Metrolinx is growing up.
Just days after Queen's Park appeared to be tightening the reins, Greater Toronto's lumbering regional transit agency announced an ambitious plan to take over the long-delayed Union Station-airport rail link project.
The collapse of contract talks between the province and a private-sector consortium led by Montreal-based SNC Lavalin preceded the move that will see Metrolinx operate a "premium" service - a high-speed shuttle leaving from Union Station every 15 minutes - under a new brand. It just has to complete a 2.3 km rail "spur" into Lester B. Pearson International Airport first.
The decision to go it alone is unquestionably a milestone because it marks the very first time that Metrolinx, established in 2006, will operate a transportation service that isn't part of the GO Transit bus and commuter rail network.
In the past four years, Metrolinx, using provincial dollars, has invested billions in expansions to GO and the Toronto Transit Commission's new light-rail lines. But the bulk of its activities have involved long-range planning and the ongoing deployment of the Presto smart card system.
Montreal-based SNC Lavalin and its lenders pulled out because Ontario refused to provide operating subsidies for the 46-year deal, meaning the private sector consortium would rely only on fare revenues to meet its profit targets. "At this point in time, the lending community isn't prepared to fund full revenue risk projects," SNC director of communications Dominique Morval said in an interview.
What's less clear is whether Metrolinx will attempt to operate its new service on a full fare recovery basis. Chair Robert Prichard said the funding details haven't been worked out yet, but noted that the air-rail link will be able to use GO's maintenance and signalling facilities.
Nor will the shift affect Queen's Park's position on electrification, advocated by thousands of residents along the Georgetown corridor who are deeply concerned about the health impacts of frequent diesel trains. Transportation minister Kathleen Wynne says an electrification study is due to be released in December. "The fact that Metrolinx will run the project doesn't change the realities around electrification."
The air-rail link news came shortly after Metrolinx's board revealed that Bruce McQuaig, Ontario's deputy minister of transportation, would take over as chief executive officer from Mr. Prichard, former University of Toronto president. Hired as part of a lengthy executive search process, Mr. McQuaig will resign as deputy minister and will no longer belong to the Ontario public service.
The degree of independence of agencies mandated to spend billions in public money has been a touchy issue since last year's ehealth Ontario scandal. The Liberals established such organizations to accelerate the implementation of important policy goals - in this case, putting a dent in GTA gridlock. But they are understandably wary of getting burned by new tales of fiscal mismanagement.
For Metrolinx, the precise nature of its relationship to Queen's Park will be tested to the limit when its board and the government get around to making politically explosive decisions about financing new transit lines costing tens of billions of dollars. The options could include private-public partnerships, highway tolls or regional parking levies. The Liberals initially pledged to come up with an answer by 2013 (two years after the next provincial election). But Ms. Wynne says she has instructed her officials to accelerate the decision-making process.
For a government anticipating both an election and a raucous policy debate, it seems to make sense to have a trusted adviser at the helm.
Yet to some critics, Metrolinx's decision to hire a consummate bureaucratic insider - Mr. McQuaig has 26 years of experience in the civil service - suggests the Liberals want to ensure that Metrolinx does only the government's bidding, instead of functioning as a forum for debate about the future of transit in Greater Toronto.
"The whole idea that Metrolinx is an independent agency has been chipped away at since day one," says transit activist Steve Munro, noting that Queen's Park replaced the elected municipal politicians on the board with private-sector directors about a year ago. "I have a hard time figuring out what the board's function is."
But University of Western Ontario political scientist Andrew Sancton, a municipal government expert, says Mr. McQuaig's appointment, and the motivations it implies, is consistent with the Liberals' other large-scale urban planning policies geared at the Greater Golden Horseshoe, including the creation of the greenbelt and the Places to Grow Act, which focuses new development in urbanized areas.
"We need to recognize that these big strategic issues are perfectly appropriate for the province to deal with."
Toronto City Summit Alliance chair John Tory, who is rumoured to be looking at a mayoral run, doesn't think the choice of CEO indicates a loss of confidence. "There's quite a strong board there which actually does function and I think the combination of Rob [Prichard] the board and a CEO who knows the people at Queen's Park (public servants and politicians) will be good," he said in an e-mail.
With Metrolinx stretching its institutional wings, the other interesting question is whether Mr. McQuaig is willing or able to forge improved relations with the City of Toronto and the TTC, whose current crop of leaders have been at war with Queen's Park over recent delays in funding for the Transit City projects.