By Jessica Bell & Vincent Puhakka - Op Ed
Oct. 4, 2017
It is good news that Queen’s Park approved having the auditor general investigate Metrolinx’s decision to bow to political pressure and approve the Kirby and Lawrence East GO stations, however, the problems with Metrolinx run deeper than this one decision.
Metrolinx was established in 2006 to improve transit planning for our region. It hasn’t.
Here’s a review of some of Metrolinx’s poor planning choices.
There is, of course, this recent scandal uncovered by the Toronto Star revealing how Metrolinx caved to pressure from Transportation Minister Stephen Del Duca, and approved the Lawrence East and Kirby GO stations at a cost of $120 million, despite Metrolinx’s own consultants recommending against it because it would not significantly boost ridership.
A survey done by Scarborough Transit Action confirmed what the consultant’s analysis showed — not many people will use the Lawrence East SmartTrack station. Most of the potential riders who indicated they wouldn’t use the station said so because GO transit charges higher fares than the TTC.
There is Union Pearson Express. Metrolinx ignored its own consultants’ advice again and built a 23-km express diesel train from downtown to Pearson Airport with fares priced at an outrageous $27.50. Public rage boiled over when TTCriders did a rider count and discovered up to 9 in 10 seats on the train were empty. Metrolinx eventually lowered the price to $9, but the bigger and better opportunity of building a mass transit line fully integrated into the TTC was ignored.
Third, Metrolinx does not fairly consider the merits of publicly owned and managed transit projects, and automatically proceeds with every project as a public-private partnership, which, as Ontario’s auditor general has documented, pushes up the price tag.
There’s Presto. Metrolinx is overseeing the rollout of Presto in Toronto, and this project is already years behind schedule, overbudget, and, as every Presto user knows, plagued with glitches.
And fifth, there’s Metrolinx’s stealth plan to radically upend the region’s fare system and introduce fare-by-distance and possibly premium fares for the subway. Metrolinx is advancing its fare plan despite failing to meaningfully consult with the public or publish its own analysis along the way.
What can be done to improve Metrolinx? Most obvious, it’s time to drop the secrecy. The agency is spending billions of taxpayer dollars; we should know how they’re spending it and feel confident it’s making the best transit planning decisions.
Metrolinx needs to proactively and freely share the information it has about its work and its decision-making processes, including contracts, financing, consultant studies, and more. All portions of all board meetings should be made open to the public, deputations should be permitted, and the public and experts should be meaningfully and regularly engaged at all stages of key decisions.
These proposals will not in and of themselves slay the secret decision-making at Metrolinx, but transparency will ensure projects like the Kirby and Lawrence East GO stations, the Scarborough subway or fare-by-distance, are critiqued early using the best evidence available.
There are other ways to add accountability to this powerful body. For example, Metrolinx could emulate the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York, and include representatives from riders’ councils and transit-workers’ unions from different regions. Such practice seems superior to that of Metrolinx as diverse views can make themselves heard and the people who use and run the system are represented fairly.
It’s time for the province to go beyond investigating one decision and overhaul the entire agency, introduce transparency and implement a new governance model to ensure the needs of the region and transit riders come first, not self-interested politicians.
Vincent Puhakka is a member of Scarborough Transit Action, an outreach group bringing together Scarborough citizens interested in advocating for better public transit at all levels of government. Jessica Bell is the executive director of transit advocacy group, TTCriders.