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Woman of the Week: Leslie Woo

Leslie Woo, Metrolinx’s Chief Planning Officer, approaches everything with curiosity. With an extensive background in both the private and the public sector, Woo is the kind of person who will move to a new position to fill an education gap and learn how everything connects. She calls it design or systematic thinking, something she acquired through her architectural background.

“Every time I twisted and turned in my career, it was because fundamentally, in my work, I identify something that drives me to solve some other underlying problem somewhere else,” she said.

Woo grew up in Trinidad with a middle class family surrounded by poverty, something she says is one of the reasons why she went into architecture and urban planning — to give back to the community. Architecture, Woo said, is an “interesting bridge between community and planning.” Her mother, who was interested in interior design, encouraged Woo in her love of math, art, and language, leading to a study abroad in in Canada.

When she arrived in this country, she found a hostile climate and a foreign landscape. Even the language was difficult, as she had a thick accent. But, Woo pushed through the culture shock, falling in love with environmental studies and city building.

“In reflection, everything in my life and career is about creating roots and being grounded and establishing a place for myself and for my kids and family,” she said. “This interest in urbanity and quality of space and access, that’s where it comes from.”

Woo’s career is extensive. Prior to joining Metrolinx, she worked with the Waterfront Regeneration Trust as well as Waterfront Revitalization, helped shape the Greater Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan with the Ontario Growth Secretariat, and acted as strategic policy director for the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities.

At Metrolinx, Woo developed a large and expanding portfolio. She is responsible for the long-term vision of the provincial transit agency, based on The Big Move, a vast plan to create one of the “largest and fastest-growing urban regions in North America.” She is responsible for $31 billion worth of capital public investments and drives corporate sustainability and innovation.

“I don’t know that I have a love for transit planning to be honest,” she said. “I have a love for city building, and you can’t build a city without mobility. This job has changed three, four times as the organization has grown, as we have continuously demonstrated our capabilities and our expertise, and we have been rewarded to be a larger contributor to the success of the region. That energizes me. Transportation planning is part of the puzzle I have spent the last 10 years trying to solve.”

She is currently leading the 2041 Regional Transportation Plan, which will build on the foundations created between 2008 and 2018, and help create a fully integrated transportation system across the province. Woo says her biggest challenge was to separate herself from the original Big Move plan and take an objective view, focusing on fresh ideas. The first round of consultations has just finished.

“The people using the system, municipalities and public, they have real insights that are important,” she said. “Now we are focused on the ‘how’ – we feel like what we’ve got is a strong validation of the ‘what’ – the direction, the vision. The ‘how’ is about who is making the decisions, how will you prioritize, how will you develop the evidence, where is the money going to come from, what is the role of municipalities?”

In addition to her work, Woo is deeply interested in mentoring and building up women. She said she was blinded about the gender divide in her early career, as a woman from a matriarchal family. But then, she took part in The Judy Project, an executive program within the Rotman School of Management in Toronto that helps prepare women for executive and CEO positions. The program really opened her eyes to the challenges women face in business.

For example, she said data showed that when someone was meeting a woman for the first time, they judged them 60 per cent on how they looked, 30 per cent on how they sounded in terms of their voice, and only a small percentage of what they actually said. “That for me was disturbing but really helpful in how I speak with other women,” Woo said. “It’s a great time to be a woman right now, but it is going much to slow.”

She continued her development at Harvard through a custom designed leadership program. As part of this fellowship, she founded She Builds Cities, a website where she showcases female city builders, people she has admires within the profession. She also leads Metrolinx’s network for women in management, which includes a mentorship program.

“I have formally and informally mentored younger women, older women, I have been mentored myself – I’ve been reversed mentored by younger women, which is refreshing,” she said. “Coaching, sponsoring, those are all things that are important. In my career, I had many mentors…men and women!”

Woo celebrated her 10-year anniversary at Metrolinx this week.

 

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Toronto: Metrolinx reaches new contract with Bombardier for Crosstown

Over the holidays, Metrolinx negotiated new contract terms with Bombardier, the transit agency responsible for producing light rail vehicles for Toronto’s Eglinton Crosstown light rail transit (LRT) system. According to a press statement, these new terms offer “significant financial penalties for Bombardier if they fail to deliver quality vehicles on-time.”

