Political meddling in transit is a fine Toronto tradition. A Liberal cabinet minister’s intervention to get a new GO Transit station for his riding is a classic of the type.
According to an article in the Toronto Star by reporter Ben Spurr on Monday, Ontario’s Transportation Ministry pressured Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, to approve the Kirby GO station, which just happens to be in Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca’s Vaughan constituency. The ministry also pushed for a Scarborough station, Lawrence East, that is part of the SmartTrack transit line championed by Toronto Mayor John Tory.
An analysis for Metrolinx originally said that authorities should not consider building the two stations for at least 10 years. Adding them would increase travel times on the GO lines by forcing trains to stop more often, it concluded, so fewer people would use the GO service. In other words, the facts simply did not justify the stations.
The Metrolinx board ended up approving them anyway, in June, 2016. Documents obtained by the Star through the freedom-of-information process help explain why. The head of Metrolinx at the time, Bruce McCuaig, said Mr. Del Duca seemed “disappointed” that Kirby was not on the list of favoured new stations. After much to-ing and fro-ing at the transit agency, Mr. McCuaig added the two dubious stations to the list. Mr. Del Duca duly announced they would be built, along with 10 others.
Metrolinx insists nothing untoward happened here – nothing at all. Deciding which stations to build “is a collaborative process that requires many inputs, including from public servants and elected officials, which must be blended together in final judgments.” In the case of Kirby, “municipal officials, community stakeholders and Minister Del Duca collectively made the case that Kirby be included among the new stations to be approved.” So, you see, the minister in charge of transportation for the province is just one voice among many.
If you believe that, then there is some lovely wetland property in Florida you might want to buy. Assuming the Star’s report is correct – and the great clouds of fog emitted by Metrolinx and Mr. Del Duca in response do nothing to contradict it – then it would seem Metrolinx changed its mind under political pressure.
That is not how things should work. Metrolinx is supposed to make decisions based on the facts, not the whim of a minister. Where transit lines and stations go should depend on how many people might use them, not how many votes a politician might win by announcing them.
The agency’s founding documents say its role is to “provide leadership” in the planning and development of a regional transportation system. Some leadership. The members of its board, a blue-chip group of leading Ontarians who are duty bound to scrutinize its decisions, should be hanging their heads today.
Building these political stations would cost tens of millions of dollars. If the original analysis is correct, then that will not just be a waste of public money; it will hamper the efficiency of the region’s commuter rail system, actually discouraging commuters from taking it. People don’t get on the train to take a milk run. They want fast service with the fewest possible stops on their way to work.
What makes this episode doubly discouraging is that it is so very typical. Again and again in Toronto, powerful politicians have intervened to make sure that favourite transit projects get built, whether the facts justify them or not. It really should end. Political leaders should set the broad goals of the transit system and round up the money to build it, then leave the details to the experts. A minister ought to know better than to use his muscle to favour a stop in his own backyard that might win him political advantage.
On Monday afternoon, Mr. Del Duca issued a statement on the Kirby affair. He defended his “long-standing support” for the station, saying that a surge of new residents coming to the area would justify building it. But then he seemed to throw the matter back to Metrolinx, telling the agency it shouldn’t sign any contract to build the station until the staff and board were satisfied it was justified by local land use, the shape of the growing rail network and other factors. “If the aforementioned information is not adequate, then I would recommend that the proposed Kirby GO station be deferred to the next round of consideration at a future date.”
It was the right thing to do, but it shouldn’t have taken an investigation by an enterprising reporter to make him see the wisdom of standing back.