With Friends like Metrolinx, Who Needs Enemies?
With friends like Metrolinx, who needs enemies? Since the provincial transit agency was established in 2006, it has acquired a dismal reputation for infuriating locals, frustrating neighbourhoods and confounding critics. Even Ontario’s reluctant transportation minister, Caroline Mulroney, was forced to get involved last January to launch an investigation into the agency’s dubious business practices. A mix of poor planning, heavy-handed implementation and corporate secrecy has opened an ever-widening gap between Metrolinx, its mandate and the population of the Greater Toronto Area. Despite the obvious need for enhanced public transit, the organization has managed to alienate large swaths of the populace.
Through it all, Metrolinx has insisted the ends justify the means, cost be damned. As Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster said in a recent interview, “What we do on our projects is we work out technically what is the best and the right option to follow. And then we consult on how to implement that option. This is our mandate.”
In other words, Verster, a trained engineer, and his apparatchiks don’t consult the community until after they’ve made the big decisions. This isn’t just a textbook case of putting the cart before the horse – or perhaps subway before citizens – it’s also a classic failure to communicate. Not only does this approach lead otherwise well-intentioned people to lose sight of the larger context and confuse the how and why with the what, it also creates a sense of disconnection from the unfortunate, even disastrous, results that follow.
Ignore NIMBYs at Your Peril
In a city where property owners zealously stand on guard for their homes and neighbourhoods, residents will not be ignored. For better or worse, no one should underestimate the power of the NIMBY army. Metrolinx, a provincial crown corporation, is less beholden to civic pressures than municipal councillors, but Torontonians are also Ontarians. Queen’s Park ignores them at its peril.
Alternatively, leaders could decide to lead. The absence of leadership – from Metrolinx , Queen’s Park and Toronto City Hall – exacerbates the feeling that residents are being ignored, threatened and facing unwanted outcomes.
Of course, building subways is difficult even in the best of conditions, but running new lines through a busy city and its easily riled residential neighbourhoods verges on impossible.
Like Metrolinx, NIMBYs tend to lose sight of the big picture. Toronto and the GTA desperately need better transit, as long as it isn’t in my backyard. The fact remains, however, that lack of viable options to the automobile ranks among the greatest threats to the continued prosperity of the region. Our dependence on vehicular transportation, aided and abetted by a succession of provincial regimes – Liberals and Conservative — has left the Golden Horseshoe 30 years behind much of the advanced world. And let’s not forget we face a climate crisis already beyond our control.
The Community Cost
It’s no surprise, then, that the planning and construction of the Ontario Line, which will run 15.6 kilometres from the Ontario Science Centre in the northeast to Exhibition Place on the western waterfront, has pained so many across the city. The thriving but economically challenged Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood (population: 30,000) has sustained the biggest hit. It will be the site of a massive 175,000-square-metre maintenance facility. That’s large enough for 24 soccer fields. Critics insist there are at least two nearby sites that meet Metrolinx’s needs without wreaking so much havoc on the community.
Meanwhile, down in Don River Valley Park, Metrolinx has carved out 11-odd acres north of the Bloor Viaduct for a layover required to park GO trains during off-peak hours. Though the yard will incorporate an existing track, it will include at least three new buildings as well as a staff parking lot. Again, other, less intrusive sites were available. But Metrolinx said no.
Most recently, the crown corporation came under fire after revelations that one of its consultants, Brian Guest, whose firm Boxfish Infrastructure Group received lucrative contracts from Metrolinx, also serves as an agency vice-president. Though there were no allegations of conflict of interest, the arrangement doesn’t pass the smell test.
Mulroney reluctantly responded by announcing that she would look into the situation. “We are extremely concerned about any perceived or potential conflict of interest and will be investigating the contracts in question,” was her press secretary’s boilerplate response.
So far there has been no word on what the search has uncovered, if anything. At this point, no one expects much. But the message is clear; Metrolinx pretty well does what it wants and expects to get away with it.
Earlier this month when the agency announced that it plans to sell off Ontario Line station naming rights to corporate sponsors, it was yet another sign that Metrolinx has little understanding of transit’s larger role as part of the public realm. It is a shared asset, a community benefit, not something to be sold off by a secretive crown corporation for a few bucks. But for Verster and his colleagues, such delicate sensitivities are just another obstacle to ignore. Their message is clear: get out of the way and remember to say thank you.
Christopher Hume, former architecture critic and urban affairs columnist at the Toronto Star, left the paper in 2016 to pursue other interests. He is currently working on several documentary projects and writing a book about the political history of 21st-century Toronto.