TORONTO - Metrolinx doled out $1.3 million of taxpayers’ cash in five years to sponsor studies, academic papers and conferences through a grant program.
Critics are asking why the agency, tasked with expanding public transit across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, was giving out grants at all.
But Metrolinx brass defend the “Community Partnership Program” and its successor, the “Promotional and Marketing Sponsorship Policy.” The agency spent the money to help increase the “dialogue” on public transit, spokesman Anne Marie Aikins said.
“We have periodically sought potential partner organizations that are interested in initiating projects to increase this dialogue,” Aikins said in an email. “Sharing knowledge across the transit and transportation sector is an important step in building a region that works and moves well.”
Documents obtained by the Toronto Sun through a Freedom of Information request show Metrolinx spent the cash on 41 different agreements from October 2010 to March 2015.
“This program was designed to be temporary,” Aikins said.
Aikins said the first program ran from 2010 to 2013. Following a review in 2012, it changed the next year. The cash continued to flow, but at a diminished rate under a new policy in 2014 and 2015. Every proposal was reviewed to “ensure it had developed measurable goals and objectives and expectations for return of investment (ROI), and reporting requirements,” Metrolinx said.
Metrolinx launched the grant program with a flash of spending on two separate days in October 2010.
On Oct. 14 and 22, five grants were awarded respectively to the Toronto Board of Trade, University of Toronto’s Munk School, the Toronto City Summit, Sustainable Prosperity, and Toronto Forum for Global Cities. They totalled $140,000.
At its height, in 2012, 11 grants totalling $411,000 were handed out. In 2013, the grant spending peaked at $456,470, including its largest single grant of $185,000 to the Evergreen Foundation for a transit study and report.
But that same year the grant program appears to have come to an abrupt halt. A $5,000 grant was awarded to the Canadian Automobile Association March 28, 2013. It’s nearly a year before another grant is awarded on March 11, 2014.
At that point, Metrolinx reviews and revamps its policy, and the flow of cash — once in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — slows to a trickle. The agency gives out $54,959 in 2014 and $28,500 by April 2015.
Progressive Conservative transportation critic Michael Harris said Metrolinx should not be handing out grants.
“Metrolinx’s job should be to build and manage transit, period,” he said.
Harris questioned why the grants weren’t subject to Ontario’s procurement rules, where companies would have been required to compete to provide the services.
“Taxpayers expect that when the government gives contracts out that there has to be a transparent process and that businesses compete for the government’s business,” he said.
The grants were advertised annually, according to Metrolinx, and applications were evaluated by senior staff and then approved by its board of directors.
“Initiatives completed under these programs were not considered to be procurements, but instead were partnerships with community-minded organizations and conferences to build dialogue around the development of the region’s transit and transportation system,” Aikins said.
Cheri DiNovo, NDP urban transportation critic, called the grant program “another boondoggle.”
The grant system might look like a good way to spread Metrolinx’s message by banding together with progressive groups, but it has done nothing to build transit, she said.
“This seems like a public relations exercise to make them look forward-thinking on the transit file when in fact transit is a mess,” she said.
This isn’t the first time critics have questioned Metrolinx’s partnership spending. In August 2013, the agency was embroiled in a scandal over its promotional partnerships program when it was revealed Metrolinx had paid $30,000 to sponsor the Toronto International Film Festival and inked a deal to sponsor an NFL game in Toronto, both in 2011.
In each case, staff were given tickets for free or at a cut rate. The incident prompted an internal review and policy changes.
It also led then-transportation minister Glen Murray to meet with Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig to ensure the agency was “no longer in the cash transaction business.”
WHERE DID THE $1.3 MILLION AWARDED BY METROLINX GO?
According to documents obtained by the Toronto Sun, 41 agreements were signed with 27 different organizations, many applying successfully multiple times.
Here are a few examples:
- The big winner appears to be the Evergreen Foundation, which operates the Evergreen Brickworks. It received four different grants totalling $420,000 between March 2011 and February 2013. The cash was used to plan and host a transit expo, and research and write a pair of transit studies for Metrolinx.
- In January 2012, Metrolinx agreed to pay the Centre for Ethical Orientation $50,000 to research and write a report on “trust and transformation” within its organization. Then on July 12, 2012, another agreement was struck with the consulting firm to pay an additional $50,000 to complete the project.
- In July 2014, Metrolinx awarded $20,000 to Air Rail News Ltd., which hosts conferences on “air-rail intermodality.” The cash was used to sponsor the 2015 event in Toronto a year after the organization gave Metrolinx’s UP Express several awards. “The UP Express was awarded Project of the Year award at ARN’s 2013 and 2014 editions of the event,” the contract agreement with Air Rail News says. “ARN has proposed and Metrolinx has agreed to enter into a sponsorship agreement both to support the Event and to promote the UP Express.”
- In a note provided to the Sun, Metrolinx points to a series of townhall or roundtables hosted by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, Canadian Automobile Association, and CultureLink Settlement Services. It cites the projects as having had “clear deliverables” with reporting criteria and relevance to the GTHA.