Learning from Eglinton: How Ford government is managing transit expansion expectations

Click to play video: 'Metrolinx head refuses to give completion date for Eglinton Crosstown LRT'
Metrolinx head refuses to give completion date for Eglinton Crosstown LRT
RELATED: In a much overdue update from the provincial government’s transit agency, the head of Metrolinx said he won’t give a new date for when the Eglinton Crosstown LRT will be in operation. The light rail route has already been delayed for years and the latest omission of details isn’t going over well with those tired of waiting. Matthew Bingley reports – Sep 27, 2023

As the Ford government continues to struggle with years-long delays to the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, provincial staff are working to apply the brutal lessons of the project as quickly as possible to the suite of other new transit projects under construction across Toronto.

The Eglinton LRT has suffered a series of crippling delays as design issues, COVID-19, and several spats between the province and the consortium building the line have slowed it down.

The project was supposed to open in 2020 but has faced repeated delays and now does not even have an official opening date at all.

As it suffers through the public backlash of delays, speaking notes prepared for the minister specifically outline the difference between a project being built and being open for the public to use.

The completion date for projects is usually a year ahead of its in-service date, one source with knowledge explained to Global News.

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Two different dates — completion and in-service — are referenced in Ministry of Transportation speaking notes about the Ontario Line obtained by Global News through freedom of information laws.

“The project is expected to be complete by 2031, though the final in-service schedule date will be determined once the winning bids on all major works packages are awarded,” one line in the documents advises the Minister of Transportation to say if asked about whether the Ontario Line will meet its 2029/30 completion date.

A spokesperson for the province said the two terms are not new.

“Completion date and operational dates have always been two separate milestones,” they said in a statement to Global News.

“Completion dates identify when substantial construction completion is reached, while operation dates (or revenue service dates) identify when customers will be able to ride a transit system.”

They said in-service dates are there to make sure “systems are integrated and vehicles work well in real-life conditions.”

The different terms have taken on more significance as projects like the Ottawa and Eglinton LRTs show the pitfalls of overpromising and complicated construction.

“Once we give a date, we are left relying on other people — a prime example is Eglinton,” another source said, arguing the builder, not the province, has control of the actual timelines once contracts are signed.

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The province has regularly touted the Ontario Line as a key example of the lessons it learned from Eglinton.

The project for the much-delayed Crosstown Line was pulled together into one massive, multi-billion endeavour that some inside government feel was simply too much for any single consortium to manage. The Ontario Line, on the other hand, has been broken into multiple smaller contracts in the hopes that several different builders will be able to handle the smaller portions of the project better.

The difference between when a line will be built and when it can be ridden is another area where public expectations can be managed.

Despite taking sustained public heat, the Ford government has said it will hold firm on the lengthy inspection process for the Eglinton LRT and refuse to accept it is complete until it is confident, after the disastrous opening of the Ottawa LRT.

The company that built the Ottawa line said during an inquiry into its construction that the City of Ottawa had pushed for a September 2019 opening date “no matter what.”

The dual LRT experiences have taught caution to the provincial government as it works on several light rail and subway lines around Toronto.

“The in-service date is not ours,” one source said, pointing out that problems that arise from the testing phase cause delays and training can take an undetermined amount of time.

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“You need six months of flexibility,” another source said. They said it isn’t as simple as “turning the key” to begin operating a new transit line.

With the public backlash to the Eglinton LRT still fresh and ongoing, careful efforts will go into keeping public expectations for the timelines of other provincial transit lines manageable.

The Finch West LRT and the Ontario Line are among the projects still to be finished and opened. The province is also building a subway extension into Scarborough and another into Richmond Hill, along with an Eglinton LRT extension to the west.

The Finch West project, for example, will be completed in 2023 but it won’t open to the public until 2024. The Ontario Line is currently on track to be built by 2031, internal documents suggest, but officials are resisting even assigning a date that the public will be able to ride it.

“You will see more ranges,” one source said of how opening dates will be managed. During the Eglinton LRT saga, specific months have been suggested for it to open on timelines that have still not been met.

The source said the opening months assigned to projects like the Eglinton Crosstown LRT would likely be abandoned going forward in favour of just the year to give the province more wiggle room to deliver transit projects.

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“It’s not unique to Eglinton,” they said, pointing out politicians favour good news announcements.

“All politicians give the closer date and all governments have to deal with the expectations of dates set by those previous and often retired politicians.”

Editors note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Finch LRT would enter service in 2025, it will actually open in 2024.

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