Gridlocked: how incompetence, pandering and baffling inertia have kept Toronto stuck in traffic
Getting around the city, by public transit or by car, has become a perpetual nightmare of sardine-tin crowds, endless queues and construction bottlenecks. Gridlock is the lightning-rod issue of this mayoral race, with candidates sparring over which transportation fix—underground subways, surface subways, LRT, more buses, more bike lanes, no bike lanes, more speed bumps, no speed bumps—is best. But to voters, who’ve endured a generation-long succession of false starts, bad decisions and political interference, it’s all empty promises. Toronto’s epic infrastructure fail has put commuters in a fury and brought the city to a halt. Here’s a list of the most egregious scandals in recent memory—and who’s to blame.
In 2007, the city announced it would oversee a massive revitalization of Union Station—the most important gateway to the city, and a hub for more than 65 million passengers per year, a figure that’s expected to double by 2031. The project is one of the most complicated ever undertaken in Toronto, involving the preservation and modernization of the grand, historic building, and multiple private companies and government agencies, including the City of Toronto, the TTC (which would build an additional subway platform, mostly with money provided by Waterfront Toronto) and Metrolinx, the provincial agency that runs GO Transit. The total cost of the overhaul was budgeted at just under $1 billion, and it was scheduled to be largely completed in time for the Pan Am Games in 2015.
Seven years later, Union Station is shrouded in scaffolding and tarps, and the construction job has been infernally botched. At least four parts of the project have gone over budget so far, by a whopping combined total of $345 million. The price for renovating the building’s train shed, which includes a new glass roof designed by the architect Eb Zeidler, has jumped $60 million, in part because of complicated work not anticipated in the original contract. The cost of the TTC’s improvements is now nearly double the initial estimate, partly due to the need for structural rehabilitation and additional fire ventilation. Rail switch work will cost twice as much as originally expected. And the price tag for the station’s facelift, which included building an additional underground concourse, has jumped by $156 million and counting. There’s lots of blame to go around, but the buck ultimately stops at the top of the organizations involved, with TTC CEO Andy Byford, city manager Joe Pennachetti and Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig. And while the project was David Miller’s baby, many of the budget busts happened under Rob Ford, who until recently continued to promise that he’d protect taxpayer dollars despite mounting evidence he was failing.
City hall should never manage another infrastructure job of this size and scope. Under its watch, new walls were built then torn down after it was discovered other work hadn’t been completed, crucial deadlines were missed (at one point, only two of an expected 12 structural columns had been built), and certain improvements, like a planned PATH connection, were forgotten altogether. The city’s department of facilities, design and construction was so overwhelmed by the job of monitoring Carillion, the main supervising contractor, it called upon three consulting companies to help rein in costs and attempt to get the project back on track.
By the end of 2013, the extra costs had burned through the $91 million in contingency funds initially set aside for cost overruns. Council injected an additional $80 million on top of that. At this point, we’re so far into this that Toronto can’t afford not to spend the money.
For decades, Montreal’s Olympic stadium was considered the ultimate symbol of budget ineptitude, earning it the nickname the Big Owe. The total cost of the Olympic complex ultimately reached $1.4 billion. Union Station’s renovation, already at $1.33 billion and counting, may yet inherit the mantle.
Glenn de Baeremaeker, the left-leaning Scarborough councillor for Ward 38, has been the most unlikely proponent of the Scarborough subway. As a member of former mayor David Miller’s executive committee, and more recently as vice-chair of the TTC, De Baeremaeker has been a long-time advocate of light rail transit in general and Miller’s Transit City vision in particular. But two years ago, mere months after he helped spark the council revolt to dump Rob Ford’s subway vision and reinstate Transit City, he changed his tune.
In October 2012, the board of the TTC, at De Baeremaeker’s urging, asked staff to study the feasibility of a subway for Scarborough. His motion set off a storm of protest from other councillors who were desperate to stop dithering and get shovels in the ground for light rail transit to replace the Scarborough RT. Metrolinx had already spent some $85 million on design and environmental assessment, and that money could never be recovered if plans switched to a subway. De Baeremaeker’s motion passed nonetheless, and while his political motives went unsaid, they seemed obvious. The provincial Liberal government was in a minority position; there could be an election within a year; and the provincial parties could decide to buy votes in Scarborough by promising a subway, along with the money to pay for it. And championing a successful drive to build a Scarborough subway would enhance De Baeremaeker’s re-election prospects.
