How politics, not evidence, drives transit planning in Toronto
Political interference, misleading analysis and a lack of transparency have characterized contentious transit plans for decades.
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It was the first time Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca had faced reporters since the controversy began.
The press conference at a GO station in Burlington had nothing to do with the province’s plan to build a series of new stops.
But the minister had not yet directly answered why two proposed locations — Kirby, in his own Vaughan riding, and Lawrence East, part of Mayor John Tory’s “SmartTrack” campaign promise — had been approved against expert advice. Nor had he explained why the board of Metrolinx, which is meant to be an arm’s-length agency of the province, reversed its early position to not support those stations under pressure from his ministry.
Put on the spot Tuesday, Del Duca deflected: “Yeah, so you’re focused on the historical details. I’m focused on the go-forward.”
Going forward, experts say, the way transit has been planned in the Toronto region promises more boondoggles amid a lack of evidence-based decision-making.
“Politicians see building new rail transit as a shortcut to getting elected,” said Murtaza Haider, a Ryerson University professor who specializes in transportation planning and statistical models. “The public transit infrastructure investment is a taxpayer subsidy to politicians’ political ambitions because there’s no rationale for it most of the time. What gets built and what should have been built are completely two different things.”
These recent projects, including the contentious Scarborough subway, have brought accusations of political interference, missing and misleading information and a lack of transparency.
There couldn’t be more at stake: Potential misspending of billions of taxpayer dollars meaning the wrong projects get built at a time when the city — and region — is growing at an unprecedented pace. And once a project is built, it remains in place for decades.
Recently approved projects have seen politicians interfering with transit plans, changing direction after a plan has been studied and approved.
Emails obtained by the Star show Del Duca’s ministry sent Metrolinx officials draft press releases outlining his intention to announce the stations at Kirby and Lawrence East, even though studies had recommended against them and the board had decided not to support them.
And emails from then-president and CEO Bruce McCuaig indicated Del Duca was “disappointed” with the analysis and McCuaig requested staff produce “alternative analysis.”
Former mayor Rob Ford didn’t rely on facts when he insisted a subway was what was needed in Scarborough. It was Ford’s chief-of-staff, Mark Towhey; unlikely ally, Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker; and his hand-picked Speaker, Councillor Frances Nunziata, that together led to the reopening of the agreement with the province to build a fully funded light rail line (LRT) to replace the Scarborough RT, a move the city clerk has said broke council procedure.
These and other plans have been bolstered by sometimes missing and other times misleading analysis. Consider these:
- After the Metrolinx board approved the stations at Kirby and Lawrence East, it took almost nine months for the business cases for each station to be released. The new Kirby analysis excluded hired consultants’ earlier opinion that it showed “poor results.”
- An inflated ridership figure was produced and attributed to the city’s planning department just days ahead of a crucial vote on the Scarborough subway. Emails obtained by the Star show chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat had herself questioned TTC CEO Andy Byford about the subway figure’s origins, unaware it apparently came from her own department.
- When the subway debate resumed at council last year, the TTC produced a briefing note that cast doubt on whether the LRT plan was still viable. It suggested the price of the LRT was now almost on par with the subway, which Byford later clarified was simply a figure the TTC was “asked to provide.” It is unclear who asked for that number.
There has also been much secrecy clouding transit planning in the region.
The original discussion by the Metrolinx board during which it first decide not to support Kirby and Lawrence East stations was conducted behind closed doors.
Following a Star investigation, Metrolinx has since said notice of closed-door meetings will be given, with minutes published afterward. Although a review to reassess the merits of building a station at Kirby and Lawrence East has been ordered, it will not scrutinize the process that led to Metrolinx approving them in the first place.
The Scarborough subway briefing note has to this day never been made part of the public record at city hall.
And today, the mystery of the pivotal ridership number has not been solved.
Eric Miller, the director of the University of Toronto’s Transportation Research Institute, said a lack of evidence-based transit-planning is one of the driving factors behind the region’s failure to build transportation infrastructure fast enough to keep up with population growth.
“Somebody whispers in somebody’s ear, somebody thinks it’s a good idea for whatever reason. It gets announced, and then maybe if you do the analysis you discover, well, there’s problems. Then there is opposition to it because it hasn’t been thought through,” he said.
In addition to technical analysis of transit plans, there will always be quantitative decisions that will require political judgment, he said. But analysis of transit projects should be made public before decisions are made and if elected officials decide to deviate from the evidence they need to explain why.
“They should be clear about why they’re making that decision. And just winning the next election isn’t a good enough reason for doing that,” Miller said.
He argued that while watchdogs like auditor generals should be able to scrutinize transit decisions, they should be the last resort. Instead, he said he would prefer to “fix the system” by subjecting government analysis of transit plans to independent peer reviews, something he said is regularly done in the United States in his field of travel-demand modelling.
