Saturday, August 13, 2016
Why does it take so long to build in Toronto?
A hellish labyrinth for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers as they attempt to navigate around blocked off sidewalks, closed lanes and parked construction vehicles.
Like the skeletal silhouettes of construction towers scattered across the city’s skyline, traffic chaos is a sign of healthy economic activity.
But far too often, projects seem to drag on needlessly and endlessly, the cause of which, say politicians, builders and bureaucrats, is a witch’s brew of red tape, poor planning and coordination, labour issues and the complex nature of many projects, particularly public ones.
Toronto has taken about five years to finish Leslie Barns, a warehouse and garage for streetcars in the city’s east end.
There have been significant delays connected with ongoing subway and transit construction, renovations to Union Station and the proliferation of skyscraping condos across the city.
And things aren’t likely to improve any time soon.
Toronto Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong suggests Toronto commuters will have to get used to cranes, lane closures and all the inconvenience that surrounds such work.
With plans by all levels of government to invest in new infrastructure, especially transportation, Toronto’s traffic and construction woes are likely to increase.
“There’s more public infrastructure going on in the GTA then anywhere else in North America,” Minnan-Wong said.
At the same time, Toronto has a poor track record at costing and completing projects on time.
“Nathan Phillips Square was very significantly over budget,” Minnan-Wong said. “You also look at Union Station – over budget and delayed in time.
“The Queen’s Quay streetcar - $30 million over budget – that was done by the waterfront,” he said. “A shelter at Peter’s Street that was done by the city – it was also over budget.”
“Union Station was supposed to cost $640 million, it came in at $800 million. Nathan Phillips (Square refurbishment) was supposed to come in at $40 million, it came in at $70 million.”
But the city is seized with the idea of speeding things up, Minnan-Wong insisted.
Toronto Mayor John Tory, who promised to do what he could to clear the city streets of gridlock, has taken a number of steps to cope with congestion, including that caused by construction.
“People across the city have repeatedly made it clear to the mayor that traffic is one of the most important issues they expect him to tackle,” spokesperson Keerthana Kamalavasan said in an e-mail. “It continues to be about managing the city more effectively – making sure road construction is completed more quickly, that we reduce lane closures due to private building construction, and that we coordinate all potential road closures in the city.”
One of the measures taken has been to dramatically hike the fees charged to private companies, like condo developers, that close lanes for construction.
Last year, the fee jumped from $5.77 per square metre a month to a range of $26.35 to $105.41.
However, developers were furious at the increase, according to a construction industry source, because many believe they shouldn’t be targeted to pay extra costs when government is often at fault for construction delays.
For instance, it’s a crap shoot when builders tear up city roads to connect their buildings to sewer and electricity.
Builders frequently have to wait for extended periods of time while city departments figure out the logistics of what’s under there and who pays for what.
And simple jobs get needlessly delayed when two or more city agencies either get into a turf war or simply can’t agree how and when to proceed.
Meanwhile, labour woes add to the troubles, such as a spring strike by the residential framing sector of LIUNA Local 183.
“With the public interest in mind, every effort is made by the private sector to expedite construction activity to the best of our members ability especially in an area where the public impact may be onerous, such as the case of occupying roadways leading to congestion,” Danielle Chin, of the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), said.
Bureaucracy is also an ever-present concern, Chin said.
“There are so many changes that happen like monthly through the community councils,” she said. “And all of those have a potential to delay projects. Not necessarily within its construction phase but with the entire development life cycle as a whole.”
Although construction on some condos seem to progress at a snail’s pace, for example the highrise at Bloor and Yonge, generally most meet their outside closing dates (though they can be several years in the future), according to Tarion which pays out on average less than a handful of warranty claims in the GTA each year based on delays.
Dino Angelakos, program co-ordinator of Humber College’s Civil Engineering Technology program, said there are numerous reasons why a project might be delayed, and building in downtown Toronto with narrow streets, aging infrastructure and a full summer season of festivals and parades makes everything more time consuming.
If something goes wrong, in-demand subtrades can move onto another project and it can take a week or month or longer to get them back on the job site, creating a domino effect, he said.
