If you listen closely to critics of the Metrolinx Big Move investment strategy, there are two distinct, although closely related, arguments about why this provincial agency shouldn’t get its grubby fingers on billions in proposed transit taxes and levies.
One strand, of course, has to do with the money itself: “The province has plenty already, and Queen’s Park is a gigantic cesspool of waste, ergo a government with the necessary stamina to slash spending should be able to locate an additional $2 billion without hitting up GTHA residents.” The Toronto Region Board of Trade, hardly a hive of Liberal sycophants, has repeatedly rejected this argument, but that stance hasn’t prevented the waste detectives from advancing it.
The second strand focuses on the accountability deficit: Ontario’s Liberals have presided over costly embarrassments such as eHealth Ontario, ORNGE and the gas plant debacle. So why should taxpayers trust Queen’s Park to responsibly manage a revenue stream of $2 billion a year without incurring more scandal?
Metrolinx’s answer is two-fold: one, the funds will be “dedicated,” meaning the proceeds only go towards Big Move projects and not into the vast ocean known as general revenue; and two, that a “trust fund” will be “established and governed by a board of trustees” tasked with managing and distributing the proceeds.
The reason this idea isn’t gaining much traction is because the word “trust” in this context, though perhaps soothing to some ears, doesn’t mean much. Is this bruited accountability mechanism different than Metrolinx‘s board? I’m not so sure.
What happens elsewhere?
In Greater Vancouver, they do things the old-fashioned way and trust the Translink directors, who collectively report to the Greater Vancouver council of mayors, to make sure the agency’s $1.3 billion in revenues (gas taxes, property taxes, utility fees, parking levies, fares) don’t turn into a huge West Coast slushee.
In Los Angeles County, where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) is raising $40 billion in sales taxes over the next 30 years, an independent “office of the inspector general” was established 20 years ago (with the creation of Metro) and granted broad legal powers to audit the agency’s books, conduct investigations, detect fraud and perform other kinds of management reviews, all of which are reported publicly (and in laborious detail).
I am not waiting by the phone for news that some rogue bureaucrat has made off with the bank account of an organization as operationally complex as Metrolinx. But from the Ontario Liberals’ perspective, the hypothetical comparisons to other troubled provincial agencies is a huge impediment to their transit agenda.
And why shouldn’t it be? After all, this government bears ultimate responsibility for the aforementioned fiascos, so it’s going to have to work that much harder to persuade voters that their money will be in good hands.
Here’s my suggestion: long before transportation minister Glen Murray comes up with his own revenue scheme, the Liberals should table amendments to the Ontario Auditor-General’s enabling legislation requiring that office to perform triennial value-for-money audits of Metrolinx’s dedicated Big Move revenues and operations. The legislation should also make the A-G’s recommendations binding.
The rationale? In a suspicious era, auditors-general continue to enjoy (and cultivate) a high level of public confidence and multi-party support. The auditors themselves are appointed for lengthy terms and are thus insulated from political pressure. And they have the resources and expertise to do significant probes resulting in better financial accountability and important policy reforms.
True, the Ontario AG can already delve into Metrolinx’s books. Indeed, the current office holder, Jim McCarter, has taken a run at Metrolinx, with a detailed critique of its handling of the Presto fare card implementation, which has cost far more than expected because Metrolinx decided against off-the-shelf technology.
But by requiring the A-G to do regular audits over the life of the revenue tools measures — remember, the government has promised time-limited taxes and levies — the government would be acknowledging the importance of sustained scrutiny of an arm’s length agency that will be handling very involved and very costly projects.
There’s also precedent for this special-mandate approach. In the 1980s, the Mulroney government ordered the federal auditor-general to begin regular reviews of federal environmental and sustainable development policies and programs as part of its core mandate. That move has endured to this day.
From where I sit, such a reform would accomplish a number of critical objectives. First, it would be impossible for the opposition parties to oppose such legislation, especially given that Metrolinx is already spending $16 billion on already approved projects (Crosstown, Union Station, etc.) and thus could benefit from the scrutiny. Second, it takes the eHealth/ORNGE/gas plant scary-monster story off the table in a substantive way with a signal to voters that the government is prepared to use its heaviest weapons to protect their tax dollars. Lastly, it would clear the decks of one of the two closely connected objections to the Metrolinx investment strategy.
In fact, if Kathleen Wynne’s government can expediently get the accountability question off the political agenda with a serious and unambiguous reform, we can all focus more clearly on the core transit policy questions: Which are the most effective revenue tools? Who benefits? What are the planning implications? Which projects are most deserving? And do we even need the additional funding?
After all, we’re supposed to be talking transit, not governance, aren’t we?