Updated July 6, 2010: Metrolinx has now published the Benefits Cases Analyses for the Hurontario, Dundas, Durham and GO projects. I will comment on these in a separate post.
The original article from July 2 follows below:
This article is a followup to the agenda preview I posted on June 28, 2010. It is a rather lengthy commentary, as much an editorial as a report on events, with the intent of reviewing Metrolinx’ role over coming months and the complexity of the work facing the organization.
The Metrolinx Board met on June 30 to consider a lengthy agenda, although as usual much of this was considered in private session.
Much of the Board was silent throughout the public meeting, to the point where I begin to doubt the usefulness of this body. They may have brilliant, extended discussion in private, but we will never know what, if anything, they contribute, nor where they stand on major issues. This is a significant barrier to the Board’s credibility, and their infrequent public meetings reinforce the sense that the organization is run by the staff with little of the professional, private-sector input claimed for the reconstituted Board.
More was said by two visiting politicians, Mayors McCallion and Fennell of Mississauga and Brampton respectively, who attended for the presentation of reports on planned transit projects in their municipalities. Even though Metrolinx Board procedures explicitly ban deputations, both Mayors were invited to speak to the meeting. I doubt that a politician critical of Metrolinx would be afforded the same courtesy.
As she did repeatedly on the board of “Metrolinx I” (which was demolished because Queen’s Park thinks that politicians can’t be trusted with the job), Mayor McCallion raised the issue of how everything will be paid for. This is a topic everyone knows we must address, but the conversation never quite gets started.
McCallion went on to talk about the effects of growth in municipalities beyond her own and noted that congestion had reached the point where logistics companies were looking to move from Mississauga out to regions such as Kitchener-Waterloo. Whether the comparatively limited transit plans for the GTA will make a dent in growing congestion in the 905 remains to be seen.
Benefits Case Analyses
Staff presented an overview of the Benefits Case Analyses for four projects, but at this point we know little more about them than the overview report from the agenda because they have not yet been published on the Metrolinx website. This is a good example of how Metrolinx drops the ball on basic procedure. How can the public be expected to understand and comment on the agency’s work when it does not publish documents that are on the so-called public agenda? The Board cannot receive public input on the documents because approval to release them, even as drafts, does not occur until the meeting where they are discussed. At this writing (July 2), they are still not online.
This is not a trivial matter because the BCAs are part of a broad process that will lead to prioritization of future spending with effects as early as the Ontario budget preparations for 2011 which begin later this year. Moreover, Queen’s Park will initiate a 10-year capital budget forecast, and project priorities will be much harder to change once quasi-commitments appears in a 10-year projection. The most determined advocacy runs aground on completed, approved studies that may not be worth the paper they are printed on.
From comments at public meetings, we know that Metrolinx staff acknowledges that demand projections for components of The Big Move are wrong. Many of the metrics used in BCAs (numbers of riders, benefits of diverting trips from auto to transit, capital and operating costs, effects on other network components) depend on reasonably accurate demand forecasts. The numbers for GO transit now used in the Electrification Study are much lower than those in TBM’s network model. How many other adjustments are needed? Are the numbers even credible given that they presume full build-out of the 25-year network rather than some intermediate configuration forced on us by economic constraints?
When The Big Move was proposed, technology options were, charitably speaking, poorly understood. The Electrification Study has already poked holes in some assumptions about commuter rail. LRT became part of TBM’s network only thanks to dogged insistence by the City of Toronto advocating for Transit City. Oddly enough, a Hurontario LRT is now a brilliant gleam in Metrolinx’ eye, a Hamilton LRT seems likely, and funding has been announced for LRT lines in both Ottawa and Kitchener-Waterloo.
Metrolinx Director Paul Bedford wanted to see employment projections for the Hurontario line, and emphasized that a network view of its function is required. Director Leigh Parsons wondered why the BCA for the Dundas BRT line shows a higher development potential for full BRT than for a mixed implementation with LRT east from Hurontario to Kipling Station. (LRT is modelled to show better development effects than BRT; therefore, BRT+LRT should rank higher than BRT alone.)
It turns out that the only option using LRT that was evaluated included “BRT Light” from Hurontario west to Burlington. (“BRT Light” is little more than a regular bus operation with selective transit priority measures where they can be fitted in.) Therefore, the development that full BRT might create on the west leg was not credited to the LRT option, and we have an apples-to-oranges comparison.
