On June 9 and 10, the new President and CEO of Metrolinx, J. Robert S. Prichard, more commonly known simply as “Rob”, gave similar speeches to the Greater Toronto Marketing Alliance and the Building Industry and Land Development Association. These are available from the Presentations page on the Metrolinx site in both text and Powerpoint versions. (Both are saved as PDFs.)
Much of the content is in the “rah rah, we’re a new agency with a new mandate” cheerleading vein, but some points are worth noting.
Metrolinx has a mandate to actually do things, and do them quickly. In times past, this took on an aggressive, negative tone attacking NIMBYism and suggesting that anyone perceived to get in the way would be pushed aside. Today, the need for action remains, but it is presented as a widely supported, long overdue program to reverse the damage of lost decades of underinvestment in transit infrastructure.
Prichard cites priorities he has received from Premier McGuinty, and the focus is on results, not on process.
- Get it done. Residents … are tired of announcements.
- Improve the quality, reliability and availability of GO Transit.
- Develop an investment strategy to fund programs beyond the initial $10-billion already allocated.
That list implies things were not happening under the old Metrolinx, and we’ve heard rumblings about unco-operative, foot-dragging politicians. More about them later.
Yes, we are all tired of announcements, and it’s refreshing to know that not only will money be pledged, it will actually be spent. (Earth to Ottawa: Are you listening?) I have shelves full of plans, but I can’t actually visit the sites or ride the lines because they remain only on paper. In a few cases, this is a blessing in disguise.
McGuinty flags improving GO service quality as one of his three priorities, and this shows that riders’ complaints about reliability are hitting where it counts. We can spend billions on construction, but if we cannot run service properly, voters see this as a waste rather than a valued improvement. Local transit operators, notably the TTC, who are at least as important in the regional context as GO itself, must also take this seriously rather than concocting endless excuses for poor performance.
The investment strategy is the heart of Metrolinx because without money, they’re just a nice bunch of folks drawing lines on maps. Prichard’s words are worth quoting:
Great public transit depends on regular sustained capital and operating funding. It is a pre-eminent public good and we need to pay for it together. Our legislative mandate calls for us to table an investment plan by 2013, but we can’t wait until then to engage the citizens of the GTHA. Get the best ideas on the table, get the debate going and get the citizens engaged with it, says the Premier.
While the old Metrolinx board still existed, funding was a major concern not just for capital programs, but for ongoing operations. The scope extended beyond Metrolinx projects to local transit systems. Such discussions tended to be sidelined, and it was clear that Chair Rob MacIsaac didn’t want this sort of thing to get a lot of public attention. Now we are told that the Premier himself wants the debate about financing transit up and running.
Today’s story is that local politicians unanimously supported “The Big Move” and by doing so “addressed not just their individual needs but the needs of the Region as a whole. They did an excellent job.” For their hard work, they were ejected from the board by legislative fiat amid comments that they were an unco-operative, small-minded bunch. Now they’re gone and the story has changed.
… [T]ransit requires sustained, not periodic, investments, a steady and predictable source of support that permits long-range planning, continuous improvement, growth and adequate operating and maintenance funding. How, not whether, to deliver this sustained funding is the question we must address.
Prichard trumpets “The Big Move” as a strategic, long-term vision. Yes, certainly it’s a vision, but one that must be adapted as conditions change and as the implications of various proposals become clear. Already we have seen an extension of the Finch LRT line east to Don Mills Station appear simply as part of a funding announcement, and GO electrification has moved off of the back burner thanks to the Weston corridor controversy. The plan itself acknowledges that it is a descriptive document, not an unchangeable prescription for our transit future.
Metrolinx 2 would do well to remember this and engage the public and local politicians on fine tuning. One notable example here is the Downtown Relief Line, a vital part of the transit network into central Toronto. This post is not the place to rehash the arguments about alignment — there are extensive comment threads elsewhere on this site. The core issue is that extension of the rapid transit network into the 905, particularly to Richmond Hill, will overload the existing system. The TTC acknowledges this, and Toronto City Council wants the DRL built as a co-requisite of the Yonge Subway extension.
We need to know the options for the DRL and for the Don Mills corridor generally, and the benefits they may have in avoiding additional cost and constraints in trying to fit additional passengers through a congested Yonge subway.
That Richmond Hill extension is notably absent from the list of current projects in Prichard’s speech (York Viva, Finch, Sheppard East, Scarborough, Eglinton, Spadina Subway extension, Airport link and GO expansion). I do hope that it won’t elbow its way to the foreground in another funding-by-press-conference. There is no question the line deserves discussion, but we need to put it in a larger, regional context.
Metrolinx built “The Big Move” as a network recognizing that planning one line at a time was counterproductive. Unfortunately, that network view disappeared almost as quickly as the RTP was published. Toronto’s objection to the Richmond Hill line was painted as obstruction when, in fact, it was intended to broaden the discussion to include alternative ways of distributing the commuting load on the transit system. Pre-empting that discussion subverts the very process Metrolinx was set up to drive.
After years of fighting neighbourhoods over the impact of the Weston corridor, GO/Metrolinx gives the impression of a conciliatory stance. The details belong in another post, but the significant points include:
- An apparent resolution of the Strachan Avenue grade separation design issues in a manner that combines the City’s concerns about the intrusiveness of a new structure with GO’s concerns about the effect of grades on the rail lines.
- A design charette in Weston that yielded ideas for handling the contentious John Street crossing as well as many other neighbourhood issues.
- Commitment to a study of electrification of the GO system to report by late 2010, much earlier than anticipated by the timelines in “The Big Move”.
Projects built with Metrolinx funding will be owned by Metrolinx, but they will in many cases by operated by the local transit system. This is mainly an accounting issue so that Queen’s Park can expense capital contributions over decades rather than all in the years of construction. What remains unclear is the degree to which Metrolinx will intrude in operations in issues such as maintenance standards and service quality.
Prichard talks of partnerships with the private sector, but this is now part of a longer list including “municipalities and their transit systems”. The point is that each type of agency or company brings something to the table, and none of them should be rejected or preferred on an arbitrary basis.
The new Metrolinx board is a mixture of former GO and Metrolinx directors as well as several newcomers with varied backgrounds. Some of them are well known, while others are a mystery, at least as would-be leaders in the transit field. For example, Paul Bedford, a carry-over from the original Metrolinx board and former Chief Planner of the City of Toronto, is on record favouring early construction of the Downtown Relief Line, a comprehensive study of GO electrification, and inclusion of the Air Rail link as part of an electrified network. Former GO directors will likely be more conservative reflecting GO’s preference to run more trains rather than spending on electrification.
By legislative constraint, none of them can be sitting politicians. All the same, those politicians represent the very municipal sector that Metrolinx sees as an important partner in its work. Although the board is required to hold public meetings only for limited types of business, outreach will be vital at the political, staff and community levels. Many issues were left undecided by “The Big Move”, and public discussions, public engagement are essential to Metrolinx’ success.
“Metrolinx 1” started with many fine words, but ultimately turned inwards becoming hypersensitive to criticism. “Metrolinx 2” may be a fresh start, and with luck and dedication, we will see real progress in building transit for the GTA. My gut feeling is one of suspicion (decades of watching transit agencies does this to anyone), but this is too important a mandate to be wasted. Metrolinx will be measured not by the speeches it gives, but by truly including the public and its municipal “partners”, and building support for major, ongoing investments in our transit network.