“This clearly resets the relationship with Metrolinx under its new leadership, and provides a clear path forward to ensure certainty on the technical and financial obligations of both partners,” a Bombardier press statement said.

Bombardier is contracted to manufacture 76 light rail vehicles, which is 106 less than the original contract for 182.

“We want our suppliers to succeed,” Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster said in a statement. “The new agreement provides compelling incentives for Bombardier to allocate the right resources and attention to the production of our Eglinton vehicles.”

The new agreement includes performance deadlines and a new late delivery penalty. Bombardier has also committed to be more transparent when it comes to production plans and progress, which means that Metrolinx will have the opportunity to address progress on a regular basis. Bombardier will ensure vehicle quality is sustained throughout the lifespan of the vehicles.

The GO Transit Operations and Maintenance contract was extended by 18-month.

In May, the provincial government signed a new agreement with Alstom Canada to provide vehicles that would be used on the Eglinton Crosstown. Alstom is still contracted to manufacture 61 cars, but they will be used on other transit lines such as Finch West LRT.

“We have always been resolved to find a clear negotiated path forward, one that delivers value to all parties, and foremost to the people of Ontario. Bombardier is fully committed to the Metrolinx project and to the people of the Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (GTHA),” said Benoit Brossoit, President, Americas Region at Bombardier Transport. “I look forward to working with Metrolinx’s CEO, Phil Verster’s, to advance this project and ensure that riders have the most efficient, comfortable and reliable transit system in the world.”

Ontario PCs wants to take over TTC – but only part of it

This past weekend has seen two group of people argue for provincial ownership of aspects of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).

The Ontario Progressive Conservatives released their election platform on Saturday called “The People’s Guarantee.” In this document, the PCs say they will assume responsibility for maintenance and investments in Toronto’s subway system. Toronto would still retain control of the streetcars and busses.

“In partnership with the Mayor of Toronto, Patrick Brown and the Ontario PCs will assume responsibility for the physical subway infrastructure – tunnels, tracks, and stations. This will allow the province to amortize subway investments and costs on the province’s books over the life of the asset. The city would maintain complete control of day to-day maintenance and operations,” the document says.

The PCs will invest $5 billion in projects throughout Ontario, including the Relief Line and extension to Richmond. It also pledged to pay the city’s share of funding for the Scarborough Subway Extension, but only if Toronto makes a “significant financial contribution” to the Eglinton Crosstown West.

The PCs will not support the tolling of the Don Valley Parkway or the Gardiner Expressway to fund transit and infrastructure projects.

The political party is not the only one who thinks the province should take control of Toronto’s transit network. The Toronto Region Board of Trade released a report that calls for the consolidation of planning, construction, and operation of transit into one provincial transit agency. The idea is that politics would no longer interfere with the delivery of projects and provide extra revenue for other city issues.

This agency, dubbed “Superlinx”, would merge GO Transit and 12 different transit operators together to “provide the vision, scale and resources to finally provide the world-class transit system that the corridor needs.” Superlinx would be responsible for paying for the region’s transit operations.

As the provincial election gets closer in June, more and more of these proposals will pop up. Transit is the priority item, with almost every municipality in the province looking to expand and grow their networks. Is a provincially-run agency the best way to go about building transit? Will this reduce the bureaucracy preventing shovels from getting in the ground or will it create a whole new set of problems?

What do you think?

SmartTrack could be operational by 2024

Toronto’s Executive Committee will discuss and debate the concepts for the SmartTrack stations next week.

SmartTrack will use existing rail to shuttle residents from the further neighbourhoods and areas of the Greater Toronto Area into the downtown core for the cost of a TTC fare. There will be 14 stations built and trains will run every six to 10 minutes. The plan also includes an extension of the Eglinton Crosstown from Mount Dennis to Pearson Airport with an approximate additional 10 stations.

“The people of Toronto want choice and convenience when it comes to their commute. SmartTrack takes the concept of local rail travel to a whole new level,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory in a statement. “SmartTrack is an important part of the city’s transit network plan that also includes the relief line, the Eglinton East LRT and waterfront transit.”

The executive committee will review the concepts for stations at St. Clair-Old Weston, King-Liberty, East Harbour, Gerrard-Carlaw, Lawrence-Kennedy, and Finch-Kennedy. Each station has been designed to serve the specific neighbourhood, with King-Liberty station including strong connections for pedestrians and cyclists, East Harbour station integrating with a high-employment area, and Gerrard-Carlaw optimizing connections with the planned Relief Line station.

