Metrolinx announces ‘thorough’ review of controversial GO stations
Star investigation revealed that the provincial transportation ministry pressured the agency into approving the stops— one of which is in Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca's riding.
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Metrolinx will undertake a “thorough and comprehensive” review of two proposed new GO Transit stations, after a Star investigation revealed that the provincial transportation ministry pressured the arm’s-length agency into approving the stops.
One of the proposed stations, Kirby, is in the Vaughan riding represented by Ontario Liberal Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca. The other, Lawrence East, is part of Mayor John Tory’s “SmartTrack” plan.
Documents obtained through a freedom of information request show that in June 2016 the Metrolinx board approved both stations despite internal reports that recommended against their construction, following intervention from Del Duca’s ministry.
According to a letter posted online by Metrolinx Tuesday afternoon, Rob Prichard, the chair of the agency’s board, has directed staff to examine “all the relevant analyses and information” for both stations, and report back to the board on whether to proceed with the stops.
The review will include updated submissions from the cities of Vaughan and Toronto on proposed land-use changes around the station sites, population and jobs projections, local transit plans, “and any other relevant information.”
However, Prichard’s letter, which was addressed to Del Duca and dated Friday, Sept. 8, did not say whether the scope of the review would include examining how the stations came to be approved in the first place.
Hours before Metrolinx released the letter, Del Duca, appearing at an unrelated news conference in Burlington, Ont., refused to elaborate on what role if any he played in pressuring Metrolinx into approving the stations last year, saying he wouldn’t comment on “historical details” of the transit planning process.
The minister said the important thing is that Metrolinx won’t move forward with the stops unless further analysis determines they’re warranted.
“Metrolinx will not enter into any contractual obligations or spend any money until they’re satisfied that both Lawrence East and Kirby are justified,” Del Duca said.
“If the Metrolinx management and board are satisfied that they are justified, they’ll go forward. Again . . . if the evidence isn’t there, the stations won’t go forward.”
The Kirby station is estimated to cost about $100 million to build, while the price tag for Lawrence East is estimated at $23 million.
Business cases commissioned by Metrolinx determined that both Kirby and Lawrence East would cause a net loss of ridership on the GO network, because they wouldn’t attract enough new riders to offset the number of passengers who would stop taking transit due to the longer travel time the additional stations would cause.
A consultant report commissioned by the agency recommended against building the stations, as did initial drafts of Metrolinx board reports.
The board met in private on June 15, 2016, and voted not to go ahead with the stops, but a day later Del Duca’s ministry sent the agency draft press releases indicating he intended to announce stations that the board hadn’t approved.
The press releases shocked Metrolinx officials, the documents show. After discussions between Metrolinx leaders and ministry staff however, the agency’s board reconvened in public on June 28, 2016, and approved the two stops as part of a list of 12 new stations under GO Transit’s $13.5-billion regional express rail expansion plan.
Metrolinx board reports were redrafted to support the stations, and the business cases weren’t released until almost nine months after the vote. Metrolinx never published the consultant report recommending against the stops.
On Tuesday Del Duca was asked whether he directed Metrolinx leaders to approve the two stops.
“I was given an opportunity to provide my input, I provided my input with respect to those decisions,” he replied, echoing statements he made to the Star in June.
He refused to explain why his ministry drafted press releases that showed he planned to announce stations Metrolinx hadn’t approved.
“You’re focused on the historical details, I’m focused on the go forward,” he told a reporter.
The minister evaded the question when he was asked whether the approval of the two stations was free from political influence.
“I think on a go-forward basis what the most important thing for us to recognize is that Metrolinx is going to make sure they’re satisfied that both Lawrence East and Kirby are justified based on the analysis that they’re going to do,” he replied.
According to Prichard’s letter, Metrolinx staff will report back in time for the board’s February 2018 meeting. The chair wrote that Del Duca has confirmed that he will “respect and support whatever conclusion the board reaches.”
Prichard’s letter was in response to one Del Duca sent on Aug. 29, in which the minister acknowledged that “concerns have been raised about the process by which the Kirby and Lawrence East stations were ultimately approved.”
The letter did not specify what “concerns” the minister was referring to.
On Aug. 29, Ontario PC transportation critic Michael Harris wrote to the provincial auditor general to ask her to conduct a “full value for money audit” of the two stops.
“The minister of transportation’s office has unfortunately provided very few answers as to why ministry-funded analysis recommending against these projects was overruled,” wrote Harris, who is the MPP for Kitchener-Conestoga.