Many other councillors saw the political calculus at work and played it to their advantage. Mayor Rob Ford had until then failed miserably in his promise to build subways. Karen Stintz, the midtown conservative who was trying to set the stage for a mayoral run of her own, saw an opportunity to build a following in Scarborough.
The staff report came back saying that a Scarborough subway was indeed feasible, in the same way that TTC rocketship service to the moon is feasible: it can be done, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. A subway would be far more expensive—at least $1 billion in additional costs, double De Baeremaeker’s initial $500 million estimate. And it would never have enough riders: Metrolinx’s projections for 2031 showed a maximum of 11,000 passengers per hour, less than half the 25,000-passenger capacity of a subway. But the feasibility pronouncement was all Ford, Stintz and De Baeremaeker needed. It didn’t matter if the subway was a good idea or not; it only mattered that Queen’s Park might throw money at it, and that the city ought to be ready to catch the bag of cash when it came.
In April 2013, the recently elected premier Kathleen Wynne promised to create new revenue tools to fund transit improvements. Then she began distancing herself from her position when it proved unpopular. With a summer by-election looming in Scarborough-Guildwood and her party performing poorly in the polls, Wynne and transportation minister Glen Murray appeared to take the city’s bait: they promised to convert the Scarborough RT into a subway. In making that promise they ignored their own spate of expensive expert studies and reports and warnings from Metrolinx, as well as the $85 million already spent on the LRT option.
But on the matter of money, Wynne and Murray made dupes of the entire city council: they coaxed Toronto to pick up the extra billion dollars in costs by raising property taxes. In the Machiavellian sense it was genius, but in every other sense it was a grossly cynical political exercise that’s left everyone in limbo. We still don’t know what’s getting built, and we won’t until after the election.
Toronto already has a subway route that costs a fortune and lacks riders: the Sheppard line. When Mike Harris set about nixing the expansion of Toronto’s subway network in 1995 (a portion of the Eglinton subway’s tunnel had already been dug; Harris had it filled back in), then–North York mayor Mel Lastman saved the Sheppard line from the chopping block. It opened in 2002 and, while ridership is growing, it’s still falling short of capacity. The TTC refuses to divulge the Sheppard line’s operating shortfall—they insist they’ve never calculated it. But journalist and transit advocate Steve Munro estimates that operating the Sheppard subway results in a net loss of roughly $14 million annually.
We will soon have yet another subway line of dubious merit when the Spadina subway extension enters into service in 2016. It was Greg Sorbara, the former Ontario Liberal finance minister in the McGuinty government, who pushed the plan to extend the Spadina subway north past York University to his home riding of Vaughan. The idea wasn’t on anyone’s priority list in Toronto—not council’s, not the TTC’s, not then-mayor David Miller’s. But the city still ended up paying more than half a billion dollars in construction costs, putting more urgent priorities on the back burner for half a decade.
Lastman went on to serve two terms as mayor of amalgamated Toronto, finishing his time in office just as the Sheppard line opened. Sorbara is now the Chancellor of York University, one of the main beneficiaries of his subway line. The promise of a Scarborough subway should be enough to get De Baeremaeker re-elected in his Scarborough ward.
It was in 2002, a full dozen years ago, that Queen’s Park, in conjunction with GO Transit and GTA municipalities, first studied the idea of an integrated public transit fare card. Are we there yet? No. In 2003, London launched the electronic Oyster Card, which instantly had seven million users. It took Ontario three years of discussion just to make a decision. In October 2006, Queen’s Park signed a 10-year, $231-million contract with the technology company Accenture to develop a unique, only-for-Ontario system, which became Presto—a card that commuters would buy for $6 and pre-load with credit to pay for fares on public transit throughout the GTHA.