City staff are also requesting that Metrolinx, a provincial transportation agency, consider pedestrian and cycling pathways when connecting GO corridors to Bloor St. and that they work in partnership with the city to push forward the Spadina-Front GO Regional Express Rail station and the Rail Deck Park proposal. The Rail Deck Park will also be discussed next Tuesday, with city staff recommending council move forward and that all rail projects should keep the park in mind during design.

“Rail Deck Park will be the largest downtown park outside of the Don Valley,” the report reads. “The proposed decking structure will support a fully functional park that, at full build-out, will comprise a total area of approximately 8.3 hectares or 20 acres, excluding the Metrolinx property at the corner of Front Street and Spadina Avenue.”

The cost estimation is $1.665 billion.

If these reports are approved, they will be sent to city council in December. Metrolinx estimates that service along SmartTrack will be available in 2024.

Metrolinx announces discount for GO, UP Express, and TTC riders

Friday morning, Metrolinx announced a 50 per cent discount for transit users who transfer between GO Transit, UP Express, and the TTC using a PRESTO card. The provincial government will subsidize the co-fare in the first step towards “regional fare integration”.

The discount comes up to $1.50 per ride, or half of a TTC fare. This equates to savings of around $720 a year for the regular commuter. The cost to subsidize the discount is about $18 million a year for the province.

The discount is not available for those who download monthly passes on their PRESTO cards.

“Our region needs fare integration,” said Phil Verster, President and CEO of Metrolinx, in a statement. “This discount is an important first step in breaking down barriers to fare integration across the network, making it easier and more convenient to take transit.”

Over 50,000 daily trips include transfers between these three transportation lines — GO, UP Express, and the TTC. The new co-fare system will launch in January 2018 following the opening of the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension in December. The subway extension is the first TTC line to cross regional boarders, connecting York University and the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre with the Yonge Line 1 subway.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca, joined Verster for the announcement.

“Transit will not be more affordable for Toronto residents who ride a mix of the TTC, UP Express, and Go Transit to get around the city,” Tory said. “This agreement also moves us a step closer to make sure that SmartTrack will cost Toronto residents the same as the TTC.”

 

Metrolinx Transportation Symposium: tolls, single-payment, and connectivity

Metrolinx hosted a Transportation Symposium Monday with the goal of hearing insight from transit leaders, residents, and influencers from across the region. With their 2041 Regional Transportation Plan still in the draft stage, Metrolinx is looking for reactions and input.

The day began with opening remarks from Metrolinx’s new CEO Phil Verster, who was only 30 minutes into the job. He talked about how the consultation process the transit agency is going through isn’t boring or redundant, but rather an important part of city building. “Great plans succeed because everyone is invested in it,” he said.

Leslie Woo, Chief Planning Officer for Metrolinx, provided an overview of the Draft 2041 plan. She said that over 10 million people will live across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Region by 2041. For that reason, the region must look past the Big Move and continue to work together and increase public transportation. Woo also warned about building based on technological advancements, saying the GTHA allowed a love affair with the car to influence how cities were designed. She doesn’t want Metrolinx to make the same mistake. At the same time, she admitted that no one can deny the importance of incorporating shared-services and autonomous vehicles into future plans.

Participants spent the rest of the day listening to panels on connectivity, customer service, and funding models. Many of the panellists touched upon the vulnerability of transit funding. While Canada is experiencing a boom of infrastructure funding on all three levels, it is not enough to make up for a 30-year gap. What’s required is dedicated funding for transit, perhaps through the direct use of road pricing and tolls, something that was called “inevitable” by one of the panelists.

Another common theme was the idea of a single-payment system. While fare integration is a necessity for Metrolinx’s 2041 plan, as well as any future Toronto Transit Commission plans, the idea of paying not only for public transportation, but also for car-sharing and bixi bikes, is a relatively new one. This would require one card or mobile app that customers could use across the board.

Above all else, the consensus was that transit needed to be comfortable, reliable, frequent, and be able to get customers to their destination without too many transfers.

Metrolinx thinks to the future in new transportation plan

Metrolinx is thinking about the future — at least as far as 2041.

