News / Toronto

Metrolinx was pressured to approve new GO station in minister’s riding

Documents obtained through a freedom of information request show that ministry drafted press releases to announce stations the agency had not approved.

Steven Del Duca, provincial minister of transportation, speaks at the laying of the first track of Eglinton Crosstown this month. Internal emails show Del Duca intervened with senior Metrolinx executives to get approval of a new $100-million GO station in his riding.

File / Torstar News Service Order this photo

Steven Del Duca, provincial minister of transportation, speaks at the laying of the first track of Eglinton Crosstown this month. Internal emails show Del Duca intervened with senior Metrolinx executives to get approval of a new $100-million GO station in his riding.

The provincial transportation ministry pressured Metrolinx leadership to approve a new $100-million GO Transit station in the minister’s riding, according to documents obtained by the Star.

The ministry, led by Liberal MPP Steven Del Duca, also intervened to secure support for a new station that is part of Mayor John Tory’s “SmartTrack” plan and that would cost the public $23 million to build.

As the Star has previously reported, analysis commissioned by Metrolinx, an arm’s length agency of the provincial government, determined that both stations would have a negative effect on the rail network and recommended they not be built.

However, documents obtained through a freedom of information request reveal the behind-the-scenes story of how Metrolinx ignored this analysis and approved the two contentious stations after Del Duca’s ministry interceded.

The documents, which include more than 1,000 pages of emails sent by Metrolinx and ministry officials as well as draft agency reports, show that on the advice of agency staff, the Metrolinx board approved, at a closed-door meeting in June 2016, a list of new stops that did not include Kirby or Lawrence East.

A day later, Metrolinx officials were shocked to receive copies of draft press releases from the ministry indicating that the following week Del Duca would announce that stations the board hadn’t approved were going ahead.

In the ensuing days, following conversations between Metrolinx executives and ministry officials, agency staff revised a board report to support Kirby and Lawrence East.The board then reconvened in public and voted to build the two stops.

The Star emailed a list of questions to Del Duca’s office, which included questions about whether he overstepped his authority to ensure Metrolinx approved the stations.

Del Duca did not directly respond to the questions, but in an emailed statement said the approval of all the new GO stations was based on “initial business case analysis, extensive consultation with municipal and regional representatives, community engagement, and collaboration between the ministry of transportation and Metrolinx.”

He said he believed the population density around Kirby justified a station but that all the new stations require further analysis before they are built.

In an emailed statement, Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins said station selection “is a collaborative process that requires many inputs, including from public servants and elected officials, which must be blended together in final judgments.”

She said agency officials changed their recommendations before the final vote after receiving new information that showed the two stops were justified.

Kirby, which is on the Barrie line in Del Duca’s riding of Vaughan, as well as the Lawrence East stop on the Stouffville line in Scarborough, were two of dozens of sites Metrolinx spent a year-and-a-half analyzing for potential inclusion in GO Transit’s $13.5-billion regional express rail (RER) expansion program.

Analysis commissioned by Metrolinx recommended that neither Kirby nor Lawrence East be considered for at least 10 years in part because they would lead to decreased ridership on the GO network.

That’s because adding stops to the rail lines increases travel times for other riders on the network, discouraging some from taking transit. The initial business cases conducted for Kirby and Lawrence East determined that while the stops met some strategic planning objectives, neither would attract enough new riders to offset the passengers lost to the longer travel times.

Draft board reports from early June 2016 show that Kirby and Lawrence East were not on Metrolinx’s shortlist of 10 stations proposed for approval.

On June 9, 2016, three weeks before the board was scheduled to vote on the stations, Metrolinx briefed Del Duca about the stations.

In an email later that day to Metrolinx board chair Rob Prichard, then-president and CEO of Metrolinx Bruce McCuaig reported that the meeting with the minister was “so-so.”

“My interpretation is that he is disappointed” that Kirby wasn’t on the list, McCuaig wrote.

The emails show McCuaig asked Metrolinx staff for an “alternative analysis” of the stops. He told Prichard he was “trying to see if there is a credible way to improve the business case” for stations in Vaughan.

Even in the “alternative” analysis, however, Kirby still performed badly and McCuaig wrote that staff would recommend it be left off the list.

