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Mover and shaker

By Chris Atchison | June 13, 2013
Mover and shaker
Bruce McCuaig

Moving customers efficiently from point A to B is the fundamental objective of any well-run transit system. But as Bruce McCuaig knows from years of experience, the task becomes extremely complex when it involves transporting hundreds of thousands of people each day across a region as large as the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), especially while relying on an aging and overburdened system.

Finding innovative ways to steer the transformation of that system and improve commuters’ journeys is McCuaig’s challenge – and each day packs a new set of complications.

As President and Chief Executive Officer of Metrolinx, the government body charged with overseeing Ontario’s GO Transit system and expanding transit for Toronto and its surrounding regions, McCuaig is responsible for implementing The Big Move, the 25-year and $50-billion plan to improve everything from public transit options to traffic congestion across Canada’s largest metropolitan area. The goals of the plan are lofty – ensuring that more than six million people live within two kilometres of rapid transit and 33 million new transit trips are added across the region by 2031, while adding $130-billion to Ontario’s gross domestic product.

“The Big Move’s fundamental premise is to improve the system that brings people into downtown Toronto, but on top of that we want to add a grid system that will connect east and west and north and south, all of the different population and employment nodes across the region,” McCuaig explains, adding that massive shifts in Southern Ontario demographics have driven the plan’s evolution.

“The diversity of where people are working and living has changed dramatically. There are as many people moving from downtown to the suburban employment nodes as are coming downtown, so we need the transportation systems that support that kind of movement.”

Despite years of transit false starts and seemingly endless debate over how to reduce gridlock across the region, the CEO stresses that the need for rapid action on transit and congestion is more urgent than ever. According to Metrolinx statistics, the average GTHA commuter spends 82 minutes travelling to and from work each day, even longer times than those faced by commuters in chronically gridlocked metropolises such as New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. That travel time is poised to lengthen to as much as 109 minutes in the coming years. The challenges don’t end there.

As McCuaig notes, traffic congestion isn’t just affecting the reliability of transit service and commute times across the GTHA, it’s hurting everything from quality of life to the region’s collective financial fortunes.

In a 2011 report, the Toronto Board of Trade estimated that gridlock costs the Toronto-area economy about $6-billion annually – and could spike up to as much as $15-billion a year without swift action. A recent Toronto-Dominion Bank report cited poor transportation and infrastructure as the main threats to the GTHA’s growth and success. “What’s holding us back in surveys, whether it’s by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or The Economist, is they always talk about our transit system,” McCuaig points out. “We know it because we live it, and people from the outside observing us know it because they can compare us to other regions and see that we’re behind.”

Although The Big Move provides a blueprint for regional transportation success, McCuaig faces daunting roadblocks in his attempts to realize the plan. First and foremost is paying for it. Although the Ontario government has earmarked $16-billion in dedicated funding to date, Metrolinx needs to find another $34-billion to pay for The Big Move. As well, politicians at various levels have publicly voiced their opposition to the introduction of investment tools such as road tolls or taxes to fund the massive infrastructure project.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the man in charge of pushing The Big Move forward seems to be in a state of perpetual motion himself, constantly darting from meetings to build support, share information or gain critical insights.

Given McCuaig’s diverse public infrastructure and transportation background – he served with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing for 10 years and is a former deputy minister of the Ministry of Transportation – the CEO is no stranger to selling disparate stakeholders on the merits of a long-term infrastructure policy.

But how? McCuaig says the best – and perhaps only – way is by building partnerships with key groups such as municipalities. That can mean everything from reaching agreements on how to manage utility movements and road construction – as Metrolinx has done with the City of Toronto for its new Eglinton Avenue crosstown light-rail project and Union Pearson Express airport rail service – to sharing best practices with the Toronto Transit Commission on improving customer service. “It’s all about building and maintaining those relationships on a daily basis,” McCuaig explains. “Yes, you do have conflicts from time to time on these complex and sophisticated large projects, but that’s not a problem if you have the systems, processes and relationships to resolve those issues.”

It also helps to have a rounded perspective, particularly when making recommendations as to which of the controversial investment tools the province should adopt to fund such an ambitious expansion. To find answers, McCuaig and his Metrolinx colleagues have spent years researching the transit strategies of cities such as Vancouver, Los Angeles, New York, London and Stockholm for answers to a simple question: How have those cities managed to upgrade their transit infrastructure without bankrupting their respective local, provincial or national treasuries? As Metrolinx learned, each of the municipalities relies on government transfer payments just as Ontario cities such as Toronto and Hamilton do, but they also have a diverse suite of revenue tools at their disposal to provide stable, longterm funding for large development projects.

Whether considering congestion levies such as those introduced by Stockholm and London, or the dedicated sales tax Los Angeles implemented to fund transit expansion, McCuaig is well aware that reaching population-wide consensus on the best solution is almost impossible. Leaders in each of those cities were forced to make tough decisions and act fast to save their cities from being crushed under the weight of their own growth and prosperity.

He believes that Ontarians understand the scope of the challenge and are prepared to allocate resources to pay for upgraded services. “People realize we need to grow our transportation system, but we have to do it differently than in the past and they are prepared to look at different approaches. Our job is to put the best possible information in front of everybody so that when it comes down to that political discussion, everyone goes in with eyes wide open.”

But convincing a skeptical public, cost-conscious business leaders and tax-averse politicians takes careful communications to generate excitement about the growth potential presented by transit investments as well as the need to produce measurable results that support that argument. It’s why the agency has focused on introducing sweeping new innovations into the GTHA’s transit system such as a GO Train smartphone app that provides customers with real-time train routing, departure time and scheduling information, as well as Let GO Know, a program that uses smartphone technology to survey GO riders in real time. Metrolinx is able to blast out public opinion questions pertaining to everything from customer service to train cleanliness, then receive nearinstant feedback that managers can use to make fast changes or improvements.

Perhaps Metrolinx’s most ambitious technology undertaking is the rollout of the new PRESTO fare card system which, when fully deployed in 2016, will allow passengers to use a single form of electronic payment across the GTHA’s many transit systems, thereby improving customer service and convenience, operational efficiencies and dramatically reducing administration costs. McCuaig is also excited that PRESTO sets the stage for the future integration of mobile payment options. “These innovations give power to the customer in terms of giving flexibility in how they want to pay as opposed to having to figure out the fare policies of all the different transit authorities,” he explains.

Despite the massive scope of The Big Move, achieving greater success often means scoring small wins wherever possible. Case in point: In March, GO Transit earned a 97-per-cent on-time performance rating across the system. McCuaig feels that as his organization has been able to collect and laud small achievements such as those, Metrolinx has boosted its credibility. Over the long term, he feels that will produce a greater willingness to invest in the transportation system and provide tools to ensure greater revenue sustainability. “I think getting that sense of support from our customer base is how I look at success,” McCuaig says. “It’s all about collaboration, engagement and getting common knowledge out there through all available channels and to all parts of the population.”

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