Here's what city council will—and won't—be considering when councillors vote to finalize the plan to build four new light rail lines.
This week, Toronto city council will consider a proposed agreement between the City and Metrolinx for the construction and operation of four LRT lines (Eglinton, Sheppard East, Finch West, and Scarborough). What is in this agreement, and what might be missing? Does this mark the end of difficult negotiations or only the beginning?
The city manager’s report on the agreement [PDF] does not include the full text of the document, but reveals that an inordinate amount of work has been done on legal arrangements regarding City property. This is not an agreement about actually operating the LRT routes or sharing the fare revenues. The recommended actions for council are almost entirely concerned with real estate.
The master agreement itself has not been published, and we must take it on faith that Toronto’s interests are protected. Metrolinx is a secretive organization, but this is a contract between public bodies, and there is no reason why any of it should be confidential.
Routes, stops, and planning questions
Because the province has taken over as the builder and owner of the projects, the environmental assessments previously undertaken in the City’s and TTC’s name will be transferred to Ontario. This will remove the process for any amendment from City hands. Metrolinx has been rather coy about the degree to which an environmental assessment or the simpler transit project assessment will define what will actually be built. In theory, through amendments, any of these projects could be modified to the point that they would be unrecognizable from the approved proposal.
The agreement proposes that any change—notably to location and number of stops—would be at the final discretion of Metrolinx. After some councillors objected that this gave Metrolinx too much freedom to change the already agreed-to designs, TTC Chair Karen Stintz announced that the agreement would be amended to clarify the process for scope changes. This shows the importance of seeing the actual agreement in full, not just a summary that may omit or obscure details.
Queen’s Park tied itself in knots insisting that it own the new transit lines, even though they will pass along and under city streets. Why is this needed when transit lines all over Toronto have been built with provincial money for decades?
Unlike the older projects, Ontario is paying 100 per cent of the capital costs, and is listing the new lines as assets on the public books. This offsets any debt used to finance the lines, making the net value of the public debt smaller. The provincial auditor insists that the province have “substantial control” of any asset treated this way—simply building an Eglinton line and then handing it to the TTC won’t do. The solution, described in some detail in the report, is to give permanent easements (i.e., usage rights) to the province, over and under City land where the transit lines will be built. This isn’t outright ownership, but it’s close enough to keep the auditor happy.
Potential to sell the lines
Neither the easement nor the master agreement itself can be assigned without the City’s consent, although this cannot be “unreasonably withheld,” and the requirement for consent does not apply to the province or to a provincial agency. This amounts to an empty guarantee against sale of the transit lines to a third party, because once they are fully in Ontario’s hands, the province could dispose of them to anyone.
Jurisdictional and property issues
The proposed recommendations will exempt the “Transit Lands” required for these projects from various sections of Toronto’s Municipal Code, allow the closing of such lands as “public highways,” permit the transfer of properties to Metrolinx from the City, and confer the right on City staff to undertake expropriation for “any property interests required to implement the projects.” This would allow the City to acquire land, for example, in ordeer to widen an existing road to make room for the transit right-of-way where Metrolinx would have an easement to build and operate its LRT route. This land would be paid for by Metrolinx as part of the project. Oddly enough, it will be a City department, not Metrolinx, that will handle all of the real estate transactions, because most of the land stays in the City’s hands.
The agreement includes sections on the responsibility for procurement and contracting, the protection of City assets, community relations, traffic management, and staffing. These are all necessary parts of getting each line built, but the agreement is silent on many key factors for the future operation and expansion of the LRT network, such as:
- Revenue sharing: How will revenue flow from TTC fares to Metrolinx, and will Toronto face extra transit costs due to a formula that charges disproportionately for trips on Metrolinx routes?
- Costs: Will Toronto face extra costs beyond having to share revenue on the LRT lines?
- Service standards and changes: Is there a minimum service standard defined in the agreement, and how does it compare to current TTC standards? If Toronto wants better service than Metrolinx offers, how would this be obtained?
- New stations: If Toronto wants a station that Metrolinx does not include now or at a future time, how would it be inserted into a line?
- Extensions and expansion: What process will govern expansion of the LRT network? Could Toronto fund an extension from its own revenues?
- Technology change: If Metrolinx wants to change to a technology other than LRT, does Toronto have any recourse and would such a change void the agreement?
These are the important questions council should ask about the proposed agreement for the new LRT lines. Necessary as all the nuances of property transactions may be, they are window dressing compared with the heart of a transit project—actually providing transit service.
Today the City released updated recommendations meant to address concerns about the provincial government’s ability to change the light rail plans at will. Unfortunately those changes address none of the issues we raised above, beyond saying, yes, Toronto has the right to be upset. There’s still no indication council could actually stop the province from doing something to which it objected.
There is a more subtle issue here: As long as the lines belong to Ontario, as the senior level of government it can do anything it likes. If the light rail lines are sold in a 407-type deal, then the question is whether those overriding powers go to the new owner. Making a private corporation more powerful than a municipality by way of provincial meddling would be very dangerous.