The politicization of subway planning in Toronto began in 2002 with the $10/ride subsidized Sheppard line to nowhere. In 2006, then-Finance Minister Greg Sorbara, finagled a secret deal to extend the Spadina subway beyond York University to an industrial field in Vaughan.
Nothing has changed. The appetite for vote-buying vanity projects among politicians is stronger than ever: a prime example of this is that despite global notoriety for being a white elephant, the $3.35-billion, one-stop Bloor/Danforth extension to the Scarborough Town Centre is going forward.
Another example is the Lawrence East and Kirby SmartTrack stations. Last summer, Ben Spurr of the Toronto Star reported Transportation Minister Stephen Del Duca had pressured the Metrolinx board to approve both stations despite the fact that the original business-case analysis showed that they should not be built. Metrolinx eventually released the business case report publicly and announced it would revisit its analysis.
Don’t hold your breath.
At the December 12, 2017 inaugural Metrolinx Town Hall, the agency’s new CEO Phil Verster gave the government carte blanche for interfering with its decisions, saying: “If an elected official makes a decision different to our [business-case-analysis] advice, that’s not a ‘wow’ moment, that’s democracy.”
If Mayor Tory has his way, construction of the Scarborough subway will begin without anyone knowing if it is a wise use of public resources. Councillor Josh Matlow has presented Toronto council with multiple opportunities to find out. As it happens, “fiscally-responsible” members will do anything to avoid the facts when a multi-billion-dollar subway is at stake. They voted 13 – 27 against Matlow’s December 6 city-council motion for a value-for-money analysis comparing the one-stop subway with the shovel-ready seven-stop Scarborough LRT.
Four years ago, a review of Metrolinx’s Big Move conducted by Neptis Foundation found that although the regional transit authority had committed to “issuing a Benefits Case Analysis (BCA) for every project” and using the analyses to prioritize new transit lines, neither Metrolinx nor the city were doing BCAs consistently.
The BCA for the $3.2-billion Spadina subway extension to Vaughan has never been released publicly and the BCA of the Scarborough Subway Extension will not be released until after the next municipal election in October 2018.
The public is growing tired of the lack of transparency and accountability in transit planning.
In 2013, Premier Wynne appointed Anne Golden chair of The Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel. The Panel’s report: Making the Move found the public had: “low trust in transit decision-making” and that there was a need for “evidence-based and transparent” transit planning and to “depoliticize decision making.”
The Panel made many recommendations. Among them was Recommendation #18:
… all projects approved by Metrolinx and elected officials must have up-to-date, publicly-available, business case analyses that validate the investment, taking into account life-cycle capital, operating, maintenance, and financing costs.”
The report emphasized the analyses should include operation and maintenance costs and their “relationship to fares and whether a new project would be a financial burden to the system or a source of additional revenue.”
Had Toronto Auditor General Beverly Romeo-Beehler included in her 2018 Work Plan STA’s request for a value-for-money analysis of the Scarborough subway, Panel Recommendation #18 would have been fulfilled. Her refusal to do so is telling. She also refused to do this as part of her report on our complaint regarding the summer-2016 TTC Briefing Note.
The Scarborough subway has become so politicized municipal accountability officers are reluctant to hold council itself and city administrators accountable for the quality of stewardship over public funds. Who then will ensure the facts are on hand when the final decision on whether to spend $3.35-billion, or more on a one-stop subway goes before council?
In 2017, Metrolinx produced A Metrolinx Comprehensive Business Case Framework for Evaluating Transit Projects. The new business case framework would provide evidence that a proposed project was a “good use of public funds.” It would include a section on “Context and Options” and demonstrate:
…that a sufficiently broad range of solutions has been considered and the options developed from this long list of solutions have been selected through a transparent and defensible process. These options are evaluated against a base case which considers a “business as usual” scenario. (Page 2)
A consistent framework for objectively assessing transit projects is a step in the right direction. So far city planning has avoided the “business as usual” scenario omitting crucial information that would assist council in making an informed decision.
Contrary to the Metrolinx framework, the initial business case for the one-stop Scarborough Subway does not include a comparison with the Scarborough RT, the line it is intended to replace. Instead, it is compared with the three-stop subway; a project that does not even exist.
An earlier business case conducted by Arup consultants for the city planning was never released publicly. It only became available after Toronto Star reporter Jennifer Pagliaro obtained a heavily redacted copy through Freedom of Information. Find a more detailed explanation of what is missing in the Arup report here.
It is a similar situation for the Lawrence East SmartTrack station. Mayor Tory is touting it as a replacement for the Lawrence East RT station that will be eliminated with the build out of the Scarborough subway. A proper evaluation would include a comparison with the Lawrence RT station. Instead GO RER, another incomplete project, is being used as the base case.
We know that to justify a subway, ridership should be between 9,500 and 14,000 per hour and the projected ridership for the Scarborough subway is 7300, half of what was originally projected. We don’t know if the BCA slated for 2019, will show whether or not the Scarborough subway will be a financial burden on the rest of the TTC or a source of additional revenue. We are still waiting to find out which framework the planning department uses to conduct Business Case Analyses of new transit lines in Toronto.
The 2017 Metrolinx framework is subject to review and approval by the Metrolinx Board. A Business Case Analysis and Benefits Management memorandum was tabled at the December 7, 2017 Metrolinx Board meeting. If adopted, it would also ensure BCAs were released publicly in a timely manner:
In every case, public transparency and accountability will be improved where these business cases are made public in advance of relevant Board decisions.
The original business case for the seven-stop LRT included a comparison with the Scarborough RT. The same should apply to the one-stop Scarborough subway and it should be released publicly, before the 2018 municipal election.
Brenda Thompson – December 13, 2017