An obvious question about the Hurontario and Dundas studies is this: were the lines considered in isolation, or were the network effects of having LRT on Hurontario and on Dundas (at least the segment east from Hurontario) included? What are the projected demands on each link in the network? How would a transfer hub at Dundas/Hurontario operate? Did the Dundas BCA charge the LRT option with the cost of maintenance facilities, or did it assume this would be included as an increment on the capacity of a Hurontario LRT yard? We don’t know because Metrolinx has not published the reports or the design details used in the cost buildups.
Metrolinx wants to emulate Toronto’s approach with Transit City — have many projects through preliminary design, review and prioritization so that work can begin on them the moment funding is available. By implication, the exercise also identifies how much we have to spend in what timeframe to achieve the goals of moving the GTA to a more transit-oriented future.
The model is flawed because Metrolinx won’t actually fund the preliminary design and engineering for projects, but expects instead that municipalities will (as Toronto has for Transit City) fund this on their own. The costs would be paid back as and when a project is approved, but this inevitably skews the process to projects that have political support in each municipality. Metrolinx will fund the Benefits Case Analyses, but again we have seen that these can be highly subjective and may omit worthwhile options thanks to political interference or a poor understanding of a project’s role in the larger network.
The very reason Queen’s Park removed politicians from Metrolinx was to avoid political interference, and yet if there were a project the new Board felt deserved detailed study, it would still need municipal buy-in and funding just to get started.
This is a Catch-22 situation. A “good” Metrolinx faced with a “bad” municipality could have difficulties with a project due to an auto-centric council, or one which gerrymandered proposals to serve local interests. However, a “good” pro-transit city might find itself fighting with a “bad” Metrolinx driven by bias at the regional or provincial level, or by commercial considerations having little to do with good transit planning. Try as we might, we will never remove politics from the process. The best we can hope for is as open, well-informed and trusted a process as possible so that the plans it generates and the funding it requires are broadly accepted.
The Big Move 2.0 and Project Prioritization
A complete review of The Big Move will lead to “The Big Move 2.0”. This process involves a great deal of work by Metrolinx staff and public participation to understand and critique the options going forward. Where will the Metrolinx Directors stand in all of this? Will they offer public opinions? Will they participate in open debates? Will we have any sense that they listen or contribute to the process? Will they simply rubber-stamp whatever recommendations the staff produce?
Some of the machinery already in place for “consultation” will be recycled for TBM 2.0 including the original advisory groups. I was blackballed from any participation in TBM 1.0 and expect that any contributions to 2.0 will arise in these pages.
Paul Bedford raised a few questions about the status of the Downtown Relief Line (DRL), the role and nature of transit “hubs”, the revision of demand projections and the overall clarity of the process. He noted that the proposed hub at Jane and Eglinton is in the middle of a field, and suggested that part of revising TBM would include revisiting the location and nature of proposed hubs. (The cynics among us might suggest that the hub at Jane/Eglinton is a leftover of an early Metrolinx scheme to bring the Mississauga busway to that location where it would meet an ICTS line to Scarborough Town Centre. Traces of this can still be found in current reports.)
To the idea that some hubs might be removed from the map, Chair Rob MacIsaac cautioned that this was fraught with political danger and the possibility of “dot envy” among municipalities.
CEO Prichard noted that consultation and political feedback are essential to the process.
So much for a politician-free Metrolinx.
Director Richard Koroscil wondered when Metrolinx would address issues of freight capacity as part of its network planning. This brings me to the uneasy marriage of roles between the Metrolinx transit planning function, GO Transit’s (mainly) rail operations, and the Ministry of Transportation’s highway planning and construction mandate. Metrolinx has never discussed roads other than as corridors where demand might be relieved by transit projects, and it’s hard to believe that MTO will ever give up its primacy as highway builders. GO Transit’s own 2020 plans are to merge into TBM 2.0, and yet Metrolinx staff argue that GO projects are somehow superior to other Metrolinx or local schemes by virtue of GO’s “regional” nature.
This is hogwash. GO is one operator among many, and both the TTC and local systems have a regional function. TTC has routes that rival GO rail corridors in length, and many of the local Toronto streetcar and bus lines’ daily demands meet or exceed that of GO’s busiest routes. GO itself depends on local systems for many of its passengers, and future service scenarios are untenable based only on GO’s favoured park-and-ride model.