The card’s success depended upon its adoption by all the transit authorities in the region, especially the TTC given its volume of ridership—but the TTC never agreed to install it across the system. Under former chair Adam Giambrone, who’s best known for conducting an affair with a 20-year-old woman on his city hall office couch, the TTC decided to pursue its own system that would allow people to tap their debit or credit cards to pay their fare. When Kathleen Wynne, then Ontario’s transportation minister, threatened to withhold funds if the TTC refused to implement Presto, Giambrone reluctantly dropped his plans. But the city still refused to sign a formal agreement to adopt Presto. It would take more than two years for their successors, Bob Chiarelli and Karen Stintz, to arrive at a deal.
This turf war has done nothing to make commutes easier. The TTC installed its first green Presto card reader at Union Station in 2009—tap your card and the fare is automatically deducted. Five years later, the system is used by only 40,000 TTC riders a month. Seven 905 transit agencies using Presto had a litany of complaints about it: low rates of adoption by commuters who didn’t want to pay the $6 price for the card (or the $10 minimum credit they had to load onto it) and high repair costs for the readers.
In Toronto, Presto card readers are located in only 14 of the TTC’s 69 subway stations. The equipment was slated to be installed on all the city’s new streetcars when they began entering into service on August 31, but it turns out they won’t be ready until November—the TTC wants to test the card readers first to make sure they are working properly.
The development of the next generation of Presto was never put to tender: instead, Metrolinx, under transport minister Bob Chiarelli’s watch, extended the contract with Accenture by an estimated $650 million. The provincial auditor general’s report called Presto “among the more expensive fare-card systems in the world.”
Where the Allen ends at Eglinton is surely the worst intersection in Toronto, the original place where the city’s transportation planning went wrong, and from which it has never recovered. Cars are perpetually lined up along Eglinton trying to access the Allen and queued up at a halt across all its southbound lanes, often as far back as Lawrence Avenue, trying to get off. The Allen is bisected by the Spadina subway line, which, as most planners will tell you, was the worst place to put that route. Subways are best situated beneath densely used urban spaces, where they do the most good in helping people get around. The stations that serve the Allen Road corridor are among the most uninviting, unwalkable places in the city.
These problems have only been exacerbated by the Eglinton Crosstown project. As the tunnel-boring machines make their way east toward Yonge, the dump trucks will line up at Eglinton and Allen to haul away the dirt that’s being dug out. Once the job is finally done, the Eglinton Crosstown will do nothing to solve the intersection’s gridlock.
Blame Jane Jacobs. When she led the drive to halt the construction of the Spadina Expressway in the 1960s, she helped save countless homes and whole neighbourhoods from the wrecking ball. But she didn’t save them all: much of the expressway’s northernmost roadbed had already been excavated. That ditch became the Allen Road, the forgotten part of Jane Jacobs’s legacy.
It’s not the Spadina Expressway’s death that haunts the city—it’s the way the decision was made. Jacobs helped convince then-premier Bill Davis to cancel cabinet’s support for the project, setting in motion a trend that has yet to abate: politicians overruling the painstaking work of urban and transportation planners. That’s not what Jacobs would have wanted—she wanted to reform the profession and make it responsive to people, not make it eternally subservient to elected officials—but our legacies are never entirely what we intend. Virtually every politician since Davis has felt free to wave off the advice of experts, ignore any amount of already-spent money, and just do whatever suits his or her purposes.
It hasn’t mattered what the planners’ advice has been, or whether it’s been good or bad. Planners recommend a Spadina expressway; politicians cancel the project at the halfway mark after tens of millions have been spent. They tell us subways along Sheppard or up to Vaughan or out to Scarborough aren’t high priorities, that different modes and other projects would be better at helping people move around in the city; politicians ignore their advice and build them anyway. And once they’re built, we’re stuck with them.
At this point, when it comes to key decisions like the future of transit for Scarborough, the fate of the Gardiner or the plan for a subway relief line, cynicism rules. How can Torontonians trust that any of the options on the table have been proposed for the good of the city? The best laid plans will be abandoned the minute they no longer advance the narrow interests of the politicians who back them, leaving everyone else paying more than they should. The current mayor, for all his talk about helping ordinary people, is as bad as they come: Rob Ford’s determination to kill the Transit City light rail plan was an act of spite against his predecessor, and despite his claims of standing sentry for taxpayers, he was happy to approve a billion-dollar tax hike for an ill-advised Scarborough subway. But he’s hardly a lone culprit.
