Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca: It's Time for Building, Not Planning
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Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca: It’s Time for Building, Not Planning

Ontario's new transportation minister is very committed to building things. He seems much less concerned with whether we are building the right ones.

Photo from Steven Del Duca’s website.

Our new transportation minister, Steven Del Duca (Vaughan), is the antithesis of predecessor Glen Murray—who never met a question without an extensive, ambitious answer (sometimes multiple answers), even if he had to invent government policy on the fly to provide one. Del Duca, by contrast, doesn’t have much of an answer for a whole lot of questions. He is affable, but singularly “on-message.” And that message, hammered home throughout our recent interview with him, is that the time for discussion and debate is over: now we must build. Whatever plan we have—by which he means specifically the plan the Liberals ran on in the recent election (as opposed to the much more robust plan regional transit agency Metrolinx has had on the books for years)—is the one we much proceed with.

We have a certain sympathy for this attitude. If there’s one thing people in Toronto can agree on, it’s that the debates have been endless, and we need to see real, on-the-ground progress. The problem is that the way the Liberals are proceeding commits the provincial government—and Toronto-region transit riders—to a plan that was devised by politicians rather than experts, and one that falls far short of what the experts say we need to be doing.

When we sat down with him on Monday, Del Duca contradicted himself on these and other matters. On the one hand, he wants to adopt a regional outlook, one free of local turf wars—one that will build what is best for everyone, rather than particular pet projects. On the other hand, he is unwilling to revisit the Scarborough subway decision—a local pet project if ever there was one—even if a newly elected mayor and council decide they want to revert to LRT. The government wants to support its municipal partnerships, he says, but this does not extend to revising the province’s plan. Del Duca and his government seem to be dodging the question with the hope that they will never face a pro-LRT City Hall.

Despite its eagerness to begin construction, Del Duca says, the government will look at the planning “evidence” when setting priorities. But what if that evidence does not support parts of the government’s proposed network? (See that pesky Scarborough subway again. The government’s own advisors long ago said that it was a poor use of money and unnecessary—and that it created far more transit capacity, at great expense, than that area actually needs.) The minister cautions against looking at isolated elements of the plan, but it is precisely the trade-offs between specific options that are the heart of network planning. If you are building only $15 billion worth of a $34-billion plan (that’s the full cost of the slate of major projects Metrolinx wants to construct in the next round of transit expansion), the only way to make decisions is to look at specific routes and weigh their merits against each other.

There is also the matter of the Regional Express Rail (RER) scheme—effectively the centrepiece of the Liberal government’s plan—which would improve all GO rail corridors with electrification and 15-minute, all-day service. That, too, is supposed to come out of the $15 billion Queen’s Park has committed to GTHA transit, and Del Duca is unwilling to acknowledge that, bold though it may be, RER fundamentally changes the discussion. We do not yet know how much the RER will cost, how soon it can be built, and what sequence might be recommended for the network components. Metrolinx will provide interim status reports, but the definitive statement will not come until early 2015. We therefore don’t know what the knock-on effects will be for the TTC and other local transit agencies, and for their ability to build new local routes and implement capacity relief measures (such as increased bus service).

Most troubling in Del Duca’s interview is the sense that Metrolinx’s planning function will be eclipsed by ministerial fiat. This began in Glen Murray’s tenure, and now the “premier’s plan” takes precedence.

Who is really running the region’s transportation planning? A handful of advisors in the premier’s and transportation minister’s offices, or the expert staff and consultants working in a quasi-public forum to build the best network possible? If “planning” is little more than copying text from the premier’s website, then what is Metrolinx for? Staying on message is expected in a brand new minister—Del Duca needs to be a staunch defender of his government’s line—but the GTHA deserves better than having to take it on faith that its plan is the one worth pursing.

The government’s singular focus on implementing an existing plan does not admit discussion, even when that would improve the plan. No: there is a plan, and it sits shining on a pillar for all to admire, not to question or criticize. Circumstances may finally have brought us a government that is willing to spend real money on transit—no small improvement, to be sure—but this does not make Premier Kathleen Wynne infallible, and it ought not to make her plan immutable.

[Below is a transcript of our conversation with the transportation minister; it has been edited and condensed.]

Torontoist: We are in the middle of a mayoral campaign in which the candidates are divided on what should happen in Scarborough. There may well be a new council, with a new mayor, that decides “We’ve looked at the subway, we’ve looked at the numbers, it doesn’t make sense. We want to stick with the LRT plan after all.” If council gave clear direction to that effect is that someone you would accept?

