Over the last decade, significant changes in governance—particularly the creation of Metrolinx—affected the region’s capacity to deliver projects. The region’s two most recent subway projects were largely built due to political pressure from suburban officials, and against the technical advice of experts.
The Sheppard Subway is the newest subway line in Toronto. It was initially proposed by the TTC in 1985, but rising cost estimates for the project and changes in provincial leadership led to its consistent delay and near-cancellation.534 Much of the political impetus for its eventual passage was from Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman, who previously served as Mayor of North York (a suburban district in northern Toronto served by the Sheppard Subway) from 1973 to 1997 when it was its own municipality. Lastman successfully lobbied the province and TTC to fund the Sheppard subway even though the agency’s technical studies found the line would be best served as light rail.535 The mayor and other political supporters were heavily in favor of a subway to help spur commercial development that would make part of North York into a “second downtown.”
The TYSSE project has a similar origin story. Political leaders wanted the city of Vaughan to be served by a subway line, not only to raise the profile of that area but to also spur development and raise property values around York University. Both the city and York University lobbied the province to fund an extension of Line 1 to Vaughan which, at that time, was not the priority of the TTC or other local officials in the region. In fact, the extension was deemed unjustified by the TTC due to low densities along the proposed route and modest projected ridership.536 However, Greg Sorbara, the former Minister of Finance for Ontario who represented Vaughan in the provincial parliament, successfully lobbied the provincial and federal government to push ahead with the project.537
Political influence and interference in major projects have persisted in the region, despite governance changes. Metrolinx was originally intended to serve as an independent, regional organization at an “arm’s length” from local and provincial politics, but its financial and governance structure made the agency largely captive to the political dynamics of the province. Reports and interviewees have documented a lack of political legitimacy and accountability around transit decision-making.
While Metrolinx is tasked with developing and executing regional transit plans, it does not have the authority to raise its own revenues. There is also no regional governing body in the GTHA that lies between the municipalities and the province to whom Metrolinx can be held accountable.538 Rather, Metrolinx reports solely to the Province of Ontario, who retains the final say in all decisions. The projects included in Metrolinx’s first regional transit plan in 2008 were also largely already decided upon by Toronto (through Transit City) and the Province of Ontario (through its MoveOntario 2020 plan for 52 rapid transit lines).539
Metrolinx itself is subject to significant political interference. Changes in political leadership can lead to projects getting modified or canceled even after construction has begun. The 2007 “Transit City” proposal put forth under former Mayor David Miller called for the creation of seven new light rail lines in Toronto.540 Initial studies for many of the lines were underway and construction had already begun on the Sheppard East line when newly-elected Mayor Rob Ford cancelled Transit City on his first day in office.541 Ford pushed instead to extend the Sheppard subway to Scarborough and replace the aging Scarborough RT line with an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway line.542 Despite this cancellation, the Toronto City Council ultimately voted to resume work on Transit City in 2012, specifically on the Eglinton and Finch lines, which are now under construction.543
Similarly, the Province of Ontario approved $800 million in funding for a 9 mile light rail line in Hamilton (22 miles southwest of downtown Toronto) in 2015 under Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.544 The Hamilton LRT was one of Metrolinx’s priority projects under the Big Move, and was expected to be opened in 2024.545 However, after an independent cost estimate showed project costs rising from $800 million to $4.5 billion, Conservative Premier Doug Ford, who succeeded Liberal Premier Wynne, canceled the project in 2019, before procurement was complete.546
The cancellation sparked significant backlash from opposition parties and debate between officials from the province and Hamilton, specifically over the accuracy and timing of the cost estimate used to justify cancellation. The $4.5 billion cost estimate also included operating and maintenance costs that were not included as part of the original $800 million estimate, which only covered capital costs.547 Debate surrounding cost overruns on the project were further complicated after a report by the Ontario Auditor General (AG) found that Metrolinx and the Ministry of Transportation knew, but failed to disclose, that the project would cost more than the initial $800 million as early as 2016.548 In February 2021, the province recommitted to a slightly shorter version of the project, offering $830 million in funding if the federal government agrees to commit $1.2 billion.549
Persistent political interference casts significant uncertainty over transit planning and decision-making in Toronto. The frequency by which political officials can cancel, modify, or otherwise interfere with projects that have already been approved or even under construction makes it difficult for the public and business community to assess the stability of any decision or plan introduced by Metrolinx. A 2018 report by the Ontario AG found that politically motivated project changes and cancellations have amounted to nearly $104 million in sunk costs for the agency.550
The lack of a standard, transparent process by which projects are proposed or evaluated was cited as one of the reasons why Metrolinx is susceptible to political influence. Despite formal business case analyses and other evaluations carried out by Metrolinx and IO, stakeholders and politicians propose a variety of different projects, with little to no structure on how to evaluate and vet these proposals.