GO does have an important role pulling together commuters from many systems. The maintenance and enhancement of its main infrastructure — track, signals, stations — is vital to preventing the slow decline often seen in transit systems where new construction and photo ops take priority over system basics. However, this does not justify GO expansion plans elbowing aside “local” projects that may be more important in a network view of GTA transit.
Recently, Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne was quoted as saying that GO would spend $1-billion to cross the Welland Canal if that were needed to bring service to Niagara Falls. Considering that TBM 1.0 shows such a service only as a possible extension beyond the GTA, and that service east from Hamilton to St. Catharines is peak-only in the 25-year plan, this generous view of spending on GO infrastructure amounts to a major shift in priorities before Metrolinx has even had a chance to revise its map.
Chair MacIsaac asked how the next wave of BCAs would be prioritized since they are an essential input to TBM 2.0. Staff replied that a report on this subject will come to the Board in November.
The BCA rankings (a metric purporting to show the cost-benefit ratio of each project) will not be the sole determinant of project priorities, although they may set the initial rankings. There are obvious situations where a project may be expensive and unable to recoup its cost within the BCA methodology, but still be essential to other work in the system. This is a fundamental flaw in the BCA process because project “A” may trigger the requirement for project “B”, but not be charged with the cost of its implementation.
I have a sense that the whole process is coming unravelled for many reasons:
- There is a political mandate to have recommendations for the 2011 provincial budget and 10-year plan, and these are needed in at least draft form by November 2010.
- Some of the “Top 15” projects for which BCAs have been concluded may not, in the cold light of day, actually belong in their exalted position.
- Some other projects that, for political reasons, fell lower in the original priority list require study. A good example of this is the cluster of projects dealing with capacity in the Yonge to Don Mills corridor — the Richmond Hill subway, enhanced GO service to Richmond Hill, the Downtown Relief Line, and additional capacity provision on the Yonge and Bloor subway lines. Indeed, some of these are seen as “local” projects even though they will compete for funding with “regional” projects at Queen’s Park.
- The electrification study will exist in draft form by November. At best, this will allow for “placeholder” items in the 10-year plan, but a definitive rollout scheme is unlikely until sometime in 2011.
- GO services beyond the Metrolinx planning jurisdiction (Niagara Falls and Kitchener-Waterloo) create requirements that must be funded and served by Metrolinx.
- The Air Rail Link to Pearson Airport from Union Station is not a Metrolinx project, but its presence on GO’s Weston and Union corridors triggers requirements that Metrolinx must serve, and complicates discussions of electrification.
- The BCAs that have already been completed rely on suspect demand estimates, and use dubious methodologies to establish the “benefit” of the recommended options. Indeed, the BCAs, not subject to the sort of public scrutiny available with a “Transit Project Assessment”, exclude options that should be on the table and, therefore, give an incomplete view of what might be built.
- The prioritization process itself assumes that all of the extant studies are valid including the network described in TBM 1.0. An early draft of TBM 2.0 may be available by late 2011, but this will not have been subject to review or comment.
All-in-all, we are seeing is the shortcomings of TBM 1.0, its love for drawing lines on maps with little regard for how the network would actually be funded, built or operated, running smack into the political demand for plans that can actually become government policy.
The Role of Infrastructure Ontario
To end off this article, a few thoughts about Infrastructure Ontario, an agency charged with delivering projects via any process other than the conventional one where an agency designs it, contracts it, waits for it to be built, and then occupies it.
Given recent bad press about large Public Private Partnerships (aka PPPs), especially the demise of large-scale undertakings in the UK, “IO” as it is known has been repositioning itself.
David Livingston, IO’s President, made the point that “we are not privatizers”, and that PPP is a “bad brand” these days. Instead, they prefer to talk about “Alternative Financing and Procurement” (AFP).
IO is pleased to report that it has over 50 projects and $15-billion in various stages. Sounds nice, but that’s only an average of $300-million per project, small change by transit standards. IO strives to save money by standardizing its procurement process, strictly controlling construction and shifting risk for project delivery to the private sector.
Central to this scheme is the idea that change orders simply are not allowed.
Well, bully for them. You might be able to pull this off building a fairly standard building, provided you’ve done a lot of legwork in advance, but the “no changes” dictum becomes less and less possible as projects get bigger and the ability to design down to the last nut and bolt becomes impossible. Indeed, I remember a time when the idea of designing and building in parallel was thought to be a boon to construction by avoiding the long period of trying to get the drawings right rather than just starting to build.
