News / Toronto

Metrolinx pledges openness on decision-making process after GO station controversy

Agency says it will proactively publish reports and post minutes of closed-door board meetings following Star investigation.

Metrolinx, the provincial agency that oversees transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, has vowed to boost transparency. So far, taxpayers have had limited insight into its internal deliberations. Since 2014, the board has held 29 meetings, and 12 of those were held in private.

VINCE TALOTTA / TORSTAR NEWS SERVICE Order this photo

Metrolinx, the provincial agency that oversees transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, has vowed to boost transparency. So far, taxpayers have had limited insight into its internal deliberations. Since 2014, the board has held 29 meetings, and 12 of those were held in private.

Metrolinx is pledging to open up its decision-making process to greater public scrutiny, after the Star revealed that the ministry of transportation intervened behind the scenes to pressure the agency into approving two new GO stations that weren’t supported by internal reports.

One of the stations is in Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca’s riding, the other is part of Mayor John Tory’s “SmartTrack” plan.

Following a public session of a meeting of the Metrolinx board on Thursday, board chair Rob Prichard said that from now on the agency intends to publish business cases for transit projects before the board votes on them.

A spokesperson for the agency later confirmed that Metrolinx will also post notices of when the board meets behind closed doors, and publish the minutes of those meetings afterward.

“One of the good things coming out of this is I think it is advantageous to always release the business case analysis in advance of the board discussing it,” Prichard said.

“I’m always in favour of continuous improvement in governance … Our practices are developing and I think it will be a good evolution in our practice to do that.”

Metrolinx, an arms-length agency of the provincial government, is in charge of transportation planning in the GTHA and regularly makes decisions that involve billions of dollars of public money and will impact the region’s transit network for generations.

The public has so far had limited insight into its internal deliberations, however. Since the start of 2014, the board has held 29 meetings, and 12 of those, more than 40 per cent, were held in private.

According to Aikins, dates of the closed-door meetings will be posted online before they happen, except in the case of emergency meetings, in which case they may be posted afterward. The minutes will also be posted, although they will be reviewed to remove sensitive information related to privacy and commercial interests.

Documents the Star obtained through a freedom of information request detailed the role that closed door meetings and secret reports played in the approval of two politically-sensitive GO stations: Kirby, which is in Del Duca’s Vaughan riding, and the “SmartTrack” stop at Lawrence East in Scarborough.

In June 2016 the board met in private and decided to support a list of 10 new GO stations that didn’t include Kirby or Lawrence East.

Business cases for both stops found they would actually cause a net decrease in ridership on the GO network. A summary report of the business cases that Metrolinx commissioned recommended that neither be considered for at least another 10 years.

However, a day after the closed door board meeting Del Duca’s ministry sent Metrolinx press releases that showed he planned to announce the two stations were going ahead.

Metrolinx management subsequently changed its advice to the board, which then reconvened in public and voted to build Kirby and Lawrence East as part of a package of 12 stops to be added to the GO network under the province’s regional express rail expansion plan.

The estimated cost of building Kirby is about $100 million, while Lawrence East would cost roughly $23 million.

The public had little opportunity to scrutinize the stations’ approval at the time because business cases for the new stops weren’t released until almost nine months after the decisive vote.

Metrolinx never alerted the public to the closed-door meeting or posted minutes of what was decided.

Eric Miller, the director of the University of Toronto’s Transportation Research Institute, applauded Metrolinx’s decision to open up its board to greater public scrutiny, calling it an “important step in the right direction towards better transparency.”

He predicted that publishing studies before board votes could lead to Metrolinx performing better analysis on transit projects because the agency will be aware they will be critiqued.

“People can pick at them and debate them. And that may lead to more trust, and lead to a healthier debate.”

Miller added that the transparency measures are something that Metrolinx, which was created by the provincial government in 2006, should have already done. He also said the agency should publish all of its reports, not just business case analyses, “as a matter of course.”

Following the publication of the Star investigation two weeks ago, Prichard ordered Metrolinx to perform a “thorough and comprehensive review” of Kirby and Lawrence East.

The exercise will involve gathering updated information on land use, transit plans, and projected development to determine whether the approval of the stations should stand.

However, it will not examine how Del Duca’s ministry pressured Metrolinx into approving the stops.

On Thursday, Prichard said he supported the review but didn’t say he believed Del Duca’s ministry had improperly intervened to secure approval for stations that weren’t supported by evidence.

Prichard told reporters that Metrolinx has a “collaborative relationship” with the ministry and that the approval process is “a combination of art and science” that involves taking into account studies, input from local politicians, and the views of the ministry before arriving at a final judgment.

“In this case ... concerns have been expressed about the judgment so we’re going to take a second look at it, as thoroughly as we can, making sure we have completely up-to-date information. And we’ll make it all public and members of the public can make a judgment as to whether it’s the right decision,” he said.

In an open letter to Prichard two weeks ago, Del Duca acknowledged that “concerns have been raised” about the GO stations, but the minister hasn’t specified what he believes those concerns are.

On Tuesday, he declined to answer questions about why his ministry sent Metrolinx press releases showing he intended to announce stations that the board hadn’t endorsed, dismissing the events that led to the stations’ approval as “historical details.”

“I’m focused on the go-forward,” he said.

Del Duca said that he provided “input” to the decision-making process, but didn’t answer whether he had directed Metrolinx to approve the stops.

He stressed that Metrolinx won’t enter into contracts to build the two stations unless the review determines they’re warranted. “If the evidence isn’t there, the stations won’t go forward,” he said.

During Question Period at Queen’s Park on Wednesday, Progressive Conservative transportation critic Michael Harris called on Del Duca to “come clean” about his role in the stations’ approval, and questioned whether he was “unfit for the job” of minister.

Metrolinx expects to complete the review in time for its February board meeting. The agency plans to enter into procurement contracts for new GO stations in spring of next year.

More on Metronews.ca