What Toronto needs now is not a visionary leader but a tactical mayor who can make a half-dozen projects in a row go right: a handful of road and transit improvements completed on time and on budget (or at least without needless delays or gargantuan cost overruns), which would renew people’s faith in the possibility of progress by making the city easier to navigate. These are brutally low expectations. They shouldn’t be too much to ask.
The city’s suffocating congestion has caused many Torontonians to take up cycling—their numbers have roughly doubled in the last decade, making bikes the fastest-growing option for commuters. The people who ride to work are doing the city a multitude of favours: they help relieve crowding on the transit system, their bikes take up less space on city streets than cars, and they’re adding zero emissions to the air we breathe. They keep the city moving in an era of peak gridlock and lost productivity. We should be rewarding them with a network of safe commuter bike lanes that are physically separated from cars by curbs or bollards. Instead we try to funnel them through the thin crack between one lane of speeding cars and another of parked ones, leaving them with a choice of getting either run down from behind or doored.
In 2001, during Mel Lastman’s final term as mayor, the city adopted the Toronto Bike Plan, a commitment to create 495 kilometres of on-road bike lanes by 2011. By 2013, two years past deadline, the city had a mere 114 kilometres of bike lanes, up from 111.6 the year before. Only this year did the city finally get around to installing a pilot project bike lane on Adelaide. It would be easy to blame the lack of progress on car-loving mayor Rob Ford, who famously killed the Jarvis Street bike lanes, and even more famously told cyclists it was their fault if they got killed because roads are for cars, but the administration of David Miller shares at least seven years’ worth of the blame.
The new subway cars are such a pleasant upgrade from the TTC’s old rolling stock, it’s easy to forget the fiasco of their procurement. In 2006, David Miller and his administration decided to sole-source the contract for 232 subway cars to Bombardier, which would build them in Thunder Bay at a cost of $710 million. But German manufacturer Siemens said it could make the trains for at least $100 million cheaper at its plant in China.
Siemens’ gambit set off a summer-long civic theatre of the absurd. TTC chair Howard Moscoe insisted an earlier deal between Queen’s Park and Bombardier compelled the city to give the contract to the Thunder Bay plant; the province publicly said the deal was no longer in force. The TTC’s general manager at the time, Rick Ducharme, opposed the sole sourcing of the contract; he resigned in frustration in the midst of the ordeal, citing Moscoe’s meddling in the affair. Moscoe and Miller argued Bombardier should get the job in order to protect jobs in Canada rather than China; Siemens countered with a proposal to build a subway facility in Ontario. In August, Bombardier disclosed that its bid for the subway cars alone totalled $499 million; still, there was no open tender of the contract, so Siemens never had the chance to make a real bid. The TTC meeting on the contract was closed to the public; by the time the contract was approved by council in late September, the price tag had re-inflated to $710 million, which included additional costs such as testing the trains.
Delivery of the new trains was behind schedule by six months, thanks largely to the bankruptcy of a New York state firm that made door components. The first new subways came into service in July 2011. Since the point of all the contortions was to keep Siemens from ever making a formal bid, Torontonians will never know how much they overspent, whether they got good value for their money, or which projects the savings might have helped fund.
Since 2012, at least nine large chunks of concrete have fallen from the Gardiner’s elevated underside, mercifully sparing humans but damaging a few cars. From 2006 to 2012—David Miller’s second term as mayor, and the first half of Rob Ford’s—the city allocated roughly $95 million for the Gardiner’s maintenance yet only spent $50 million over those seven years.
The city had been limiting the work to emergency repairs due to an ongoing environmental assessment into the possibility of tearing down the Gardiner east of Jarvis. But in the meantime it was the city’s job to keep the road safe. Today, as a result of lax maintenance, the entire elevated section of the Gardiner is one big emergency repair. In 2013, the city developed a new maintenance plan that will cost $50 million per year, every year, for the next seven years. Repairs are now underway to three bridges and to the elevated deck between the CNE grounds and Grand Magazine Street, which has slowed traffic to a crawl at all hours.
