Thought Leadership

Leaning Forward: Observations on Ontario’s Transit Infrastructure Landscape

Category: News & Events
N. Ryan Smith • April 25, 2019

Next week, I’m looking forward to attending the 5th Annual Urban Transit Infrastructure conference in Toronto. I’ve been observing with great interest the recent developments and overall landscape of transit infrastructure projects in Ontario, and I’ve given thought to how these projects compare and contrast with current energy megaprojects underway in the Province.

Big energy and big transit projects share many things, of course. Each needs program and portfolio management capacity and managed systems, well-defined scope, reasonable and achievable schedules and budgets, quantified risk registers, timely reporting and great people to tie it all together. However, I’ve noticed a few unique challenges that make transit projects particularly complex.

The first thing I observe is the breadth and depth of stakeholder management that is required to progress transit work. Energy projects in Ontario exist “behind the curtain” to most of the public. While the impact on electricity bills resulting from these projects is a source of regular discussion, the generation source is not really visible to consumers, not does it necessarily need to be. As long as lights come on at home or the little lightning bolt appears when the phone is plugged in, how Ontarians get their power is not something most people consider in the course of their day-to-day activities.

Transit projects, on the other hand, are in the public’s face all day, every day. Whether they are following the cones that guide them through another lane closure, or facing a long-term detour on their way to work, another modified commuting schedule, or 24-hour construction noise, the people who live near and rely on transit infrastructure are acutely impacted by the projects going on in their communities every single day. Rarely, if ever, are these impacts pleasant.

Communicating the broader goals to the public while it is thoroughly inconvenienced isn’t an easy task; the transit agency has to continuously emphasize to those impacted that these temporary inconveniences are enablers of a much greater set of ultimate benefits. Patience wears thin if the project does not deliver, frustration mounts, trust is degraded. And these feelings are exacerbated when the project is delayed and/or more expensive – bad stuff.

Transit projects must also manage the integration between multiple service providers. For Ontario’s energy projects, generation and distribution have been split, so the power company produces the power and hands off the public interfacing and billing to the distribution network and its operators.

Transit projects, on the other hand, involve much more comprehensive management of a number of interfaces and handoffs between different modes of transportation and types of customers, from subways to light rail transit and bus rapid transit. Transit projects also involve a much larger and more visible public footprint than power generation. Transit must consider land appropriation, water and sewer infrastructure, new and refurbished roadways, airport authorities, multiple municipalities, regulators and ministries, federally owned rail lines…the list is long!

My second observation is how transit projects are inherently shaped by politics, and the many different stakeholders that have to converge to make even the most mundane decisions. Energy projects are certainly affected by politics, especially in Ontario, though the recent multibillion-dollar decisions to refurbish Ontario’s nuclear stations were largely confined to the Provincial government and its regulators.

Planning of a transit portfolio or program is very much subject to the political maneuvering of all three levels of government. Telling the public they are going to get a brand-new transit stop or expanded service in their riding is a nice carrot to dangle if you want votes. The transit authorities are then caught in the middle of municipal, provincial or state and federal tugs of war over priorities. If you’ve got a 15-year capital investment plan, you’re subject to at least three political cycles, so it is difficult to plan with any certainty. This exact item was identified by Ontario’s Auditor General as a source of waste spending: starting and stopping transit work in different areas to suit political agendas. It must be so frustrating for the project professionals trying to get work done.

In Ontario, transit projects have been on their back foot for decades. With Premier Doug Ford’s recent announcement of a transit expansion plan totaling nearly $30 billion – against the backdrop of an expanding population in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area that has stretched transit capacity to its breaking point – the province appears to now be leaning forward. It’s an aggressive mandate, and it will take the combined experience of Ontario’s megaprojects expertise to get it done.