McCuaig resigned from Metrolinx in April to take an advisory role at the federal government’s Canada Infrastructure Bank. He declined to answer questions for this story. Prichard also declined to answer questions. The Metrolinx spokesperson replied on his behalf.

The emails obtained by the Star detail how, on June 15, 2016, Metrolinx board members, who are appointed on the recommendation of the minister, convened a special closed-door meeting to discuss the new stops.

A public vote was scheduled for June 28, but in an email to the board Prichard explained that the earlier meeting was necessary because Tory and Del Duca wanted to announce SmartTrack stations the following week.

“We did not want the minister doing so without the input of the board in advance,” he wrote. The board would “revisit the same issues” at the public session, Prichard explained, but he stressed that “the real substantive meeting is this one” on June 15.

Metrolinx has never previously acknowledged the meeting took place. But the documents indicate the board voted to support the staff-recommended list of 10 stations, which did not include Kirby or Lawrence East.

But the day after the meeting, Metrolinx received draft copies of press releases that the ministry planned to use to unveil the new stations. Agency officials were taken aback to see that they indicated the minister would announce Kirby, Lawrence East, and two other stations the board hadn’t approved.

“Are you hearing anything like this?” Metrolinx chief planning officer Leslie Woo wrote to McCuaig after learning of the ministry’s plan.

“Nope,” he shot back.

McCuaig wrote to a policy adviser at the ministry to ask why unapproved stops were in the announcements. “Has a decision been made that I’m not aware of?” he asked.

On the afternoon of June 17, McCuaig wrote to Prichard to say he had spoken to the adviser again. “M apparently wants us to include Lawrence…Kirby” and two other stations, McCuaig wrote.

McCuaig would not confirm to the Star that “M” referred to Minister Del Duca, or the ministry.

Prichard replied that Lawrence East “will probably be ok” — city of Toronto staff had performed their own analysis that showed the station performed better — but, he asserted “deferral is right for Kirby.”

Prichard wrote that he told the ministry adviser that “we would need a call with the minister if they can’t accept the deferral.”

Whether that call took place is not clear.

However, two days later, on June 19, McCuaig emailed agency officials with a “proposed revision” to the report that would go to the board at the public meeting on June 28. Kirby and Lawrence East were now recommended for approval.

In a series of news conferences the week of June 20, 2016, Del Duca announced that the Ontario government intended to build 12 new GO stations, including Lawrence East and Kirby.

The following week, the board met in public and approved all 12 stops.

Metrolinx didn’t release the business case analyses for any of the potential new GO stations until last March, almost nine months after the board vote. The conclusion of the public version of the Kirby analysis was altered from earlier drafts to remove references to its “poor results.”

The agency never publicly released a separate report drafted before the board vote that explicitly recommended against proceeding with Kirby and Lawrence East. The Star obtained a copy in June.

In an email, Aikins, the Metrolinx spokesperson, said the Metrolinx board is permitted by legislation to meet behind closed doors to discuss certain issues.

She said that, at the closed-door meeting, “the board received management's preliminary advice including advice that there might be updated information following further stakeholder consultations.” During the public meeting management provided its final advice, she stated.

“All of this was done in accord with the board’s governance procedures and the Metrolinx Act.”

According to Aikins, the agency’s leadership recommended Lawrence East be approved after Toronto city officials made the case that “it was an important part of the city’s overall transit network plans.”

She said Metrolinx leaders recommended Kirby after “municipal officials, community stakeholders and Minister Del Duca collectively made the case” that the area around the stop would exhibit higher population growth than the numbers contemplated in the Metrolinx business case.

Aikins said it was a precondition for proceeding with both stops that the respective municipalities enact policies to encourage greater density around the station sites. She said all the proposed new stations will undergo further analysis before they are built to ensure they’re warranted.

In June, Prichard told reporters that to his knowledge Metrolinx had never analyzed the higher growth figures for Kirby.

The Star asked Del Duca’s office if he could provide any Metrolinx or ministry analysis to support the position that Kirby would benefit the transit network. He did not.

Tory’s office said, “City staff have recommended Lawrence East as a stop for SmartTrack and as an important part of the Scarborough transit network plan.”

More on Metronews.ca