The Gardiner is not an anomaly: the city is just as neglectful when it comes to maintaining the other 5,600 kilometres of roadways within its borders. The annual budget for all road repairs, excluding the Gardiner, is in the area of $140 million—far short of what’s required. City hall long ago abandoned the idea that it could ever catch up on the backlog of roads that need fixing. Like lazy hands on a leaky ship, the strategy has been to bail only as much water as needed to keep the vessel afloat. When Miller took office, the road repair backlog had been holding steady at $230 million for three years. By 2005, it had grown to $300 million. Today, it stands at $338 million, and despite all the roadwork on city streets these days it’s not about go down anytime soon. The surfaces on most of the city’s arterial roads, built in the 1960s and ’70s, will meet the end of their lifespan in the decade ahead—if they haven’t already, like gravelly, pothole-laden Dufferin Street, the most poorly maintained road in Ontario for the last three years in a row according to the CAA.
In 2013, city hall beefed up the annual repair budget by an additional $30 million in order to keep the backlog from getting out of hand—which would be great if we could trust that the projects were competently managed. Last year, Toronto Auditor General Jeffrey Griffiths, as part of his annual audits, reviewed road resurfacing contracts across the city. He found a comedy of omissions by city staff: incomplete field records, missing measurements and poor cost tracking, including coding errors that led to incorrect payments.
When Griffiths looked in detail at two road contracts, he found the materials costs were off by as much as nine per cent. Contractors were bidding on inflated job orders, and the errors led to more than $70,000 in overpayments. One disturbingly picayune source of the problem: “Inspectors are using a low-cost measuring wheel that is prone to failure.” The plastic measuring wheel is attached to the end of a rod, with an odometer; inspectors walk the wheel, like a dog, along streets to measure their length and width. They provided exaggerated measurements, and Griffiths believes the problem was widespread. (Staff in one city district replaced all the cheap wheels with new $200 steel units before his report became public.) If these problems are as common as Griffiths suspects, the money frittered away could tally into the millions.
When Vancouver’s SkyTrain came into service just prior to Expo 86, it featured the cutting-edge technology of its time: driverless trains. Thanks to automatic train control, or ATC, the SkyTrain drove itself, stopping at exactly the same spot in every station every time, the trains always appropriately spaced. The system’s technological reliability meant that more trains could flow at shorter intervals than if they were controlled by human drivers. That was 30 years ago.
Since then such cities as Paris, Copenhagen, Barcelona and Milan have adopted driverless trains and the signalling system required to make them work. Even Scarborough, when it was a city unto itself, opted for automated controls: the existing Scarborough RT (soon to be replaced with either a subway or LRT), operates on an ATC system, though the trains still have one attendant on them. Toronto, meanwhile, steadfastly resisted the technology, due to a combination of budget constraints and union resistance. When former TTC chair Howard Moscoe proposed the idea in 2006, transit union chief Bob Kinnear made it sound like a waste of money. “Now he’s got this wonderful idea that we want to invest three quarters of a billion dollars? Where’s this money coming from?” Kinnear asked.
Under Moscoe’s successors, Adam Giambrone and Karen Stintz, the installation of the ATC signalling system on the Yonge-University-Spadina line began in 2009 and continues to this day—it’s the reason the line has been shut down on many weekends. It will be completed in 2020 at a total estimated cost of $800 million, just for the single line (there are no plans for Bloor-Danforth), and even then the TTC won’t take full advantage of efficiencies. CEO Andy Byford plans to keep each train staffed with a single attendant who, as with the Scarborough RT, will presumably check the track ahead and make sure the doors are safely closed, even though the system can handle those tasks itself. Union chief Bob Kinnear has said he still wants two staffers on every train.
Meanwhile, in Paris, the plan to automate Line 1 of that city’s Métro—the oldest line in its network, originally opened in 1900—was first approved in 2005. The driverless trains began rolling on the tracks in 2011, and the line was fully converted to ATC by Christmas 2012.