Who Goes First?

At its Board Meeting on November 16, Metrolinx will receive a presentation on “Project Prioritization”.

Some time ago, Metrolinx produced The Big Move, the regional plan for the GTA.  This contained many projects.  A few of these had an early launch, and some (“The Big Five”) will roll out over the next ten years.  Originally they were going to roll rather faster, but the economic downturn cut Queen’s Park’s ability to finance a large transit network without new sources of revenue.

We’re sitting at a chicken-and-egg debate right now.  Originally, the idea was to get major projects up and running quickly to show what transit could do, and to use this as a springboard for seeking new funding such as tolls or tax increases.  The problem now is that we need the new revenue before most of the showcase lines will actually open.

Adding to the puzzle is the need to establish some sort of order in which the many projects awaiting funding will be built.  This is not an easy task for politicians, and for the (mainly) non-political Metrolinx board, it will be a real challenge.  To that end, Metrolinx staff will prepare evaluations of all projects and boil things down to a credible position.

What is striking about this process is that there is no provision for public or political input, no opportunity to say “just a moment” and suggest that they may be getting it wrong.  Indeed, by the time the wheels turn and the numbers are crunched, the results will feed straight into a pre-election budget cycle at Queen’s Park, and there will be no time for public review, except in the context of an election campaign.

One hopeful sign in all of this is the statement that prioritization is an ongoing process.  Far too often, once a map is drawn and a project has a priority assigned, changes are next to impossible.  This ongoing process requires a mechanism for transparency and public input, a singular absence in much of Metrolinx’ work.

Page 6 of the report contains an intriguing map showing all of the projects now going through the prioritization exercise.  It is unclear exactly how some of these projects got onto the map considering that they are not even part of The Big Move.  They appear to be a legacy of GO Transit plans prior to the Metrolinx amalgamation.

Metrolinx owes us all an updated, consolidated plan so that we are not surprised by announcements such as the K-W service for 2011 appearing to leapfrog over other Big Move projects.

Service to Kitchener is shown as an unfunded GO project awaiting its priority.  Although limited peak service has just been announced, a 30-minute peak headway to K-W (shown in the detailed table on page 7)  must compete with other GO and non-GO proposals.

Notable by their absence are any of the Transit City lines beyond those already funded.  This places Jane, Don Mills, Scarborough-Malvern and Waterfront well off into the future along with many competing schemes.  There isn’t even mention of the “Morningside Hook”, the Sheppard East LRT extension south to University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus, a favourite of Pan Am Games boosters and an obvious eastern terminus for this line even without the Games.

Some of the lines shown on the map are not listed in the summary table, because further analysis is required:

  • Yonge St. Subway Extension (BCA to be updated)
  • 2nd Phase Brampton Queen St. Zum (BCA only now underway)
  • Phase 2 of The Big 5 projects (no BCA in place)
  • Lakeshore Express Rail – Hamilton to Oshawa (subject to Electrification Study)

“BCA” refers to the “Benefits Case Analysis”, a process by which the economic “value” of each proposal is calculated relative to the investment it requires to produce an index showing whether it’s a good idea.  This process is fraught with possible errors of methodology and underlying assumptions.  In the end, it supposedly shows that a line pays for itself, at least on the capital account, through immediate and future benefits.  However, each project is studied in isolation from the network, and alternatives which may consist of project bundles are not studied.  Moreover, some proposals may inherently be very expensive relative to what they provide, but may still be essential to the health of the system.

This is particularly important for the Richmond Hill subway extension and related changes on the TTC network, some of which are not part of The Big Move.  This project is to get an updated BCA, but there is no indication of how thoroughly it will examine options.  Given that the TTC consistently downplays anything other than expanding Yonge Subway capacity, and that a study of the Downtown Relief Line is only now getting underway, a consolidated evaluation of options for the northern corridors is unlikely to emerge soon.

