The Star first filed for the records in November 2017 through a freedom of information request, after the subway was again approved in the absence of even a value-for-money comparison with the LRT alternative. After 19 months of waiting for that request to be processed by Metrolinx, the records were sent to the Star last month.
This story is part of an ongoing, years-long investigation by the Star into how a fully-funded LRT option to replace the aging Scarborough RT was killed by city council with the help of the former Liberal government in favour of a one-stop subway now estimated to cost at least $3.9 billion. That reporting has focused on the role that political leaders as well as city staff and provincial bureaucrats have played in a process that has been flawed from the beginning.
Metrolinx’s failure to correct the record “is a serious breach of public trust,” said Councillor Josh Matlow, who has pushed for the transit plans in Scarborough to be based on evidence he has long argued has been lacking.
“Whether one misinforms, or omits to share the truth, it’s still a betrayal. This shameful failure of the public service has led to misspent tax dollars and longer commute times for Scarborough residents.”
McCuaig, who left Metrolinx in 2017, did not respond to the Star’s questions. He said in an email: “I am no longer in a position to comment on Metrolinx matters, and I suggest you contact the appropriate people at the agency for comment.”
A Metrolinx spokesperson noted McCuaig is no longer the CEO and said the agency is “eager to continue our transit partnership with the City of Toronto and the TTC.” They did not answer specific questions about why clarifying information was not provided to council or the public or whether the process surrounding the Scarborough subway was politically compromised.
In the summer of 2016, Mayor John Tory and other pro-subway council members were working to curb attempts by Matlow and others to see a return of the cheaper LRT that would serve more people. That plan had been previously approved by council and agreed to with the province but scrapped under former mayor Rob Ford’s administration in 2013.
On June 27 of that year an opinion piece authored by Tory was published by the Star, as the mayor stepped up his defence of a campaign promise to build the subway.
In that piece he took direct aim at the LRT alternative, suggesting that the LRT may no longer fit, as previously planned, in the corridor where the SRT currently runs because it could conflict with Metrolinx’s plans for regional express rail (RER) — an expansion and electrification of the existing GO network — and newly-planned GO stations introduced as part of his “SmartTrack” promise.
“Multiple lines in this corridor would require further study and would likely delay both projects,” he wrote.
The Star wrote a story about the mayor’s defence of the subway that same day, which quoted Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins saying the LRT could still run in the existing SRT corridor, though Aikins did not say if an LRT would conflict with the future GO expansion plans as the mayor alluded.
At 5:36 a.m. the next morning — the day Tory’s executive committee was expected to meet to discuss the Scarborough subway project — CEO McCuaig emailed Metrolinx’s then chief communications officer Judy Pfeifer and current chief development officer Leslie Woo asking for help.
“In light of the mayor’s open letter in the Star this morning and the related article by Jennifer Pagliaro can you help me reconcile the following,” he wrote, quoting from the mayor’s opinion piece and Aikins’ statement to the Star.
“I will likely need to speak to this difference in perspective this morning.” McCuaig said (he did not elaborate in the email on why specifically the information was needed).
Woo at first responded saying the LRT “would not necessarily conflict” with Metrolinx plans in the corridor and later, after following up with another Metrolinx employee, confirmed the LRT would still fit in the corridor with no impacts on other plans.
On June 29, 2016, Metrolinx officials were discussing how to respond to new questions from the Star after the executive committee meeting that saw several city and TTC officials casting doubt on the return to an LRT. (If they were present — the Star does not recall seeing them nor can they be seen on an archived video — neither McCuaig nor any other Metrolinx official spoke at that meeting.)
Pfeifer forwarded a proposed response to the Star’s questions to both McCuaig and Woo asking for their thoughts.
After some edits to the language made by McCuaig, Woo again brought up the topic of whether the LRT would fit in the corridor.
“Do we want to correct the fact that the LRT in the elevated guideway as was originally contemplated, would not interfere with current GO RER expansion?” she asked.
Pfeifer replied to say she’d be fine with that change to the response.
McCuaig then jumped in: “I would stay as high as possible.”
The email chain cuts off there, according to the records the Star received last month.
The ultimate response the Star received at the time didn’t include the correction Woo proposed.
On June 30, Pfeifer sent an email to Metrolinx colleagues with the subject line “TTC/City of Toronto/Scarborough Subway & LRT matters.” She urged her them to co-ordinate on responses to both city and media questions.
“Since this matter is tracking to city council and such of a high profile nature I would like to ensure that there is one coordinated voice coming from Metrolinx. And we all know what is being said before we hit the send button,” Pfeifer wrote.
The pushback against an LRT picked up when a briefing note authored by the TTC was leaked to CP24 by the mayor’s office on July 4, as the Star has previously reported. The memo raised several unanswered questions about moving ahead with an LRT, including whether it would fit in the corridor — despite the internal Metrolinx information that it still would.
“The LRT plans would have to reviewed with Metrolinx to and identify and resolve any conflicts as the running structure is in the same corridor,” the briefing note said.
There were other issues raised in the briefing note. For example, it presented updated costs for the LRT that put them on par with that of a subway — a powerful blow to those pushing for what was believed to be a cheaper LRT option.
Even before the briefing note was leaked, its contents were being discussed.
In a June 29 email from McCuaig to Byford, the Metrolinx CEO noted that the TTC’s escalation estimate should have started from a lower dollar figure and that it was incorrect to use $1.8 billion as the starting point, because part of the project costs was transferred to another transit project in 2013.
“That component should be netted off for the calculation,” McCuaig said.
It never was.
An auditor general’s investigation later found that cost was likely overstated by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Aikins, the Metrolinx spokesperson, previously told the Star that Metrolinx had been consulted on the briefing note but declined to comment for reasons she didn’t explain.
A TTC spokesperson said Thursday said they never sought clarification from Metrolinx on the briefing note and that it was “intended only to inform our CEO about what might need to be discussed with Metrolinx” in the event the project changed.
As the Star has previously reported, the note was selectively forwarded to the mayor’s office and that of the TTC chair by the TTC and then used as a political tool in the ongoing debate.
Another email chain, provided to the Star by Councillor Josh Matlow’s office and earlier publicized by Matlow, further shows city officials had the opportunity to ask and Metrolinx had the opportunity to clarify several aspects of the note, including the corridor issue.
In that June 27 email chain Gary Carr, the then TTC project manager assigned to the Scarborough file, updated his colleagues on a meeting with Metrolinx’s director responsible for the Stouffville corridor infrastructure — where the SRT currently runs — about GO expansion. The city’s now transportation division boss James Perttula was also at the meeting, Carr wrote.
Though Carr participated in drafting the briefing note about the LRT — a memo that was dated June 27 in one draft — a TTC spokesperson said Wednesday Carr did not discuss any potential corridor issues with the possible return of the LRT option at that meeting or any other issues related to the LRT. It is not clear why they weren’t discussed.
There is evidence Metrolinx did discuss its messaging with the mayor’s office.
Ahead of another key council vote in March 2017, the mayor’s then chief of staff Chris Eby wrote to McCuaig, copying other members of the mayor’s staff, in anticipation of a renewed push for the LRT alternative.
“As you know, city staff will report out on Tuesday on the preferred alignment and procurement options for the Scarborough subway extension,” Eby’s said in a Feb. 24, 2017 email. “We anticipate that there will be a move by some on council to revert back to the LRT. In that case, I wondered if we could work through answers to some of the questions we anticipate you and the TTC will be asked by media or others.”
McCuaig responded that he didn’t think Metrolinx would “would divert from our messaging over the past years.”
“We can certainly participate in a discussion next week,” he wrote back to the mayor’s staff.
Among Eby’s hypothetical questions to prepare for was whether the LRT would still fit in the corridor.
McCuaig then wrote to his Metrolinx colleagues just minutes after the chief-of-staff’s email to say his public answers would remain consistent — that the transit agency had not done work on the LRT in a number of years.
Metrolinx, he wrote, “is not in a position to comment.”
It’s not the first time Eby had communicated with the Metrolinx boss about Metrolinx messaging. In emails a year earlier, in February 2016, which were obtained by the Star in a separate freedom of information request, the mayor’s chief of staff was being briefed on and making changes to information to be included in a public Metrolinx presentation to be given that cast the mayor’s SmartTrack plan in a better light.
In an email, Eby, who left the mayor’s office after the 2018 election, responded to the Star’s questions with the following statement: “As you correctly point out, Bruce McCuaig did not report to me nor did anyone else at Metrolinx. Any suggestion I directed or instructed anyone there is simply wrong.”
The mayor’s office, through a spokesperson, only said that the office has a “good working relationship with Metrolinx” and “often discusses transit with officials there.”
Throughout the debate at city hall in the 2016 and 2017 period, Metrolinx officials said very little, refusing to clarify the specific questions raised and statements made in that briefing note and those by TTC officials and pro-subway council members.
Those lingering questions and statements were influential in the council debate in July 2016 where a majority of members rejected a push to return to the LRT option.
For example, then Scarborough councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, who was made the mayor’s Scarborough subway champion, homed in on the cost of the LRT as presented in the briefing note.
“There’s this mythology out there, this statement that, you know, we just have to cancel the Scarborough subway and we could pay for all of these extra stations. Simply not true,” De Baeremaeker said. “The cost of the two is the same. Unless you think all of the senior staff who talked to you today are involved in some conspiracy to mislead you.”
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags