Metrolinx Musical Chairs

On July 28, Queen’s Park announced that Bruce McCuaig, the Deputy Minister of Transportation, would become the next President and CEO of Metrolinx effective September 4, 2010.  Rob Prichard will move from this position to become Chair of the Metrolinx Board, and the present Chair, Rob MacIsaac, will leave Metrolinx to devote his time to the presidency of Mohawk College.

McCuaig is a career bureaucrat at Queen’s Park with 26 years’ experience in various posts in the Ministries of Municipal Affairs & Housing, and then Transportation.  From his government bio page:

[Before becoming Deputy-Minister] Mr. McCuaig was Assistant Deputy Minister of Provincial Highways Management Division in MTO. He has also held the position of Assistant Deputy Minister of the ministry’s Policy, Planning and Standards Division, as well as a variety of other positions at MTO and at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

Mr. McCuaig has a Bachelor of Applied Arts degree in Urban and Regional Planning from Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario and a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

Media reports in the Star and Globe suggest that McCuaig will use and build on his relationships with transit agencies and managers, notably Gary Webster at the TTC.

Rob Prichard’s move to the Chair’s role and Rob MacIsaac’s departure complete a changing of the guard that began with “Metrolinx II”, the new politician-free Metrolinx Board created in early 2009.  Prichard is better at glad-handing and advocating for transit than MacIsaac who tended to be distrustful of public input although that is a fundamental part of this high-profile agency’s work.

Both Prichard and McCuaig have big challenges.  The first will be to determine “who’s on top” in setting policy and overall direction.  Major policy announcements and funding come from Cabinet and the Ministry, and this puts a former Deputy Minister in a leading role.  However, the Metrolinx Board, especially with the supposed benefit of private-sector input, should, like any Board, give overall direction and ensure that management is doing its job.  That has a potential for conflict, if not outright abdication of the Board’s role.

Board members need to ask difficult questions, to challenge Metrolinx staff, to conduct a real debate about how the GTA’s transportation network will grow and be financed.  Metrolinx makes recommendations to the Minister, but the Board should not be a rubber stamp for whatever the staff proposes.

The early days of Metrolinx were comparatively easy ones.  Everybody loves to draw lines on maps, and The Big Move, the end product of that period, speaks of a bright transit future for the region.  Reality is not quite so simple.  Changes in funding schemes and land use, not to mention the vital role of local transit systems, require hard work, not simply the publication of a glossy plan.

The Big Move 2.0, an update process launched recently, will be driven mainly by staff, but a new plan must acknowledge and address shortcomings in the 1.0 version.  These include:

  • dubious projections that overstate demands and available capacities in some major corridors, notably commuter rail;
  • a focus on the end-state of a network after 25 years’ construction rather than intermediate stages;
  • a project evaluation methodology that considers each line in isolation rather than as part of a network; and
  • a failure to acknowledge the scope and cost of changes required in local transit operations to support the ridership hopes for regional services.

If the Board is to earn its keep, it must ensure that TBM 2.0 isn’t simply a warmed-over-lightly repackaging of TBM 1.0.

Metrolinx is no longer just a planning agency, and the move into construction and operations changes its role from one of a talking shop to front line delivery of facilities and services.  Although the recently merged GO Transit division has this background, The Big Move dwarfs current operations and will fundamentally change GO Transit itself.  Old models won’t work any more.

Getting all of this financed and built requires long term commitment, a notoriously absent character in the political scene.  Metrolinx must assume the role of advocate for transit and transportation expansion, but must do so with a credible base of plans and demonstrable benefits.  Billions in new funding will come only if the public, and by extension the politicians, trust what Metrolinx tells them.

Bruce McCuaig and Rob Prichard have much work to do.  I wish them well, but won’t hesitate to demand openness, quality and credibility from Metrolinx.