The board released their Draft 2041 Regional Transportation Plan for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area at their Sept. 14 meeting, with the intention of gathering feedback over a 90-day public consultation period. The information they get will be considered for use in the final draft, which will be available in December.

By 2041, Metrolinx says over 10 million people will live across the Golden Horseshoe Area. The new transportation plan will move beyond The Big Move.

The report reads: “We need to plan for a future characterized not only by continued population and employment growth, but also by changing demographics (including an aging population), the changing nature of work, new transportation technologies and services, and the impacts of climate change. In short, we cannot stop.”

There are five different aspects of this new transportation plan.

  1. Completing delivery of current regional transit projects: Metrolinx is in the midst of increasing their Rapid Express Rail, working on the Hurontario, Eglinton, Hamilton, and Finch Light Rail Transit, as well as the York VIVA. Delivery is expected by 2025.
  2. Connecting more of the region with frequent rapid transit: The goal is to create 15-minute all day service so that people can get around the region without delay.
  3. Optimizing the transportation system to make the best possible use of existing and future transit assets: Metrolinx has determined that fares by distance is the most efficient structure. It also wants to ensure that more people take alternative modes of transportation on their way to use the transit system. Their goal will be to increase the number of people who bike, walk, or carpool from 38 per cent to 62-64 per cent.
  4. Integrating land use and transportation: This strategy will help create mobility hubs and new developments, with the goal of intensifying certain areas so that transit becomes more accessible. The designs wil encourage cycling and walking as primary modes of transportation.
  5. Preparing for an uncertain future: The plan encourages a regional approach to transit planning as opposed to municipal or private enterprises. Metrolinx will also continue to study new technologies to help reduce greenhouse gasses.

The public will be able to provide feedback at six regional roundtables prior to the final draft.

Metrolinx announces Phil Verster as new CEO

Thursday afternoon Metrolinx announced that Phil Verster, an experienced rail operator hailing from the United Kingdom, would replace Bruce McCuaig as CEO.

“Mr. Verster has graduate degrees in both engineering and business and a post-graduate diploma in law,” Prichard said. “He has operated, built and electrified commuter rail. He has the expertise and executive experience we need to deliver on our ambitious agenda, leading the 4,000 employees of Metrolinx and working with all of our partners. We are delighted the Mr. Verster has chosen to join Metrolinx.”

Verster is an engineer with vast experience in infrastructure management and operations for passenger rail systems. Prior to joining Britain’s Network Rail in 2011, he worked with Southeastern Trains and the UK division of Bombardier Rail. He also spent five years at Irish Rail, including some time as Deputy CEO.

From 2015-17, Verster ran Scotland’s ScotRail, overseeing the delivery of $3 billion of new electrification and has served as managing director of Network Rail’s East West Railway.

For Metrolinx, the decision to hire Verster was an easy one. According to Rob Prichard, Chairman of the Metrolinx Board, the Board itself was looking for someone with deep expertise in the field and significant executive experience delivering infrastructure.

“What stood out to us the most is what [Verster] has done successfully exactly what we need to do, which is to operate, expand, and build services and infrastructure, and to do that while maintaining existing services at the same time,” Prichard said.

Prichard also clarified that Metrolinx was not “searching the world for a politician.” For Verster, the politics behind the transit-agency is not his first priority. His first priority is to listen and get to know the people in Ontario and Toronto.

“My number one priority is to listen,” Verster said at the press conference. “And not only to listen to our different levels of management, but to listen to the front line people who day in and day out deliver for us on an ongoing basis.

“I’ll spend a lot of time getting to know the local politics and local communities. In the end, we as Metrolinx aren’t political. We serve only one master and that master is our passengers,” he said.

Verster was chosen unanimously by the Board of Directors of Metrolinx. He will start his new position on Oct. 1 2017.

Transit Alliance: financing infrastructure via P3 and AFP

Ontario has an infrastructure deficit — there is a lot of infrastructure that still needs to be developed, but very little money is available. This creates a bit of a challenge. “If we were to build all infrastructure on public balance sheets, we wouldn’t be able to get there,” said Bruce McCuaig, Executive Advisor of Privy Council Office. “Money isn’t free.”

McCuaig was a special guest at the Transit Alliance’s seminar on alternative financing and public-private partnerships. Over 80 people attended the June 20 event in hopes of learning more about the Infrastructure Bank and alternative financing models that can help push municipal projects forward.