Transit systems, by their nature, are complex, take a long time to build, and politically cannot be completed without some changes happening along the way. Never mind the engineer whose soil samples missed the underground river, or the designer who planted a subway tunnel right under a hydro pylon. There will be changes to alignments (moving a subway station to better connect with a GO station) and fiddles taking account of a local politician’s friend who wants (or doesn’t want) a transit facility right on his doorstep, or the fire department who suddenly discovers its trucks won’t fit a new street layout.
What Livingston doesn’t tell us is how many post-project fixups were necessary to correct for the things change orders were not allowed to handle during construction. If anything, his presentation was too sure of itself.
To his credit, Metrolinx Director Joe Halstead asked Livingston to explain what differentiated his agency from a general construction company. The response was that IO would tender to a consortium who would provide all of the services from design right through to final delivery, and even possibly facility operation after completion. IO’s contribution is the creation of those consortia. While Metrolinx may not have the inhouse expertise to do this, it’s the sort of thing large organizations like the TTC and the City do all of the time.
IO clearly assumes that the expertise to provide design service for their projects lies in the private sector, but this is not necessarily true for transit projects. Indeed, the TTC has provided much of the engineering and project management for many Metrolinx-funded projects either directly, or through subcontractors which TTC manages.
Livingston stressed that the allocation of incentives and risks needs to be correctly balanced for AFP to work, but didn’t explain how this delicate balance is attained.
On the subject of financing, Livingston claims that the savings available through cheaper government borrowing are offset by higher “risk” maintained by the public sector. Better value is available through transfer of risk to private companies, but this only works if “value for money” is achieved. Essentially, the project costs more through AFP up to the point where one has built the project, financed it and borne ancilliary project costs. At this point, the “value for money” mechanism magically reduces the risk cost to the private sector even though it will charge a premium for accepting the risk in the first place. It is unclear why this process only works when a private sector consortium handles a project for IO as compared to having many of the same companies contract directly with a public agency.
The root, clearly, is the idea of nailing down the project scope and refusing to budge as construction proceeds. That’s a methodology applicable to the private or public sector. However, creating the contractual arrangement to pin down the private partners adds about a year to a project, and this is the reason why the Sheppard East and Eglinton projects are following the normal public sector procurement.
The nature of the projects that IO will manage for Metrolinx clearly shows the limitations of the process. There are four Design-Build-Finance-Maintain projects:
- Sheppard/SRT Maintenance & Storage Facility
- Eglinton Crosstown MSF
- Finch West MSF
- Viva “Gold Bundle” (basically a collection of road expansion projects)
Two projects will proceed as Design-Build-Finance to be handed over to Metrolinx/TTC on completion:
- Scarborough RT replacement & extension
- Finch West LRT
Both of these are substantially surface infrastructure projects with little tunneling. Indeed, the LRT tunnel at Finch West Station will probably be built as part of the Spadina Subway project given the likely timing of events.
Infrastructure Ontario is building a procurement mechanism with many laudable features including standardized forms and language, and a disciplined project definition. I hate to think what this says about practices existing in the Ontario government that this is meant to fix.
Whether IO will bring real value to the table on Metrolinx transit projects remains to be seen.
Metrolinx has a huge amount of work on its plate, and much will occur behind the scenes over coming months. How the organization will balance its work plans, let alone any consultation processes and updates to the Board, is unclear.
The timing of events is still driven by provincial budget and election cycles thanks to the absence of established, ongoing funding plans for transit. Getting the “Investment Strategy” in place is probably as important as everything else Metrolinx is doing, but it’s a political no-go zone at least until after the 2011 election.
If Ontario is serious about investing in transit, in shifting travel from autos to buses and trains, in overtaking the growth in population and travel demand with real improvements in transit capacity, a massive investment in transit infrastructure and operation is essential. This cannot be hostage to budget cycles planned only one year out, but equally must not be locked into an immutable long-term plan. Conditions change, and what might have looked like the right priorities in 2010 may look very foolish once we reach 2015 or 2020.
The Metrolinx Board, a group who meets infrequently and has little visible role in public debates, must rise to the challenge of being transit advocates. That will require an understanding of the details, the possibilities, the tradeoffs, and the ability to look at a system, a network of transit services rather than one pet line at a time.