And In Other News

August 23, 2010

… meanwhile, over at Metrolinx…

Funny how in the midst of a tempestuous election campaign, the business of actual governance gets pushed off deep into the background. So much so that some candidates out there on the hustings go as far as to suggest that elected officials should not be making any decisions that may outlive their time in office. Election year lame ducking, you might call it.

Still, the odd piece of business can pop up that does impose itself on the campaign. Take, for example, the minor brouhaha last week over the almost completed construction of the so-called Dufferin Jog. This is the long overdue reconnecting of Dufferin Street at Queen. For the past century or so, weary travelers making their way along Dufferin Street in either direction had to jut around the railway bridge at Queen to continue their sojourn north or south. This minor diversion has long caused traffic chaos along that section of Queen Street.

But as of sometime in the early fall, we’ll be able to breeze up and down Dufferin Street like it’s PCH 1, zipping effortlessly beneath the rail underpass on our way to the Home and Garden Show or… for whatever reason it is people go north on Dufferin Street.

But wait, not so fast. Metrolinx – the vaguely provincial government transit agency in charge of orchestrating the entire GTA’s Big Move — has asked the city to delay wrapping up construction for a couple months, maybe 4 or 6, so they can lay down another track for trains operating on the Georgetown corridor. Why this is only being brought up now, who knows? For our purposes here, let’s just chalk it up to another example of problematic overlapping governmental jurisdictions.

As of now it seems the city will ignore Metrolinx’s request and go ahead to complete construction, leaving the question of additional tracks for a later date. This decision imposed itself on the council race in Ward 18 where the Dufferin Jog is located and which is the seat of power for outgoing TTC chair, Adam Giambrone. Ana Bailão, a candidate to replace Giambrone as councillor in Ward 18 and whom Giambrone defeated for the spot in 2003, suggests her former opponent is setting common sense aside and proceeding with completion simply in order “… to cut the ribbon for the project” before he leaves office. She contends it would be cheaper and less hassle to finish the whole thing up now rather than having to restart construction at a later date.

Kevin Beaulieu, another candidate competing for the Ward 18 council seat and former Giambrone executive assistant, thinks there’s more to it than that. He contends Metrolinx is trying to covertly expand the railway in order to accommodate their diesel engine technology at the expense of electrifying the corridor, a sentiment shared by at least in part by some at council including Councillor Gord Perks. We leave it to those better informed about transit and that particular issue to try and disentangle it but a couple Metrolinx matters – and the gist of this actual post — did jump to our attention while we were reading through the minutae of the imbroglio.

News filtered out late last month that the Metrolinx-SNC Lavalin private-public partnership deal to build and operate the Union Station-Pearson Airport rail link was dead. According to John Lorinc in the Globe and Mail, “… SNC Lavalin and its lenders pulled out because Ontario refused to provide operating subsidies for the 46-year deal, meaning the private sector consortium would rely only on fare revenues to meet its profit targets.”

Huh. Imagine that. The fearless private sector got cold feet at plunging into the public transit game because the provincial government “refused to provide operating subsidies”.

“Naturally, we are disappointed by the outcome of the Toronto Air Rail Link Project. Given the state of financial markets over the past few years, lenders, both in Canada and elsewhere, are reluctant to lend money for full revenue-risk projects.  As a result, an agreement that met our own standards of risk tolerance could not be reached with interested lenders,” SNC Lavalin said in an official statement [bolding ours].

Attention should be paid, you candidates bellowing about how the private sector will eagerly sign on to build all those subways we want. Apparently a little cost analysis reveals that making money from public transit ain’t that easy. At least not without some stinky government cheese thrown in, and if that’s what it takes to get PPPs up and running, why bother? If the Ontario government isn’t going “to provide operating subsidies” to, say, the TTC, they shouldn’t be expected to do so with private companies.

Of a second Metrolinx related note, outgoing President and CEO of the organization, Robert Pritchard who is moving up to become its chair of the board, will be replaced by Deputy Minster of Transportation, Bruce McCuaig. McCuaig is a veteran bureaucrat and his appointment puts a politician in charge of Metrolinx. That is, if spending 26 years in bureaucracy qualifies him as a politician. And if it does, that means a ‘career politician’ now has his fingers in the pie of public transit planning which appears to be an about-face of professionalization of such matters that the government’s been touting for the last little while.

Again, we’re not well enough informed about public transit policy to debate the merits or lack of them in such moves. We point them out only because they seem to be running contrary to the voices of debate going on during this municipal campaign in Toronto. The private sector should not be counted on to build public transit. SNC Lavalin’s exit from the airport rail link table serves as yet another example of this failed experiment. Secondly, we cannot entirely de-politician the public transit planning. As strong as that appeal is especially when anti-incumbency is as thick in the air as it is this year, it seems neither sensible nor workable.

Anyone running for office who advocates such ideas (Mssrs. Ford and Rossi are merely the most extreme cases) must be vigorously challenged on these points. They are pushing theories and ideas that don’t seem to be viable and certainly are not working out there in the real world. It would be negligent on our part to put such baseless dreamers in a position of power that well might undermine public transit planning into the foreseeable future.