What is missing from this presentation is any indication of how the evaluation will actually work by using real examples.  We are told that there has been a peer review, and that local input has been considered, but we know nothing about how the results will be produced nor the degree to which changes or challenges to the final proposal can be debated.

What we are seeing here is the logical progression from a political board of Mayors and Chairs where there was at least some public debate and accountability to a process carried out mainly in secret.  All the trappings of a professional business analysis hang on the stage like the emperor’s new clothes.  We are told they are a wonder to behold, but we can’t actually see them.

The Board will consider this matter in its private session, and one hopes that more information will be presented to explain how this process will work and give a preliminary view of its outcome.  Unfortunately, nobody from the public or the media will know what was said.

After a municipal election fought, among other things, on the principle that City Hall should be open to voters, Metrolinx, and by implication Queen’s Park, is headed in the opposite direction.  We know what’s good for you and, in time, we may tell you.

Despite assurances that more of Metrolinx’ business would be conducted in public, the heart of its work remains in private session after a perfunctory, feel-good public airing of status reports.  Real policy debates take place without public input and well out of public hearing.

This is no way to inspire confidence in Metrolinx or in transit projects generally.  Processes that are open and understood may produce results different from what everyone wants — we cannot build everything at the same time — but at least a public process invites comment and ensures understanding, if not agreement on every detail.

12 thoughts on “Who Goes First?

  1. “We know what’s good for you.” That sounds like the Governors-Elect of both Ohio and Wisconsin. Neither one has actually said anything to that effect but they might as well. They both, so far have shown nothing but complete and total closed-mindedness towards passenger rail projects for their respective States and have shown not the eensiest, weensiest sign of budging whatsoever.


  2. It’s fun to contrast this sentiment against your previous comment; “…My problem is “which public”? The one that rides the cars and wants more service, or the one that spends its time mainly driving outside of downtown and interacts with streetcars only when they venture down to the evil city for some reason? I really have a problem with a mayor whose attitude to leadership is to hold a plebiscite. We elect a council to represent us, and to listen to various positions in debates. If all issues were to be decided by referendum, we could save a lot of money on politicians, including the mayor.” In my humble opinion you cannot reject the accountability and transparency of a plebiscite and then turn around and complain that you are shut out of the process elsewhere.

    Steve: As you well know, there is a difference between a mayor and council who express a general view for the city, advocate for it and convince people that they are right, and a secret process by which we are simply told what we are going to get. There are a very large number of places in the municipal process for public input, although these can be frustrated by politicians and staff who don’t want to hear what we might have to say. At Metrolinx, the machinery for public input is completely absent.


  3. Why does the provincial election come to mind? Oh yeah, that is why Emperor Dalton killed Transit City. For votes in the blue 905.
    Same reason why any project in the 905/289 will be given a bigger priority.

    In the same sense how there was so much construction in 2010 before Oct. 25. Now all gone. Things can be repaired in under 10 months.

    All those blue areas outside Toronto that have 905/289/519/226/maybe 705 will get their transit projects prioritized.

    You know that map that I think was from Torontoist, downtown: Smitherman/outer ring: Ford.

    This meeting will be all about Emperor Dalton.


  4. I must disagree with Miroslav on this: we cannot continue with the 905 vs. 416 idea any more. For too long transit throughout the GTA has suffered from this rationale – i.e. transit in Mississauga is Mississauga’s problem, Toronto’s transit is Toronto problem, Oshawa’s transit is their concern, etc. What we need is a system where each transit “agency” can provide for local service, while at the same time working with Metrolinx to provide for a larger, integrated system. Just because someone lives in Toronto does not mean that the/she may not want to go to another city for work, to see friends, to see a play, etc. or vice-versa.

    GO has started this process with integrated fares (the extra 60 cents to ride on a local transit bus), and Mississauga Transit has agreements with Brampton and Oakville for transfer sharing. These are both examples of making transit work. But the work is just beginning.


