Public inquiry, minister’s explanation needed on delayed Eglinton Crosstown: councillors
Posted December 9, 2022 1:01 pm.
Last Updated December 9, 2022 8:53 pm.
Two councillors who represent areas that continue to be majorly affected by ongoing Eglinton Crosstown LRT construction are demanding a public inquiry into the project as well as a fulsome explanation of delays by Ontario’s transportation minister.
“The biggest boondoggle in Canadian construction history right here. They should call this the boondoggle line,” Coun. Mike Colle said during a news conference Friday afternoon alongside Coun. Josh Matlow.
“It took five years to build the railway across Canada. We’re on 11 years building this across Eglinton.”
Colle and Matlow made another push for action to be taken on the project while sharing documents they said were provided by a whistleblower. Those documents, along with several pages that were part of a lengthy internal Metrolinx report from September obtained by CityNews, painted a picture of trouble at that time.
Staff cited a number of troubling issues, such as the lack of a “credible” plan to deliver the project, cost overruns, health and safety-related issues water and mould problems at certain locations. It’s not clear how many of those issues remain a problem today due to little information being released by the Ontario government, Metrolinx — the provincial transportation agency overseeing the project, or by Crosslinx, the private-sector consortium building the line.
CityNews contacted Crosslinx, Metrolinx and Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney’s office to ask for comment on the findings listed in the documents. The details haven’t been released by the government since the most recent delay was announced.
Crosslinx referred questions to Metrolinx. A Metrolinx spokesperson said the agency is working to get the line open as quickly as possible.
“The public needs transit that is effective and reliable from the onset and we will only accept completion once we are satisfied that this has been achieved. Metrolinx will continue to push Crosslinx Transit Solutions to ensure this project is completed,” the statement said.
A spokesperson for Mulroney released a statement echoing comments made by the minister earlier in the day, saying the government is “committed to doing it (building transit) smarter and faster.”
All three entities didn’t address the issues raised in the documents.
Matlow and Colle said at this stage, a public inquiry is important.
“This is about Eglinton, but it’s also to ensure there are lessons learned,” Matlow said.
“There’s a cost to not getting the answers. Metrolinx needs to come clean and we need to give them help, so that’s what the inquiry should do,” Colle added.
In a motion set to go to Toronto city council on Dec. 14, Colle and Matlow said they also want Mulroney and Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster to appear before councillors by the end of January, to implement an “Eglinton Avenue small business survival plan,” property tax rebates for residents impacted, funding for fare-free Eglinton Avenue buses until the Eglinton Crosstown opens, and funding for traffic wardens to help ease congestion at bottlenecks.
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At Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue, where they spoke on Friday, it is the area currently seeing the most construction activity. Wooden boards across roads alongside large open holes, lane restrictions, and construction fencing can be seen in the immediate area. It’s also been the site of some of the most complicated engineering and extensive work given it’s being built under the existing Eglinton subway station, which has had to remain open for regular service on TTC Line 1.
Mayor John Tory was asked during an unrelated announcement on Friday about a potential public inquiry. He said he didn’t think it was “the answer.”
“I think the answer is to get on with getting it finished and when it was suggested to me yesterday that Metrolinx doesn’t have a plan I’m sure they do. But I think it’s time for greater transparency of the fact there is a plan, some greater specific information with respect to the dates involved with those plans and what the financial consequences might be,” Tory said.
“I think public inquiries, generally speaking in instances like this, only are good for lawyers because you have squads of lawyers over there asking questions. And there’s nothing wrong with asking questions, but I don’t think it’s going to solve any kind of problem in the short-term. I think the focus should be on applying every possible resource, including additional outside experts, if necessary, to sort out the issues and get this done.”
Matlow said they would withdraw their request for an inquiry if answers were provided now.
“I’m not happy with the management of transit, I’m not happy with the management of this project, and rather than the mayor, or Doug Ford, or Minister Mulroney just say, ‘Oh, you know we don’t need to answer the questions or we don’t accept an inquiry,” he said.
“If they really wanted to demonstrate their commitment to accountability and getting jobs done not only well but you know in service to people, then they should be open and transparent. They should say, ‘You know what, we’re going to reveal everything, we’re going to provide you with all the information you’re requesting.”
It’s been nearly two-and-a-half months since Metrolinx made the long-suspected announcement of another delay to the line which was supposed to open in 2020. The details were contained in a Metrolinx blog post with no information on the specific reasons for the latest delay and what the new projected opening date is.
The Eglinton Crosstown has been plagued by various delays, including COVID-19, supply chain issues and labour union strikes. Complex and unforeseen construction-related issues also impacted timelines.
A previous legal settlement between Metrolinx and Crosslinx aimed to have substantial completion in 2022. This is a couple of years beyond the initially planned date. Informal estimates suggested the LRT line could open sometime by the end of 2023, but Ontario government officials aren’t confirming either way if this is accurate. The September estimates had the station at Yonge and Eglinton finishing last and at the time that was pegged at the end of March.