Metrolinx has institutionalized a policy to require business case analyses for major capital projects over $42 million (50 million CAD).551 These analyses evaluate the rationale, value for money, and impacts of major investments during various stages of project development. These business cases also analyze the viability of various alignments and modes, deliverability of a project, and the level of expected project risk, among others.
However, what appears to be a streamlined and robust process for decision-making from the outside masks the largely political decision-making process that happens behind-the-scenes. This process was characterized by one interviewee as “decision-based evidence making” with political officials making a decision to move ahead on a given project, and planners or consultants being tasked with justifying the decision. While interviewees acknowledged that there are some sound technical reports and analyses prepared by Metrolinx, they expressed doubt over whether they are actually read or taken into account by political officials who have the ultimate say in approving projects.
Reports from the Ontario AG identified several instances of Metrolinx undermining its own decision-making and technical analysis process. As part of the Transit City project, Toronto, Metrolinx, and Ontario had already agreed to build the seven proposed projects as light rail lines, and Metrolinx’s 2009 business case analyses of these seven corridors did not assess the viability of alternate modes like BRT. When updating its business cases for the Finch West, Sheppard East, and Hamilton LRT lines in 2014, Metrolinx found that BRT service may be able to achieve similar benefits at a lower cost, and called for additional study of the cost-effectiveness of BRT versus LRT.552 However, the agency did not ultimately conduct any additional analysis. In January 2020, Metrolinx voted to move ahead with an eastern extension of the Scarborough subway and westward extension of the Eglinton Crosstown line despite receiving a cost-benefit-analysis report that found the projects would cost nearly $10 billion to build, but only result in $4.2 billion in benefits.553
Similarly, when assessing the overall benefit of LRT versus BRT in Hamilton, Metrolinx found that light rail would offer the most benefits under a high intensity land use intensification scenario, while BRT would perform best under moderate land use intensification.554 However, while Metrolinx modeled the benefits of LRT under low, medium, and high land use intensification scenarios, BRT was only studied under the medium intensification scenario. Metrolinx recommended conducting an updated business case before a final decision was made, though no additional study was conducted before the province approved the LRT project in 2015.555
In another case, Metrolinx overruled its own recommendation against building two new GO Transit stations after receiving pressure from the province and Toronto.556 As part of a planned expansion of the GO commuter rail system, Metrolinx conducted a business case evaluation of 17 proposed GO stations in 2016. The analysis did not recommend building stations in Kirby and Lawrence East (among five other rejected stations), finding that their inclusion would increase travel time and thus reduce ridership, lead to an increase in automobile use, and decrease overall system fare revenue.557
However, the agency subsequently modified its evaluation of the stations to make the Kirby and Lawrence East appear to score better and overrode their own recommendation to approve them after the then-Minister of Transportation and the city of Toronto pressured the agency to include the stations.558 The Kirby station resided within the electoral district represented by the then-Minister of Transportation in the Ontario Parliament, while Lawrence East was one of the proposed stations under the Toronto Mayor’s signature SmartTrack commuter rail expansion plan.559