  5. Sorry Steve, but Adam is right — you’ve contradicted yourself on this one. Besides, what good will it do to consult with the public on prioritization? Do we really need to listen to a bunch of community groups who know nothing about transit saying “I want my line to go first”, or “I don’t want that line in my neighbourhood”? Transit is far too politicized as it is.

    Something tells me you simply don’t like the projects that were chosen. The fact that the DRL isn’t on the map doesn’t surprise me. As you said, the TTC itself doesn’t support it or feel that it’s even necessary, so why should anyone else? They have consistently said that the additional ridership from Richmond Hill can be handled by their ATO conversion.

    Steve: My issue is not just with the prioritization report, but with Metrolinx policy decisions in general. For example, if we get into talks about fare integration and whether the entire GTA should move to fare by distance, wouldn’t you want to be part of that discussion?

    As for the TTC and the DRL, they have never put a combined price on all of the factors needed to make their scheme work. ATO just gives you the ability to run close headways, but not the trainsets needed to run more frequent service nor the maintenance yard to store them. There is the cost of reconfiguring Bloor-Yonge station and the upheaval that will cause, plus the cost of improving service on the BD line so that it can accept transfer passengers at a higher rate from YUS, and the overall effect of putting all our eggs in one basket rather than adding capacity and diversity to the network as a whole. Assuming that the Don Mills Transit City line were still part of our long term plans, the marginal cost of taking the subway to Eglinton would be low if the TTC would ever get past their unworkable attempt to fit an LRT on the surface all the way to Danforth.

    I am perfectly happy with the projects that are on the prioritization list. What worries me are the questions of how the next batch of projects to be added to that list is chosen, how new projects get on the map and whether the methodology to generate spending choices is skewed to favour, say, GO rail projects over everything else on the table.


  6. I am not sure, but is the Station Modernization program provincially funded or municipally funded?

    Steve: It comes out of the general capital budget which has money from all levels of government in it. The proportion varies year to year as some of the funding is one time, or from programs that have limited periods such as the infrastructure stimulus.

    The reason that I ask is that I live in Scarborough and use Victoria Park and Warden stations almost daily and I really appreciate what has been done with VP Station. The modernization isn’t even complete yet, but it is already much easier transferring from bus to train, vise-versa or bus to bus. If it is municipal monies funding this program I hope it continues under the current regime. Upgrading our current infrastructure I feel is as important as the much needed expansion plans.

    Also, as a side note, I thought an LRT route along Ellesmere from Scarborough Town Center Station to UofT Scarborough campus would be viable. It would eliminate the need for three bus routes on that part of Ellesmere and would give this UofT campus a rapid transit link as well as Scarborough’s Centenary Hospital. I believe there is enough room for two lanes of auto traffic along this route still, just the loss of some left turn lanes which could be accommodated by some U-turn infrastructure built in to this LRT route. I though such a route would eliminate the need to dip the Sheppard LRT down to this campus that uses transit heavily. Also with the link to Scarborough Centre Station the LRT could dip below ground just west of McCowan and link up to this RT station below the bus platform so that the LRT doesn’t interfere with all the bus traffic at this station. The 95 route would now leave York Mills station and terminate at Scarborough Town Center as well. The 38 bus could terminate at the new UofTSC station as well as the 133 bus (or it could terminate at the Malvern extension of the RT).


  7. George – I remember reading that Ellesmere will be combined with the Hwy 2 service in Durham for a BRT corridor. Both TTC and DRT buses would use it between STC and the Scarborough-Pickering border.


  8. I like how Adam and Mimmo both ignore something that Adam even quoted: “and to listen to various positions in debates.” Metrolinx isn’t doing that – that’s almost the entire complaint here!

    You can disagree with Steve’s priorities without inventing positions, people.