There have been calls by others in Toronto, including small business representatives, to have a public inquiry into the Eglinton Crosstown project — which began in 2011.
“There is no one that is working on this project that can fix the problem. The project is broken, so unless the province brings in someone to examine it and fix it, we are going to be stuck in this mess for how much longer… they don’t know,” Colle said.
Communication strategy for Eglinton Crosstown flawed, consultant says
One of the biggest complaints about the Eglinton Crosstown from those CityNews has spoken with to date surrounds a lack of information from the province. Several business owners and residents said updates haven’t been coming.
A judge leading a public inquiry into Ottawa’s new LRT system, a probe launched by the Ontario government after a series of mishaps, released a damning report at the end of November. Justice William Hourigan made 103 recommendations specifically relating to Ottawa’s LRT system and in an effort to help guide major public transit infrastructure projects.
Since the delay was announced in September, CityNews has pushed several times for further information such as the new targeted opening date along with a breakdown on where and what the outstanding issues are. Despite more than half a dozen inquiries being sent to Metrolinx, Crosslinx and Mulroney’s office, many of those messages and questions have to date gone unanswered.
During Friday morning’s news conference, a CityNews reporter asked if the government would commit to providing a technical briefing for residents and members of the media in order to better understand what’s occurring.
“I know that people are so frustrated by this project. It’s been going on for a very long time. We inherited this project from the previous government and there are technical issues that still need to be worked out,” Mulroney said in response.
“[Justice Hourigan] put forward over 100 recommendations on what went wrong with the Ottawa LRT and one of the things that he pointed out is trying to rush a project before it’s safe to open. And so we want to make sure that both Crosslinx and Metrolinx work out those technical issues. We all want it to open as soon as possible.”
“They deserve a system that operates well and operates safely when it does.”
Mulroney didn’t address the question asked. She was asked by a CityNews 680 reporter if she was concerned about reports there isn’t a “credible” path to getting the project completed.
“The path towards completion is working through these final technical issues that Crosslinx and Metrolinx are currently negotiating, but the path to opening is to make sure we have a system that’s well-tested and ready to open safely,” she said.
“I share the frustration. This has been a very long go for so many people who live along the line, who work along the line … everybody wants to see the construction come to an end and they want to see the Eglinton Crosstown open.”
On Wednesday, Mulroney was asked by a reporter at another news outlet about the time frame for opening the line.
“Look I know people are frustrated by the delays that have been plaguing the Eglinton Crosstown project for so long. Our government is focused on making sure that it is safely operational as soon as possible,” she said at the time.
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In early November, CityNews went to an unrelated news conference in Bradford as part of an ongoing effort to get further information beyond the statement posted on the Metrolinx website.
“I share their frustrations, all of us do, of the people who live along the corridor and the businesses that are there. That’s why we’ve provided financial support in the past, but as you know this is a project we inherited from the Liberals. It was mismanaged from the start,” Mulroney said at the time.
The questions posed by a reporter weren’t directly answered. While at the helm since mid-2018, Mulroney said the Progressive Conservative government brought in new legislation to streamline approvals for massive transit projects put forward such as the Ontario Line.
During the launch of construction at a future GO Transit station site in Hamilton in October, CityNews also asked when the Eglinton Crosstown will open.
“Well obviously everyone’s disappointed with the delays that are affecting the Eglinton Crosstown LRT project. Our priority is to make sure that it opens safely as soon as possible,” Mulroney said on Oct. 6.
Sarbjit Kaur, a former Ontario Liberal Party and ministerial staff member, is a founder of KPW Communications and the firm focuses on crisis communications. She said the strategy and responses are the “wrong” strategy.
“Answer the million-dollar question that’s on everyone’s mind: When will it be open? People understand construction, people understand delays if you explain what they are. Reaching back to point the finger back decades is not the right strategy,” she said in an interview on Friday.
“It’s this hunkering down, burying their head in the sand, not taking accountability and not answering people’s questions is changing that anticipation and excitement into frustration and annoyance.”
Kaur said at this time in the project, there needs to be a grassroots engagement with residents and business owners along Eglinton Avenue. She said government staff should be holding roundtables with them directly. Kaur also reiterated that now is the time to step up with further information.
“When you’re ignoring the media, you’re essentially ignoring the public because the public is relying on the media for information and again people are very understanding if you give them the information. If there’s been mistakes and you talk about how they’re going to be avoided in the future, they will understand,” she said.
“We have the Ontario Line coming up and so we do need to look at what’s happened in the past, how to avoid these pitfalls in the future and again accountability and transparency — these are taxpayers’ dollars and this is transit and infrastructure that’s much needed.”