The Liberals sure aren’t fast-tracking their high-speed rail plan

OPINION: The 2018 Ontario budget includes a $11 billion promise to build a high-speed rail line from Toronto to Waterloo Region. But there’s less here than meets the eye, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on April 4, 2018
By the 2015-16 fiscal year, Metrolinx was spending $156.3 million on GO RER — eight times what the Liberals plan to spend on high-speed rail this year. (Fred Lum/Globe and Mail)

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​It was the single most expensive announcement in last week’s budget: $11 billion for high-speed rail investments from Toronto to London, part of a down payment on a fast train that will eventually run all the way to Windsor.

“[T]he Province is proceeding with an initial investment of over $11 billion to support the construction. The high‐speed rail program will begin with service from Toronto to London, then expand with service from London to Windsor in the second phase of construction,” reads page 129 of the document unveiled by Finance Minister Charles Sousa last week.

“Is proceeding” may make it sound as if Transportation Minister Kathryn McGarry is already signing contracts to get things rolling, as if money is already flowing from government coffers to manufacturers, builders, and planners. And “$11 billion” may make it sound as if the government is spending, well, $11 billion.

The Liberals might even do that, someday, if they’re re-elected. But McGarry’s office confirmed to TVO.org this week that the initial layout for this fiscal year is just $19.1 million. That is much, much less than $11 billion — like, less than two-tenths of 1 per cent.

That, on its own, doesn’t mean much: the government can’t simply unleash a geyser of money and magically expect things to happen. Before big things can happen, smaller things need to happen.

But the context here shows just how paltry the sum the government is spending actually is. There’s no real apples-to-apples comparison possible in this case, except, possibly, to all the abandoned former plans for Canadian high-speed rail. But it’s fair to consider how quickly the Liberals ramped up spending on their other rail-based transit promise, GO Regional Express Rail.

The Liberals announced the RER plan in the 2014 budget, and by the 2015-16 fiscal year, Metrolinx was spending $156.3 million. That’s eight times what the government plans to spend on high-speed rail this year. And the amount more than doubled in the next budget and has grown even faster since as paper studies make way for actual building: the plan is to spend more than $2 billion on GO RER in 2018 and more than $3 billion in 2019.

To put it another way: five years after they first announced GO RER, the Liberals will have spent more than $5 billion. The Liberals unveiled their high-speed rail ambitions the same year they committed to GO RER, but five years on, they will have spent less than 1 per cent as much.

Even if we view the 2014 high-speed rail announcement as an election-season promise that was never meant to be taken seriously, it’s been nearly a full year since the Liberals re-announced their no-kidding, we’re-serious-this-time plan for high-speed rail to Windsor. And the sum they’ve committed to spending this year will cover only the previous estimates for completing the necessary environmental assessments with some change leftover (or not, if the consultants rack up unanticipated overtime).


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It would be different if the government had anything close to a detailed timetable for how they’ll ramp up spending in the future — GO RER spending started small and has ramped up since — but McGarry’s office tells TVO.org that no such timetable exists yet, although the money will be spent between 2018 and 2025.

McGarry’s office denies that the sums involved in this year’s budget are small beer, saying, “Our government is absolutely committed to implementing high-speed rail because we know that it will transform the Toronto-Windsor corridor.”

“This investment will provide the province with the funds we need to keep this project moving forward … High-speed rail is a completely new mode of transportation for Canada, and all aspects of the project must be explored in detail. This work is in early stages, and more detailed cost estimates will be developed over time as the project proceeds.”

For people who are skeptical of this entire endeavour (including your correspondent), the fact that the government is spending “only” $19.1 million on it is a mixed blessing. The province is, at least, not irretrievably committing itself to a(nother) multi-billion-dollar white elephant.

But as the Liberals have given this promise pride of place in their budget-slash-campaign-document, they’ll find it tough to abandon it, even if costs balloon further or the business case gets even shakier. The history of California’s high-speed rail plan doesn’t inspire confidence on this score: a rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco was originally approved by voters when the cost was estimated at $40 billion; it’s now estimated at somewhere between $100 billion and $120 billion.

Even worse, the obsession with trains shooting across the province’s southwest at 200 kilometres per hour or more is blinding the government to the possibility of other investments that might be cheaper and more banal, but capable of delivering vastly improved service levels. Simply improving the province’s railways such that VIA and GO’s existing and planned trains could consistently run at their design speeds would bring huge benefits and cost far less than true high-speed rail. That’s what some locals in more rural parts of southwest Ontario are asking for.

But for any of that to happen, the government would need to stop waving the shiny bauble in front of voters every time an election nears.

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