My Father Drew Libraries for a Living

eglinton-lrt-station-2022-08-16.jpgA story from fifty years ago:

My father told me about working for the Ontario Civil Service, specifically for the Ministry of Citizenship and Communications, which had the responsibility for funding and regulating the province's municipal library systems. It kept him busy. If I recall correctly, a lot of the text of the Public Libraries Act of Ontario is his text. He knew the ins and outs of what each library received, and he travelled across the province, visiting library systems big and small. For this reason, he's much more familiar with northern and northwestern Ontario than I am -- at least, with their libraries.

But there were also periods during his work year when there wasn't much to do. And after organizing his desk, rather than sit there and twiddle his thumbs, he made work for himself by going out into the field and sketching local libraries. I haven't seen these sketches, so I don't know how true this story is, but he used it to explain the feast-and-famine nature of government work at the time. He was pleased that he'd found himself something to do that was somewhat inline with the mandate of his job. It's a different world today.

Recently, we've learned that the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT, the biggest rapid transit investment Toronto has seen in since the creation of the Bloor-Danforth subway in 1966 and 1968, is 98% finished, but stalled. Metrolinx -- a crown corporation that answers to Ontario's Minister of Transportation -- is arguing with Crosslinx Transit Solutions, the private consortium managing the contract work laying rails, building stations, and testing equipment. There does not appear to be any timeline on when that final 2% of work is to be done. Worse, it looks like the job that has been done features a number of items that aren't up to spec. The system that was supposed to open in 2020, then 2022, and then late 2023 (maybe), now looks like it won't open until 2024, at least.

And this isn't the only time something similar has happened to the Ontario government. In 2021, the $616 million extension of Highway 427 north of Toronto sat almost complete but unused for months because the Ontario government and the private consortium hired to build it could not agree on the quality of the work provided and the final payments for the infrastructure.

Reading between the lines, here's what I think happened and is happening with the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT: Early in the 2010s, the provincial government (under Dalton McGuinty) committed to building the rapid transit LRT line and gave Metrolinx -- its crown corporation which operated GO Transit, encouraged interregional transit and managed regional transit projects -- the task of getting the line done. Once a budget was agreed to, Metrolinx sought out private interests to do the actual building. Companies including ACS-Dragados, Aecon, EllisDon and SNC-Lavalin formed Crosslinx, an overarching consortium to manage the project and the work of its members. This doesn't surprise me, as this was a several billion dollar project, and managing its component parts was always going to be a challenge.

The Eglinton-Crosstown LRT actually seemed to be going smoothly when they were tunnelling, and building the initial station sites. The yard and the outdoor tracks are now ready enough to operate test equipment. But as we approached our opening dates, progress seemed to slow. Metrolinx's frankly terrible communications strategy in offering silence to local merchants wondering when their long sacrifices will finally pay off hasn't helped. These days, much of the line looks ready, but there's little apparent progress in the areas which are clearly not. So what gives?

I strongly suspect that, as we near the finish line, Crosslinx has discovered that they cannot finish the project within the remaining budget. Worse, some of the work that has been done does not appear to be up to spec, and may have to be re-done at some expense. Possibly these delays and redos are due to unexpected complications in the project (finding pipes or underground wires where you don't expect them, discovering that the water table is higher than you planned for, or unexpectedly uncovering the original corduroy road that brought settlers into the area -- all of these things and more have delayed projects in the past), or it could be that your initial plans were just wrong, or mismanaged by incompetent and/or bad faith actors, anything. Either way, possibly Crosslinx can't finish the line without going over budget, and it doesn't want that overrun to come out of its pocket.

Metrolinx, for its part, doesn't want to be on the hook for these overruns themselves, but their choice is either to go to the province, cap in hand, or hold Crosslinx to its contract, which means that now this matter is being fought in the courts, adding more months of delay.

This is what happens when you rely too much on privatization to build major infrastructure. The lack of clear accountability regarding who pays for what opens the door for litigation and delay. Worse, there's a risk here that if Metrolinx's contract with Crosslinx is air-tight enough, Crosslinx could simply declare bankruptcy and walk away. Consider that it is its own corporation set up by construction giants like EllisDon and SNC-Lavalin to be separate from them. If they decide to fold up Crosslinx, you know that they've shielded themselves from the financial fallout of doing so, from the very beginning.

Over the past fifty years, governments of almost every stripe have fallen in love with the idea of privatizing the construction of government infrastructure. These days, almost every single piece of major highway, commuter railway or rapid transit line has been designed, built and maintained by paying a private company to do so. Part of it is the lure of getting somebody else to take on the financial risk of such a project. Part of it is the result of a conservative-capitalistic shibboleth that all government is inefficient and all government spending is waste. I mean, just look at what my father had to do fifty years ago: he was so short of work during certain months out of the year, he sketched libraries! With private companies taking on the risk, they can turn to the market to provide the best experts to build the best things, and they'll only be paid to work when we need them to.

8ae8-s0243it03601936.pngExcept that a lot of those companies of expert consultants owe a lot to the government civil service for that expertise. Every Toronto subway station built in the 21st century was designed by an outside architectural firm, but most of the TTC's subway stations before then were designed by people within the TTC. Consider the work of Herta Freyberg (pictured right), whose thirty-year career at the TTC has resulted in the construction of subway stations like Wilson and St. Clair West, where thousands of people pass through every day. She has had a considerable impact on the daily experience of so many Torontonians, and yet I don't think her name is even on a plaque.

Her job does not exist at the TTC today.

Sure, my father was underworked for a chunk of his working year -- let's say half a year for ease of calculations -- but that ignores the fact that he was overworked for the other half. The Government was paying him and his colleagues, including architects like Ms. Freyberg, for the right to the use of their expertise whenever it was needed. Sure, you could lay them off and hire consultants to do the jobs when jobs needed to be done -- and that's what happened a lot in the 1980s -- but those consultants would more likely be people like my dad, who would likely charge three times their civil service rate to take on these tasks.

After all, it's the marketplace. If work piles up during a certain portion of the year, there won't be enough consultants around to do all the work that's needed. That drives up their price, especially when they're thinking of how to pay their bills for their fallow period. Now do the math: if my father is laid off to save the government the fact that he was paid a year's salary for half a year's hard work, and then my father charges three times his salaried rate for the six months he's re-hired as an expert consultant, what has the government saved, exactly?

This is one of the things that I think is wrong with our society: in our drive to lower taxes and reduce government "waste", we made our governments stupider by pushing out the expertise within, and raised the prices we have to pay for that expertise. Because Liberal and Conservative governments have shunned rolling up their sleeves and doing the work themselves, they've created an expertise industry that is rife with risk, low on accountability, and which presents no savings to taxpayers in the long term.

Just as it's a lie to say that our governments don't have a revenue problem when almost every government over the past fifty years has lowered taxes, not raised them, those who suggest that the governments that govern best are those who govern the least have been getting exactly what they wished for, and it clearly hasn't helped. Continuing to follow the same path while expecting a different result is the textbook definition of insanity.

It's past time we switch direction. Our governments used to know what they were doing. They used to be more accountable. They can be so again, if we have the political will to force them to act.

blog comments powered by Disqus