Canadian Consulting Engineer

Lessons from a firing

Lessons from a firing

March 1, 2012   By Bronwen Parsons

Lessons from a firing

Perhaps consulting engineers in other parts of Canada were yawning over the political storm that erupted when the Toronto Transit Commission’s chief general manager was fired. Yes — we hear you — Toronto is not the centre of the universe, and it should certainly get its act together over what to build for its much-needed transit expansions.

But the firing of Gary Webster and all the news coverage it engendered in February had implications for professional engineers everywhere.

For once, people began to hear in the popular press how important it is to have professionals in public positions of responsibility.

Repeatedly on the morning radio shows and in the newspapers, politicians, urban planners, and other commentators made the point that Webster is a professional and was trained as a civil engineer. They explained that as a professional Webster would have studied all the technical issues and it was on that basis that he was making his recommendations for surface LRTs over subways. The message was that a professional is trustworthy, and that as a professional Webster was entitled — indeed obliged — to stand up for what he believed to be right based on the facts and studies.

Whether you favour subways or LRTs (I say just get on with either of them), it was disturbing to see a man who served for 35 years at the commission ousted from his job “with no just cause.” He had simply failed to fall into line behind the mayor and would not issue a report that would have been against his better judgement and that of his team of planners and analysts.

Everybody got fired up about the story — people in the streets were talking about it, and even the bus drivers (sometimes a grumpy bunch) stood behind their hapless boss.

At the same time, there were frustrating aspects to the media coverage. Very little attention was paid to the engineering issues. Why is it more difficult and expensive to tunnel underground on these particular routes? What are the physical constraints of interconnecting LRT lines with mass transit subways? How fast does an LRT car travel — is it just a bit faster than a bus (as some reports said), or is it speedier? How were the LRT proponents suggesting dealing with on-street traffic turning left?

As so often happens, once the political circus got rolling, the engineering questions were buried beneath economic issues and the “he said, she said” type of coverage.

Yet the public is interested in learning more about the technical advantages and disadvantages of what gets built — whether it’s transit, as in this case, or something like a garbage incinerator. They care because they know that it’s the technical, physical aspects that will really affect their lives.

The public would be much more easily persuaded about what is the correct course of action on any project so long as the basic concepts are reliably, clearly and honestly communicated to them.

One can blame the media for being superficial in its coverage, but not entirely. Engineers need to be more willing to put their knowledge on record. I put a call into one transportation expert involved in the Toronto LRT vs. subway studies and have yet to receive a response.Bronwen Parsons


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