Del Duca: We came through an election campaign in which the premier was very clear about the importance of moving forward with significant investments in transportation and transit infrastructure. We had a very thoughtful but also a very clear plan about what that would mean … in terms of signature items that are included in that plan.

Everyone understands the importance of not only getting it right but getting it going. The plan was before the people, they gave us—whether you’re talking about the people who live specifically in Scarborough, or across the Toronto, or across the province of Ontario—a mandate to get going with actually building the transit and transportation we need. And when you look at the plan, you look at where it’s at—that plan included a subway for Scarborough, based on many, many months, if not years, of dialogue and discussion and conversation. I think the message from the people of this entire province was resounding as it relates to their desire to see us roll up our sleeves and get work and deliver. And so that’s what I’m focused on.

It’s always [the premier’s] desire and my desire to work as closely as we can with our municipal partners, but I have an immense amount of faith not just in the people of Toronto but people right across the GTHA and beyond: they do recognize that we have to move from that discussion, dialogue, seemingly endless conversation about what to do, when to do, how to do—getting ensnared in different interpretations of numbers—and actually get on with it.

You talk about signature projects. Another signature project is Regional Express Rail (RER), which will directly compete with the Scarborough subway, and in fact will carry many of the riders who were used to justify the change from LRT to subway technology there. If you’re basically building two routes in the same corridor, and the real showpiece for the province is RER, doesn’t your statement prejudge the outcome of the study Metrolinx is doing about the balance between what should be built when?

No. One of the great tragedies of the last half-century has been, especially as the entire region has grown in such an explosive way, this notion that we can look at these at pieces in isolation, and try to figure out what the entire plan should look like, and then the implementation, by looking at the pieces in isolation. I am confident … that taking advice and analysis from a number of experts that are out there, some of whom have done this work internationally, that we will be able to come back to the table with a coherent implementation plan that in its totality makes sense for delivering over that 10 year horizon that’s fundamental to the premier’s plan.

Just to go back to one point you raised before: you said it would be tragic if at the end of four or 10 years we didn’t have anything done, and I don’t think there’s anyone in the city who would disagree with that. We can start building LRT a lot faster than we can start building a subway. Again, if council looks at that and says “we actually want to see progress in this term”—if they are elected on a clear pro-LRT platform—would you just say, out of hand, “no.”

I am genuinely trying to be as clear as I can on this. We have a responsibility to make sure that we do get on with the work that needs to be done. Part of that is the implementation plan and how we stage things, part of it is to make sure the plan works in its totality. We don’t want to just serve one area, we want to make sure that we’re not engaging in any unnecessary turf battles. The Scarborough Subway issue is very important, but it is one part of a very comprehensive, very thoughtful plan about how people, for example, in Vaughan, can commute to Brampton, how they can commute to Scarborough, how they can commute to Newmarket. If we don’t actually move forward with that plan—using the evidence and using the analysis to make sure that it flows, we are going to be sitting here … for decades. There comes a point at which you need to summon up that courage to say you’ll roll up your sleeves—not because we are determined to be perfect, but because we have a responsibility to deliver for the people of the region.

Photo by Loozrboy from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by Loozrboy from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

On that question of the broader strategy and the broader region: what your government has right now is $15 billion worth of projects. What Metrolinx has in its Big Move is $34 billion worth of plans. How do you close that gap? Is there a way to close that gap? If now, how do you pick which items on Metronlinx’s list get the $15 billion, and what do you do with all the other projects that your expert agency has said are essential, and essential in the next 25 years.

The $15 billion is for a 10 year horizon. The revenue tools that are contained in our budget do not necessarily sunset in the 10th year. These measures that are designed to help provide us with the funding we need to get the investments done don’t necessarily end in the 10th year.

I think there are a couple of other things to contemplate when you look at the plan itself. As we generate revenues there are other opportunities, I believe, embedded in the plan, for additional leveraging in the private sector as well that we can take a look at.

I am very optimistic that the $15 billion is obviously a very significant amount of money that will help us get where we need to be in order to have fulfilled the commitment that we made to the people of Ontario.

Despite the fact that you talk about revenue tools lasting for longer than 10 years, the government has said that RER is within 10 years. Previously Metrolinx had been looking at three decades. The problem is that if you say all of RER has to come out of the first 10 years, it also has to come out of the first $15 billion. What does it elbow off the table? What happens if, when Metrolinx does its cost analysis of implementing RER, you might build RER within the $15 billion, but you don’t have enough left over to build anything else?

