Metrolinx’s Phil Verster on building an integrated regional transit system in the Greater Golden Horseshoe

Metrolinx, an Ontario government agency, is currently undertaking one of the largest transit expansion programs in North America, estimated at $75 billion over the next 20 years. The capital plan includes light rail transit (LRT) projects such as the Eglinton Crosstown, Finch West and the Hurontario LRT, as well as subway projects like the Ontario Line and Scarborough Subway Extension. Also underway is the GO Expansion program consisting of early works and off-corridor projects, including station renovations, expansions and improvements, grade separations, bridge and tunnel expansions and maintenance facilities. The goal is to offer more service with faster trains, more stations, and seamless connections to a regional rapid transit network.

Leading this unprecedented transit expansion is Metrolinx president and CEO Phil Verster. Recently, Verster was invited by the Empire Club of Canada to sit down to talk about how Metrolinx is working together with communities to build and deliver a seamless transportation network, getting people where they need to go better, faster, and easier.

Prior to joining Metrolinx in 2017, Verster managed train operations, infrastructure builds and infrastructure management for passenger rail systems in England, Scotland, and Ireland.

With his extensive international work experience, Verster was asked about how to bring Toronto’s transit system to the same level as some of Europe’s world class systems.

“All extensive transit systems have one feature in common and that is these systems are developed consistently, continuously over many years,” said Verster. “And so, the current mandate we’ve got is very ambitious, very challenging and is intended to give transit a huge step forward. But if we are going to develop transit to be solutions that really meet the economic requirements of a region, this must be a continuous program over many years, consistently in terms of how we consult with communities, how we implement, and how we build.

“But the best way to develop big complex transit systems is to do it on an ongoing basis and I think that’s really important. That’ll make a big difference.”

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How far ahead to you look?

“So, we’ve put proposals forward that look at a 2041 date and look at all the different trends in how communities are developed, how housing is built, primary development, development plans, secondary development plans, and really where communities are going to form and where communities are going to travel from. And that’s fundamental to have a sense of where the business case benefits would be and where future transit solutions must come from.”

Part of Metrolinx’s mandate to improve transit involves an eye for urban planning and thinking about what a city like Toronto will look like over the coming decades, said Verster.

“Cities in the future are going to become more centralized around transit nodes and are going to be more about work, live, play in an environment where people’s time is a scarce and valuable commodity. We see a very strong trend towards transit-oriented communities, and we are across the region involved with several developers and regions and municipalities to make that possible.

“And I think we are in for a huge step change in motor vehicle ownership. The statistic is that for people who own vehicles, they use them only five to six per cent of day. The rest of the time their parked, taking up space.

Verster admitted that for people outside of the City of Toronto, that percentage is larger, for him the real issue about how communities develop and what’s important to them.

“I think transit is much more than getting from point A to point B. It’s going to become more way of living and a way of getting around.”

When it comes to suburban commuters, Verster said he believes that the TTC has a “phenomenal” network of buses and with the investments made for projects such as the Finch West LRT and the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, the situation will continue to improve.

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He also pointed to what he describes as the “total revolution” of the GO Transit network as an example of encouraging behaviour and attitude changes through providing more frequent GO service.

“We can take the capacity on the GO lines up to a ridership level that’s three times the level it is today. A lot of capacity on our network is limited in one directional travel and this investment would give more capacity and I think this is the type of systematic investment that’ll change how people travel. The concept today is very much to traveling to the center of downtown Toronto. In the next 10 to 15 years, we’ll be in a place where people in Burlington are traveling towards Hamilton, as an example.”

Part of Metrolinx’s GO Expansion program includes the Union Station Enhancement Project, which will see the design and construction of transit infrastructure and upgrades at the southernmost part of the station. (Metrolinx)

Providing better service to those outside of the city proper is the goal of Metrolinx’s subway expansion program as well, said Verster.

“Our subway program, which is four significant extensions including the Ontario Line, the Young North Subway Extension, as well as Eglinton Crosstown, and the Scarborough Subway Extension, are phenomenally important to just create that extended network. And when you look at Eglinton Crosstown as it’s getting finalized now and you look at the developments along Eglinton, it is just game changing. I’m also excited about the Hamilton LRT project, which will transform Hamilton as well and the extent of investment around the Hamilton corridor where the line is going to run.

“What’s so important about these transit systems is that they are truly transformational.”

Over the past few years Metrolinx has been shifting from fixed price contracting to target price contracting, culminating in the recently signed procurement agreement for the Union Station Enhancement Project (USEP) using the alliance model—an innovative procurement and delivery method recognized for delivering successful initiatives in Australia over the past 20 years. USEP is the first major project in Canada to be procured using this model.

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“The semantics here are very simple. Big contracts have risk transfers in it and if you ask someone to build better fixed price, they take all the risks. And working through a development phase with a market rather than demanding a fixed price allows for more learning and more solutions that are better for the contracting chain but also better for taxpayers,” said Verster.

Verster was also asked about Metrolinx’s important relationship with the TTC and other Greater Golden Horseshoe transit agencies.

“What binds quite a lot of people from the transit agencies is a service ethic around passengers, customers, riders with whatever terminology you want to apply. Whether it’s relationships that contracting entities have with owner entities such as [Metrolinx], whether it’s relationships with our First Nations, whether it’s relationships with communities themselves, all of these relationships are really crucial.”

He added that sometimes the bigger picture can get lost when everyone spends so much time looking at mistakes that are made.

“Things do go wrong at times, but we forget about the overall bigger prize of the many things we do that that are going right. We are consistently delivering, and we are consistently heading in the right direction. And as I said earlier, one of the things we have within our organization is humility. Look, we are respectful, we are humble. I’m very humble about the mandate we’ve got, but if it was going to be easy, it would’ve been done. So, we do accept that it’s challenging but that’s largely what make it enjoyable as well.” 

[This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 edition of ReNew Canada]

John Tenpenny is the editor of ReNew Canada.

Featured image: Metrolinx president and CEO Phil Verster recently appeared at The Empire Club of Canada to discuss working with communities to build and deliver a seamless transportation network. (THE EMPIRE CLUB OF CANADA)

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