  9. @ Cam

    My point was that the thing that Steve objected to most – a plebiscite – is precisely the tool that we need to enforce accountability and transparency. My father’s career as a city councillor and school board trustee provided many examples of bureaucracy making decisions without the input of either the elected or the electorate and time and again only the threat of legal action or an overwhelming display of public opinion was enough to get the traction required to effect real change. Legally binding referendums nicely combine these two levers into one tool that the people can use to make their voice heard. My view is that the four year time frame between elections is what leads to voter apathy and these institutional failures, by introducing tools like referendums and voter recall we can force both our elected and unelected decision makers to listen to us.

    Steve: My objection to plebiscites is that one cannot run every issue of government through a plebiscite. When we elect a mayor and council, we expect them to stand for something, to articulate a direction for their city. That’s what platforms are for. If every issue is deferred to a widespread public vote, the politicians will still have a role in supporting or opposing it, but if they use this as a way of avoiding actually taking a position, why are they on council?

    Really large scale proposals such as the implementation of a regional sales tax for transit funding could be an appropriate use of a plebiscite, but voting on every line in a regional plan would not. Note that I use the word “could”, and am not convinced that we should move to a US style ballot initiative system.


  10. Adam should move to California to see what the plebiscite can do for him. CA is a fine example showing everyone why going to a direct vote on everything is unworkable.


  11. @ L. Wall

    I’ve come to believe that California is working quite well. They have had impassioned debates about high profile issues like drug legalization and same sex marriage and the recent budget impasse had more to do with the fact that the State had to make real decisions about spending cuts rather than arbitrarily raising taxes yet again. California’s total debt and debt to GDP ratios are almost laughably small compared to say Ontario’s.

    Steve: Yes, California had an anti-gay marriage initiative that had to be overturned by the court, and the state is bankrupt because of repeated refusals by voters to tax themselves at a level needed to provide the services they demand.


  12. Having lived in California for altogether nearly four and a half years, including the time when Proposition 13 was passed, I can vouch for the unworkability of their system. However, it isn’t so much because of the plebiscites as for the fact that California’s constitution is highly dysfunctional (it’s an absurdly long and detailed document). Perhaps the worst aspect, that the state budget had to be passed by a two-thirds majority of the legislature, has just been changed by referendum to a simple majority. The super-majority meant that the minority party had essentially veto power. Another is that property tax rates (i.e. mil rates) are built into the constitution instead of being adjusted every year as overall property values change. The exploitation of these two features by the Republicans in the 70’s (to foment opposition to taxes) caused property taxes to double or more during a real estate bubble, the state accumulating vast unsought surpluses and homeowners going bankrupt in droves. Finally, a pair of curmudgeonly landlords, Jarvis and Gann, pushed through an initiative to essentially freeze taxes until properties changed hands. People voted for it in desperation, because the Republicans opposed all efforts at reform by the Democrat-led Legislature until it was too late. Since then, the Prop. 13 system has been frozen in stone, with horrible inequity and serious detriment to public services resulting.

    On the other hand, the recall process worked brilliantly when the most cynical politician in whose jurisdiction I have ever lived, Governor Gray Davis, received a well-deserved come-uppance, and was replaced by the unlikely “Red Tory” Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger (who could never have been first elected through the regular primary election process), who in turn has been replaced by Davis’ old boss, Jerry Brown, back for another kick at the can.

    California has developed excellent transit systems over the past thirty years, perhaps restoring some of its glory of eighty or ninety years ago. It also has remarkably reduced air pollution in L.A., though growth in the “Inland Empire” combined with gridlock there makes the interior toward San Bernardino bad. Steady “good government” has clearly made L.A. a more livable city, so despite the lousy state constitution and rampant growth, it’s a great place. San Diego and San Jose have great light rail, although I do find it slower than subways; of course, the much discussed subways versus buses issue in LA could have an interesting echo in Toronto if the north-west and north-east inner suburbs continue to be poorly served (i.e. if Ford drops Transit City).


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