“I think we’ve gotten into such a toxic situation… (The public doesn’t) believe the numbers even if the numbers are there, because they don’t trust the process.”
University of Toronto Prof. Matti Siemiatycki, an expert in transportation policy and planning, said there is an important role for both politicians, who set objectives and priorities with a mandate from the citizens who elected them, and experts, who do the technical analysis on how best to meet those priorities.
But the lines have often been blurred in Toronto, he said, pointing to Kirby as a recent example showing the process has been “infused with politics at every stage.”
“This isn’t just an anomaly. We’re at the point where this is the pattern of how we do things here,” he said.
Siemiatycki agreed part of the solution to the broken system is a strong peer-review component, which would protect against the cherry-picking of evidence and expert advice that seems preordained because it simply affirms what politicians wanted in the first place — what has been dubbed “policy-based evidence-making” instead of “evidence-based policy-making.”
If you look at the historical details, several of Toronto’s transit-planning decisions have not aged well.
Ridership predictions for the Sheppard subway former mayor Mel Lastman pushed have not panned out, forcing the city to subsidize the underutilized, five-stop line about $10 for every ride.
And today, plans for a Sheppard East LRT — supported by evidence and with funding from other levels of government — have stalled amid lingering political promises of an underground extension, meaning no rapid transit has been built at all.
The Union Pearson Express — an idea the province pursued even after the private sector abandoned it over fears of cost recovery — looks certain to fall short of the promised goal of breaking even on its operating costs within five years. Figures released this summer show the province is still subsidizing the line at about $11 per ride, totalling about $30.4 million between April 2016 and March 2017.
The same mistakes keep getting repeated because too many elected officials are concerned with personal and political agendas, said Councillor Josh Matlow.
“No one has been able to back up even the most basic details when I’ve asked some of the most obvious questions regarding spending over $3 billion on one subway station. That doesn’t make sense,” he said.
“Would any reasonable, responsible person when they’re buying a product at a store just buy what they think they deserve and accept any price that they’re told? No. They would consider their budget and they would make a thoughtful comparison of products so that they can know beyond a doubt that they’ve made the right choice.”
Former mayor David Miller, who sat on both the boards of Metrolinx and the TTC, said decisions about transit should ultimately be made by public officials.
“But they need to rely on the advice of civil servants and other experts, and where they do not accept the advice, should be forced to explain the reasons in public as happens at city hall operating at its best,” he told the Star in an email. “This is clearly not the case with a provincial agency whose appointees are all at the pleasure of the minister and do not have the stature, elected legitimacy, or background knowledge to stand up for an evidence-based transit planning process.”
Miller and other politicians were removed from the Metrolinx board in 2009 by then premier Dalton McGuinty in what the province claimed was a bid to speed up projects with a more independent board. Board members are now unelected officials recommended by the minister of transportation. That shakeup has come at a cost, Miller said.
“When premier McGuinty removed elected officials from Metrolinx it removed the political strength and heft from the board that prevented underhanded backroom deals,” he said.
The focus on politically motivated projects has also meant universally-agreed-upon priorities get sidetracked.
Though transportation experts, academics and top bureaucrats agree a subway to relieve the congested Yonge line is a priority project, today there is no money committed to actually building it and no mayor or minister is championing the need to just get on with it.
The current process for approving major transit projects has also left something to be desired, watchers say.
In 2008, the province changed how transit projects are vetted, streamlining the mandatory environmental assessment to what’s called the Transit Project Assessment Process (TPAP), allowing for approvals within six months.
The office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario reported then that the TPAP took away some “key requirements” of the environmental assessment, including potential “alternatives” to a project.
“A requirement to consider ‘alternatives’ is still in the public interest, particularly when various transit options have differing impacts socially, economically and environmentally,” the report reads. “A careful weighing of alternatives, with public scrutiny, can lead to better overall outcomes and a wiser use of scarce public resources.”
It’s unclear whether projects like Scarborough and Kirby and those pushing for their approval will undergo scrutiny from watchdogs appointed to keep an eye on public institutions.
After receiving complaints about Kirby, Lawrence East and Scarborough, Ontario’s auditor general Bonnie Lysyk told the Star her office had already planned to audit the province’s regional transportation plan.
As part of that review, expected to be published next fall, she said “it would be appropriate for us to look at Lawrence East and Kirby Station.”
Toronto auditor general Beverley Romeo-Beehler, whose office is finishing an investigation into the Scarborough subway briefing note, said she has yet to determine if she will conduct a value-for-money analysis — something that has not specifically been the subject of any complaint.
“Right now it’s undecided what we’re going to do,” she said.
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