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.