The morning seminar began with a fireside chat between McCuaig, KPMG partner Will Lipson, and Transit Alliance Chair Brian Crombie. The conversation centered around the Infrastructure Bank, a crown corporation that will provide low-cost financing for new infrastructure projects. McCuaig is set to help launch the Infrastructure Bank through the Privy Council.

“It’s about finding the best financial model for the project,” McCuaig said. “Each on has different needs.”

Transit will play a big part of the portfolio, although clean water was also mentioned numerous times throughout the discussion. McCuaig stressed that a balance will be needed between public interest and independence within the crown corporation, and that decisions should be made using evidence-based analysis.

The Infrastructure Bank will be complimentary to Infrastructure Ontario, Infrastructure Canada, and other private agencies. KPMG said the corporation will bring about numerous opportunities for municipalities, providing more financing options than before.

“The government has been quite wise in implementing the bank,” Lipson said.

After the fireside chat, Crombie moderated a second panel that dealt largely with financing for smaller municipal projects. Special guests on the panel included Rob Pattison, SVP, LRT, Infrastructure Ontario; Don Dinnin, VP Procurement Services at Metrolinx; Olivia MacAngus, VP Corporate Development at Plenary Group; and Omer Malik, Vice President Project Financing at Stonebridge Financial Corporation.

Each member of the panel is involved in public-private partnerships or alternative financing, and believes that innovation and creativity are key when it comes to municipal projects. For most, the Infrastructure Bank is a unique opportunity, but not something to depend on. MacAngus and Malik both think there is too much unknown about the Infrastructure Bank. “We don’t need another traditional lender,” Malik said. “It should focus on a gap, where larger equity funds aren’t interested.”

Dinnin suggested the use of an agency such as the Infrastructure Bank to help spearhead the relief line in Toronto. Metrolinx, he said, has a number of funded projects using public-private partnerships, but maybe the Infrastructure Bank can fill the rest of that gap. “There is always more than one way to do something,” he said.

The collective solution to municipal infrastructure, as suggested by the panel, is hybrid-financing models and innovative thinking — partnering with the right investors to see your project completed.

The goal of alternative financing and public-private partnerships is to build and develop a project on time and on budget. According to Pattison of Infrastructure Ontario, the worst thing someone can do is drag out the construction phase.

The seminar also included a networking opportunity, where business and municipal leaders were able to approach these financial firms to discuss their personal projects and seek advice (or offer potential solutions).

“Expertise should always be evolving,” Pattison said.

Here are some photos from the event:

[Best_Wordpress_Gallery id=”7″ gal_title=”P3 Seminar June 20″]

More photos to come.

Photographs taken by Ethan Helfrich.

Metrolinx signs contract with Alstrom as backup to Bombardier

Metrolinx announced Friday they have entered into a contract with Alstrom, a French transit agency specializing in integrated systems, to build 17 vehicles for the Finch West LRT project as well as 44 backup trains for the Eglinton Crosstown.

“We know for sure that Alstrom’s light rail vehicles work. They are currently producing quality vehicles on-time for Ottawa’s Confederation Line LRT Project,” a statement released by Metrolinx President and CEO John Jensen said. “We are going through a dispute resolution process with Bombardier but that could take 8-12 months, and we can’t wait that long to determine whether Bombardier will be able to deliver.

The vehicles were meant to be backups in case Bombardier is unable to deliver their trains on schedule. Metrolinx has been in a continuous legal feud with the Montreal-based agency. If Bombardier fulfills their contract for the Eglinton Crosstown and the 44 vehicles built by Alstrom aren’t needed, they will be reassigned to the Hurontario LRT project.

The contract was awarded for $529 million and includes an option for additional vehicles once the original 61 are built. The specific vehicle — the Citadis Spirit — was specifically designed for the Canadian market and can withstand winter conditions up to -38 degrees. Alstrom will also be providing Metrolinx with a new control centre to integrate the Go Transit network and a new signalling system for the Union Station Rail corridor, among other things.

“We are proud to continue our collaboration with Metrolinx as it seeks to link communities and deliver advanced public transit solutions to the greater Toronto area, and we are honoured by their renewed confidence in our products, solutions and teams,” said Angelo Guercioni, Managing Director of Alstom Canada, in a statement.

Alstrom has sold over 2,300 of these trains to 50 cities around the world.