Mayor John Tory’s office directed what is meant to be an arm’s-length provincial transit agency about its messaging surrounding the mayor’s signature “SmartTrack” plan, emails obtained by the Star show.
As that plan was being significantly revised — reduced to just six new stations along existing GO train lines — the changes requested by Tory’s staff appeared aimed at putting what remained of the promised improvements in a better light.
The SmartTrack plan includes the controversial Lawrence East station, which the province’s auditor general found last week was inappropriately approved by the provincial transit agency, Metrolinx, under pressure from the city. The decision to approve the station came in spite of analysis recommending the station not be built. The auditor general, Bonnie Lysyk, has now recommended an independent review of the selection of that station.
That follows earlier reporting by the Star that showed city staff boosted the case for Lawrence East, which the mayor has said is a key part of expanding the transit network in Scarborough.
A separate set of emails recently obtained by the Star from the TTC also show ongoing discord about transit planning and concerns from a senior official that the city’s planning process on SmartTrack was “insanity.”
The correspondence involving the mayor’s office began in February 2018, when then CEO of Metrolinx Bruce McCuaig wrote to then city manager Peter Wallace and the mayor’s then chief of staff Chris Eby to provide them a copy of a presentation to be given at an upcoming board meeting. The emails were obtained by the Star through a freedom of information request.
Within hours, Eby replied with concerns.
“Why not take the opportunity to reset the communications on this a bit?” he said, noting there seemed to be “consensus between our teams about how this is going to unfold.”
He suggested the mayor come to make the presentation with Metrolinx officials as a “collaborative effort.”
“Would send a strong signal that we’re all on the same page when it comes to the options and moving towards the same goals,” he wrote.
He went on to raise issues with slides in the presentation.
That included a concern that Metrolinx was not showcasing SmartTrack in conjunction with existing GO stations and a light rail extension in the western part of the city.
“The options should include existing, LRT and SmartTrack stations so it doesn’t miscommunicate the impact these lines would have. Wouldn’t want journalists to see low number of stations and misunderstand the slide,” Eby wrote to McCuaig.
Though Tory promised a 22-stop “London-style surface rail subway” during his 2014 mayoral campaign, the resulting plan when these emails were sent was six new stations within Toronto, added to existing GO lines that were already slated for increased, electrified service. A heavy rail spur Tory had promised to Mississauga became a western extension of the Eglinton Crosstown light rail line — meaning anyone travelling by GO train would need to transfer to that line and potentially pay an extra fare to take it. Several of the new station stops promised by Tory were eliminated as was the concept there would be any kind of separate service from GO.
Still Tory’s office was trying to make SmartTrack appear more than it was.
One of the slides was eventually changed at Eby’s request to say: “All options include an LRT on the Eglinton West corridor, with the number of stations to be determined” and also, “All options include the 11 existing stations in the City of Toronto and Markham on the Kitchener and Stouffville corridors.” Eby’s request that the second point say “as part of the SmartTrack/RER service concept” was not included.
When contacted by the Star, Tory’s spokesperson Don Peat did not specifically address the email exchange involving Eby.
“We are getting on with building transit — that’s what Mayor Tory was elected and re-elected to do by Toronto voters,” Peat wrote in a statement. “City council has voted to move ahead with SmartTrack and the province has endorsed this plan.”
McCuaig, who is no longer CEO of Metrolinx, declined to comment, referring questions to Metrolinx. A spokesperson for Metrolinx also declined to comment.
There have been ongoing concerns with at least one of the stations approved by council and the province, Lawrence East.
After the Star revealed secret analysis concluding the stop was not good value for money and should not proceed as part of the approved plan, city staff, at the direction of then deputy city manager John Livey, set about to provide a different, more favourable analysis of the potential station to convince Metrolinx to approve it.
In her annual report, the auditor general said “repeatedly adding further ‘strategic considerations’ to the decision-making process makes it possible to justify any decision.”
She described a June 2016 email to the chair of the Metrolinx board from McCuaig where he says the Lawrence East site still performed “relatively poorly” even after receiving a technical evaluation from the city.
In an October 2017 letter, the city forwarded further “strategic considerations” to Metrolinx, emphasizing the station’s importance in an “optimized” Scarborough transit network, as the provincial agency weighed whether to approve the station.
“Putting so much priority on these vague strategic considerations — and less weight on net economic costs — makes the decision-making process seem arbitrary,” the auditor general wrote.
In the same period, TTC officials were discussing concerns about the planning for SmartTrack.
In a January 2016 email to colleagues, Mitch Stambler, then head of strategy and planning for the TTC, noted he had come from a meeting with city staff, including then deputy city manager Livey.
“Just came from a Livey SmartTrack meeting, and it’s the closest thing to insanity that I’ve ever seen,” wrote Stambler, who has since retired. “Truly turns my stomach.”
He went on to say that city staff at that meeting were explaining “where they think we should build this line and that line and those stations, etc.”
He concluded: “Just like on the old game show ‘Family Feud,’ everyone in the room would cheer them on and shout, ‘good answer’. It’s a different and very sad world.”
TTC spokesperson Brad Ross told the Star they do not share Stambler’s characterization of the transit planning process.
“Of course, robust discussions can and do occur on a range of issues in any organization. The TTC’s expectation of its staff is that those discussions, and subsequent correspondence, remain cordial and professional at all times,” he wrote.
In a statement, city spokesperson Tammy Robinson said staff are following council direction to negotiate with Metrolinx to implement SmartTrack project objectives.
“The city is committed to working with our partners at the TTC and Metrolinx to provide improved transit access to Toronto residents through transit expansion.”
Councillor Josh Matlow, who has challenged the mayor’s Scarborough transit plan, arguing an LRT network would serve more people for less money, said he would welcome the review of Lawrence East recommended by the auditor general and a value-for-money analysis of all transit projects.
“I think it’s disgraceful that so much time and money has been wasted rather than achieving fact-based transit plans to really help people,” he said. “Numbers have been torqued, facts have been embellished and far too many people in the political world have put their own interests before those of the people.”
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags