Metrolinx planned to release details of the contentious Ontario Line project this past summer, but Premier Doug Ford’s office directed the agency to pull the plug on the event after Toronto’s top bureaucrat objected, according to internal emails obtained by the Star.
The provincial transit agency had scheduled a July 18 event at the Toronto Region Board of Trade (TRBOT) to present a preliminary study of the major new transit line, which the Ford government unveiled in April but about which it had provided few technical details.
Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster wanted to use the event in front of a business audience to help kick-start procurement for the Ontario Line, but Toronto’s city manager opposed the idea, arguing the city should be allowed to review the proposal before it was made public.
Under pressure from the city, Ford’s office told Verster to stand down, and Metrolinx abruptly cancelled the event.
The correspondence appears to show that while the Progressive Conservative government has been accused of running roughshod over Toronto in its attempt overhaul the city’s subway plans, behind the scenes the premier’s office was wary of doing anything that would risk derailing transit talks with the municipal government.
In the weeks following the cancellation, talks between the city and province appear to have stayed on track. As the Star reported earlier this week, sources say provincial and municipal officials are working on a deal that would see Queen’s Park drop the subway upload plan that’s opposed by council, and have the city endorse the province’s Ontario Line.
According to the emails, which were obtained from Metrolinx through a freedom of information request, in late June the agency was making arrangements to have Verster and Infrastructure Ontario (IO) president Ehren Cory give a presentation to the board of trade in which they would outline the results of a preliminary study known as an initial business case (IBC) of the Ontario Line.
The controversial 16-kilometre, $11-billion transit project is the centrepiece of the province’s transit plans, and would replace the council-approved relief line subway.
In a July 5 email, Verster advised Toronto city manager Chris Murray and TTC CEO Rick Leary of the event, and said it was important because Metrolinx and IO needed to start “market consultation” on the Ontario Line, which the provincial government has pledged will be open by 2027. Verster said he planned to discuss procurement with the industry audience.
“We are keen to share the content with you to ensure it does not ruffle feathers on your side,” Verster told the city officials.
Less than an hour later, Murray wrote back saying it would be inappropriate for Metrolinx to speak publicly about the Ontario Line study before council and the TTC board had a chance to review it.
At the time, a report from city and TTC staff assessing the province’s transit plans was scheduled to be released in September.
“The Toronto Council and TTC Board should be the first place where the IBC finding (sic) are publicly aired,” Murray wrote.
He appeared to suggest Metrolinx revealing details of the project before it went to council would give ammunition to councillors who opposed the transit talks, and would threaten the discussions.
“The inevitable questions that will flow from Council should this happen will predictably impact those that still support our work together,” Murray wrote.
In a series of emails exchanged July 5, Verster didn’t show any sign of cancelling the speech but instead sought to reassure Murray, saying city and TTC staff would be briefed on the business case prior to the speech.
“Does this address your question?” Verster asked.
“Short answer is no,” Murray fired back. “My point is this … the IBC findings should be presented to Council/TTC first and that doesnt (sic) happen until September.”
The following day, Patrick Sackville, a senior policy adviser to the premier, wrote Verster and told him to scrap the speech.
“This event needs to be cancelled,” Sackville wrote. “ … as you know, we are working to manage our collective relationship with folks at the City of Toronto on the overall upload mechanics/sequencing of events.”
He said the board event, which Metrolinx had already started to publicize, “caused headaches yesterday.”
After receiving Sackville’s email, the CEO relented, and told Murray Metrolinx would hold off on the event.
Murray welcomed the news, writing: “Very much appreciated Phil!”
Details of the Ontario Line business case would end up becoming public July 22, when the Star obtained a summary and published its findings. Metrolinx released the full document days later.
In a statement Tuesday, Metrolinx spokesperson Scott Money declined to answer specific questions, including whether cancelling the industry consultation had delayed the Ontario Line project, or whether it was normal for the premier’s office to determine whether the CEO of Metrolinx, a provincial Crown corporation, participates in speaking events.
Get more of today’s top stories in your inbox
Sign up for the Star’s Morning Headlines newsletter for a briefing of the day’s big news.
“Developing new subways for Toronto is a massive and complex undertaking that requires coordination between all levels of government. Accordingly, we postponed the speaking engagement due to ongoing conversations between the province and the city,” Money said.
In an interview three weeks after the board of trade event was cancelled, Verster acknowledged the 2027 opening date the province has set for the Ontario Line is “ambitious” and industry bidders may conclude it’s not achievable.
Ford’s press secretary Ivana Yelich maintained Tuesday the project will be done as scheduled.
“Under our plan, the Ontario Line will be delivered by 2027,” she said.
In an email, city spokesperson Brad Ross said Murray didn’t object to the board event because he wanted to keep the Ontario Line plans secret, but because the city and province had a tentative agreement that the city “should be able to review and provide comment” before project details were made public.
“The city fully appreciates and agrees that there is tremendous public interest in this, but … it was important to the city that it have input before being presented publicly,” Ross said.
The city report about the province’s plans that was supposed to be published in September was delayed. It has yet to be released but is expected to be debated at Tory’s executive committee on Oct. 23 before going to council the following week.
The report is expected to make recommendations about whether council should endorse the Ontario Line, a decision that would lead to the city allocating about $3.2 billion of federal funding to the new project.
Council had previously earmarked the federal money for the relief line, the 7.5-kilometre, $7.2-billion subway that was set to go to procurement as early as next year and would be completed by 2029 at the earliest.
The province argues the Ontario Line would serve the same purpose as the relief line of taking pressure off of the TTC’s Line 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina), but would improve on that plan by serving more neighbourhoods and opening sooner.
Critics say the Ontario Line needs to undergo far more study before key details like its cost, construction time and ridership can be confirmed, and accuse the province of delaying transit by shelving the more advanced relief line project.
In June, the province passed legislation allowing it to control new transit expansion projects in Toronto.
The Progressive Conservatives had said they planned to introduce legislation next year that would allow the province to take ownership of the existing subway network, but sources say Ford’s government is willing to drop that idea as part of the deal that would see the city approve of the Ontario Line.
In a phone interview Thursday from Copenhagen where he’s on a business mission this week, Mayor John Tory said there is no deal yet, but he’s “been on the phone about it every day” and “as soon as there is something to announce we’ll all announce it.”
Tory described progress on a potential deal as vindication of his decision to reject calls from some members of council to walk away from the transit talks. He praised officials from both sides for showing “immense patience” in discussions over “several months.”
“I always believed the only way really to get something done that was going to allow us to competently carry forward in co-operation with one another was to have a deal, rather than storming away from the table,” he said.