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Politicians shunned in transit planning overhaul

GO-Metrolinx merger aims to speed projects

Mar 31, 2009 04:30 AM
ROB FERGUSON
TESS KALINOWSKI
STAFF REPORTERS

In a bid to speed up transit improvements in the Toronto region, the province has evicted all municipal politicians from the board of Metrolinx and merged the transportation planning agency with GO Transit.

Integrating GO with the planning expertise at Metrolinx will help get “shovels in the ground” faster on projects, Transportation Minister Jim Bradley said.

“All you have to do is get on our roadways at the present time and crawl along to see what it’s like to understand the need for these projects moving forward,” Bradley told reporters.

While the takeover of GO has been anticipated since the province set up Metrolinx in 2006, the replacement of politicians on the board with finance, planning and GO board experts suggests that Queen’s Park had grown impatient with the board’s progress on such issues as public-private partnerships and the implementation of a regional fare card.

Former Burlington mayor Rob MacIsaac will continue as part-time Metrolinx board chair under legislation unveiled yesterday while remaining as head of Mohawk College in Hamilton.

But Toronto Mayor David Miller and TTC chair Adam Giambrone, along with six other region chairs and mayors, will be replaced by experts more “geared” to getting transit lines built, Bradley said.

Hired as an adviser to lead the transition to the new board is outgoing Torstar Corp. chief executive Robert Prichard. Prichard steps down from Torstar, parent company of the Toronto Star, on May 6.

Bradley said the new law, called the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area Transit Implementation Act, would provide more integrated transit service around the region. Municipal transit systems like the TTC will not be included.

Insiders said the new board structure will limit “turf wars” between politicians protecting their local interests and hampering better links between municipal transit systems.

Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, who is among the ousted board members, said the board didn’t have enough authority.

“You need an independent board to make the decisions that have to be made for the good of the people,” she said. “That’s who we’re here to serve. They’ll have a board with power that can get the job done.”

At a Feb. 17 Toronto Star editorial board meeting, Miller had warned “it would be really unwise strategically” to remove politicians from the Metrolinx board.

“We understand the connections between transportation and planning and the provincial government and environmental objectives. It’s a unique skill set that nobody from the private sector could have,” Miller said.

Miller issued a statement yesterday praising the progress of Metrolinx under its old board and promising to protect Toronto’s Transit City plan to stretch light-rail lines into the suburbs.

“I will fight to ensure that public transit remains public and that the governance of it is open, transparent and accountable,” he said.

With no local politicians on the new board, the directors are accountable to the minister of transportation and through him to the Legislature, provincial officials said.

The board could not, for example, raise its members’ own wages because those are controlled for all provincial agencies, boards and commissions by the government’s management board. Any hikes in GO fares would be set as they are now - by the board in consultation with the province, which means they are essentially approved by the minister before being announced.

Rumours of differences within the Metrolinx board and between the politicians and Metrolinx staff have persisted almost since its first meeting, in March 2007. Reports that leaked out of the agency suggested it was looking for more authority over municipal transit systems, including the TTC.

As recently as January, Metrolinx hastily withdrew a report from its website that blamed the TTC for stalling on the province’s plan to implement the Presto smart fare card across nine regional transit systems. A new version of that report was expected to be brought before the April board meeting.

Toronto was also criticized by some for putting too many conditions in front of a plan to extend the Yonge subway into York Region.

Bradley said municipal politicians will continue to discuss transit issues with the Metrolinx board and the ministry. While he said the public will have input, the new board’s meetings will be closed when budgets and the five-year “rolling” capital plan for new projects are being discussed, to encourage “full and frank discussion” of issues.

Prichard said he will be paid $215,000 a year to help get the two agencies integrated and hire a new chief executive officer for Metrolinx - a job he is not interested in himself.

“My job is to be the transition adviser,” said the former University of Toronto president, noting it will probably take three months to a year to accomplish, and his pay will be pro-rated.

“I’m not a transit expert. Hopefully I know something about public and private management and can do that task and be the transition adviser and catalyst. Get it done. Faster is better than slower, from my perspective.”

Prichard said he does not take GO Transit because he lives downtown above a TTC station, and while he does not ride the subway to work every day, he does take it “lots.”

GO’s managing director and CEO, Gary McNeil, will stay on as head, said Peter Smith, the departing GO chair, who remains as vice-chair of Metrolinx.

The new organization will “speed up” the $11.5 billion worth of MoveOntario 2020 projects announced by Premier Dalton McGuinty in June 2007, said Smith.

With files from Vanessa Lu




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