As work begins to build the Ford government’s signature Ontario Line through Toronto, government officials appear to be burying the escalating cost of the subway project to avoid a public debate about the money.
Government documents obtained by Global News show that information about the project’s rising costs was labelled as “contentious.”
Its release through a freedom of information request was blocked, with staff internally raising concerns about reaction to the growing costs of the project.
In November, the province publicized a series of contracts that showed the Ontario Line could cost as much as $19 billion once completed.
Soon after, Global News submitted a freedom of information request for a 16-slide presentation created by Metrolinx to brief provincial officials on the project and its costs. The request was carried out with heavy redactions.
An entire section — beginning with the title Evolution of Project Costs — was withheld from public release.
A subsequent freedom of information request shed some information about why.
Documents later released to Global News included an internal briefing note which suggests officials were concerned it could put the spotlight back on the Ontario Line and its price.
“Considering past and recent media coverage, disclosure of these records may generate further public discussion related to the lack of transparency over the total estimated costs of the Ontario Line project,” one line said.
Jay Goldberg, Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said there was no excuse for the government not to be transparent.
“We need value for money here,” he told Global News. “We have to have transparency. If the government’s going to commit us to billions and billons of dollars’ worth of spending, then we need them to actually lay out a plan from day one that actually predicts — or is somewhat in line — with what the final cost will be.”
In November, Infrastructure Ontario released a series of updates showing the project costs could be as high as $19 billion, an increase of more than 70 per cent over the $10.9 billion cost initially announced by the province in 2019.
A contract valued at $6 billion was awarded to the Ontario Transit Group for the design, construction and financing of southern stations and tunnels. Another contract for stations and tunnels for the northern portion of the line has not yet been awarded but was estimated at between $2 and $4 billion. A separate contract awarded for trains, systems, operations and maintenance to run the line itself for 30 years went to Connect 6ix with a value of $9 billion.
The Ontario Line broke ground in March 2022 and will run from the Ontario Science Centre on Eglinton Avenue southbound through Toronto’s east end, eventually terminating at Ontario Place.
The total cost, which includes 30 years of operating the line, could go as high as $19 billion. The initial announcement of the projected costs for the line in 2019 did not include the cost of maintenance and operation.
The publication of the operating cost years after the project was first unveiled concerned Goldberg.
“The cost was not transparent from the beginning,” he said. “When Doug Ford tried to sell Ontarians on this plan, we were told it was going to be an $11 to $12 billion project… and then a few years later (you) tell us (that) there were other things that weren’t quote included in there… you’ve got to be honest from day one.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Transport said that announcing capital costs first was not out of the ordinary.
“As is standard for transportation infrastructure projects, the 2019 funding amount announced was an estimate for only capital construction costs to build the Ontario Line,” the spokesperson said.
Days after the news of the new $19 billion price tag broke, Metrolinx presented a “privileged and highly confidential” slide deck to the provincial government. Internal communications suggest it was not shown to Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet.
“The record is contentious and was developed for internal use only to explain misconceptions in the media around rising costs of the OL project,” internal government documents explain.
Despite apparently being created to dispel misconceptions about cost, the document released through a freedom of information request was redacted to the point that no information about increased costs was included.
“The requester may raise concerns regarding the lack of transparency in the decision-making process as a result of the redactions,” a line from the internal report into Global News’ freedom of information request read.
Figures in Ontario’s 2023 budget revealed overall costs for major construction projects in the province are increasing.
The 2023 budget pegged the province’s 10-year capital plan at $184.4 billion, up from an estimated $158.8 billion in the 2022 budget. Of that figure, the cost for public transit projects had increased from $61.6 billion in 2022’s budget to $70.5 billion in 2023.
Speaking on the day the budget was tabled, finance minister Peter Bethlenfalvy said his government didn’t underestimate the costs of major transit projects.
“This is a combination of things,” he said. “There are cost pressures, there’s no question about that. You’d have to be living under a rock not to see supply chain, the cost of supplies, the cost of labour (increasing).”
Bethlenfalvy said growing costs were not a result of poor planning but came because the “environment is changing” around construction projects.
The briefing note also detailed the media strategy for coverage of Ontario Line’s escalating costs and the internal presentation that was redacted. It calls for a “reactive” approach.
“The Issues and Media Office will respond to media inquiries as they are received using previously approved materials,” the note said.
In response to questions from Global News, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Transport said the cost of projects around the world was rising, due in part to inflation and supply chain shortages.
“Even in the midst of these challenges, our government has continued to make unprecedented progress to deliver the largest transit expansion in Canada’s history — including the Ontario Line,” the spokesperson said.
“As each contract is awarded, the contract cost has been and will continue to be announced and posted publicly. Our government will continue to ensure that taxpayers receive the best value possible as we advance the Ontario Line and other critical transit projects.”