Look, we’re not in a place where anyone is in a position to put a finalized price tag on what RER will cost. I am optimistic if not confident that over the 10 years we will be able to roll out RER, that it will fit within the $15 billion, and that we will make those decisions around what the entire comprehensive picture and plan needs to look like to make sure that the system as a whole is performing, and that individuals have those choices with respect to moving themselves, moving their family members, around the entire region in a way that is dependable and accessible.

Metrolinx has lost a significant amount of credibility over the past few years. A lot of people see Metrolinx endorsing one plan, and then endorsing a different plan, and feel that it is serving political ends rather than doing what it was originally intended to do—namely, provide independent, expert advice. Is this something that concerns you, and how do you go about restoring the public’s faith that you have an agency that is independent and evidence-driven, and that makes policy recommendations that are actually followed through on by government?

I think the two most important foundational principles for me are accountability and credibility. I think the way you drive up credibility is now we know what the plan is: we ran on the plan, it’s in the budget, it’s in the platform, we have the revenue tools that will start providing us with that fuel for those investments, so now we actually have to get on with it. That’s why I’m so eager to just roll up my sleeves and get on with it.

And from an accountability standpoint, it’s also important.

People have a lost a little bit of faith that government—at all levels, and this is a multi-partisan comment—can get these kinds of things right. That’s why it’s important that we do have a mandate, that we do have a strong endorsement from the people of the province with respect to our plan.

I think the planets are aligned really nicely right now. There is a premier in charge with a mandate and a plan and a very strong determination, as someone who lives in the GTA and as a former transportation minister, to have us get on with this.

It’s also important to get the little things right—you have to walk before you can run. We need to deliver $15 billion worth of projects but sometimes in communities driving up that credibility, driving up accountability—in the sense that we can accomplish stuff—is done in a much smaller way. My particular station looks and feels a certain way—what’s my customer service experience like?

Metrolinx has a legislated review of the Big Move, which they are in the process of doing now. It’s entirely possible that as part of that review they will recommend that something that was in the premier’s plan may not realistically belong at that high a ranking, or that something that wasn’t in that list should be a higher priority. Are you in effect prejudging the outcome of Metrolinx’s review by basically saying “it’s our plan, it’s the premier’s plan, and that’s what’s happening,” or are you open to a situation where things change?

Metrolinx is an agency that’s been created by the provincial government, the provincial government is their only shareholder, and we have a fantastic team working at Metrolinx, from the board to the senior staff to all the folks who are working throughout the system. Every conversation that I’ve had with Metrolinx tells me—and it’s the same conversation that I’ve had with municipal partners as well—that we are now at that critical stage where we have to move to the next phase, and the next phase is implementation. The next phase is how do we roll up our sleeves and get shovels in the ground, deliver small projects and improve the customer experience to drive up credibility, so that we can demonstrate—as I know we will—that we have the credibility to deliver those larger projects over the next decade. I tell people this all the time: we’re all on the same team here. We will all have collectively failed the people we represent if we don’t successfully move and transition to this next phase of implementing.

You mention the importance of local focus and small projects. Part of the Metrolinx Investment Strategy was to dedicate 25 per cent of revenues to municipal funding, for local, smaller projects. There has been no mention of this in the campaign or in the budget, even though Metrolinx acknowledges the importance of local routes to get people to and from the regional services. Has local transit funding fallen off of the table?

I don’t think that it’s fair to say that it’s fallen off the table. I’ve certainly been involved in conversations already with municipal partners and Metrolinx; I think everyone understands the importance of making that [local] experience work. I understand why that initial link—making it reasonable for people to access [the regional network]—is important. We will continue to have those discussions. It hasn’t fallen off my radar, and I think that the good news is because I’m a 905er, I do bring a particularly strong opinion about making sure we get that piece right. I know if we’re going to convince a household living in Woodbridge that has five cars—and I have households like that—if I’m going to convince them to leave those cars at home, then they need to understand that they have reasonable access to public transit that will be dependable, and accessible, and affordable.

It’s a very exciting time to be in this role. But it is crucial that we get this right, and that we get on with the work. We really have four years in terms of political cycles, 10 years in terms of our full plan, to have made a significant and tangible difference in people’s lives with respect to transit and transportation.

That implies you’re setting yourself the interesting goal of having stuff done within four years.

I absolutely am.