Some problems flow from the current fast-paced, design-build model where projects are both designed and built almost simultaneously to save time.
Large, established private companies usually have a handle on these types of design-build issues, but some public projects have famously not, Angelakos said.
“(The contractors) know there’s change orders that occur and every change costs money,” he said.
And sometimes, city hall’s just “a mess,” he said.
“The disaster that is the St. Clair right-of-way, to me anyway” shows the kind of myopic planning that can exist at the city, where even the fire department was complaining about the impact of the project on its own life-saving mandate, he said.
The mayor’s office has taken steps to speed up some public sector projects, including paying more to extend work hours on some projects to finish more quickly, such as spending $3.4 million last year to speed up work done on the Gardiner Expwy.
“In September of 2015, Council approved a P3 approach that involves a private sector financing partner and combines various aspects of procurement – such as engineering, design and construction – under one contract,” Kamalavasan said. “This approach allows the contracts to realize economics of scale, provides cost certainty on construction, maintenance and operations, and shifts the risks of costs and time overruns to the private sector partner. It will save the city money and cut construction costs.”
City council has now approved the retention of a third party to review the TTC plan or the Scarborough subway extension.
Minnan-Wong said that in the case of public projects, the city now brings together all departments to give five-year notices when roads will be opened up so that everything can be done at once instead of ripping up fresh asphalt.
“There is a silver lining behind this ... some of these projects that go on the street they take longer now because they actually try and align underground work with road work,” Minnan-Wong said.
That harmony faltered during the Leslie Barns project where a large water pipe would have been covered by the new streetcar tracks, he said.
“There was conflict between the water department and Toronto Transit Commission,” Minnan-Wong said. “That’s an excellent example... of how city departments need to get along. It was very frustrating for guys like me. I was chair of the works department then.”
TTC spokesperson Susan Sperling said the underground water infrastructure work had been noted prior to construction.
Factors impacting completion dates were “unforeseen site conditions such as underground utilities, underground structures, etc; extreme weather events in recent years that cause construction activities to stop or slow down... availability of resources due to busy construction industry in the GTA, and so on,” Sperling said in an e-mail.
Utilities, as well as contractor performance and funding approvals, are among the issues that have slowed down the Spadina subway extension, she said.
Keele and Finch – an intersection that practically resembles a parking lot thanks to construction – should be back to four lanes in the fall, she said.
Minnan-Wong said the city doesn’t always get it right when it comes to construction but it’s getting better.
He believes bringing in more of the private sector will help, he said.
“It’s important that we keep the trust of the taxpayers because we’re going to them and asking for their money. To get that mandate, they have to have some reasonable assurance that we’re not wasting their money and squandering it,” he said. “It’s important for us to make sure that projects are delivered on time and on budget.”
Maple Leaf Gardens – five months
Empire State Building – 14 months
Eiffel Tower – 26 months
Rogers Centre (formerly SkyDome) – 31 months
CN Tower – 40 months
Leslie Barns streetcar project – five years-plus extra time for landscaping
Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension – tunnelling construction began 2011 (other related construction began three years earlier), originally to be completed by 2015, now looking at 2017
Union Station Revitalization – construction started January 2010, originally to be completed by 2015, now looking at 2017
TOP 10 PRICIEST BUILDINGS UNDER CONSTRUCTION IN TORONTO RIGHT NOW
Union Station Revitalization (61 Front St.) - first related permit issued Jan. 23 2007 - original estimated construction value $350M, total project now up past $800M
Yorkdale Shopping Centre addition (3401 Dufferin St.) - first permit issued March 21, 2014 - $349.4M
Harbour Plaza Toronto (90 Habour St.) - first permit issued Aug. 13, 2015 - office tower/residential condos – $250M
EY Tower (100 Adelaide St. W.) - first permit issued Aug.27 2013 - office tower project – $250M
Eau Du Soleil (2183 Lake Shore Blvd. W.) - first permit issued Jan. 29 2016 - residential condo/office building project - $240M
One Bloor (1 Bloor St E) – first permit issued Aug. 9, 2011 - commercial/residential condo project - $220M
U Condos (50 St. Joseph St.) - first permit issued May 12 2010 – residential condo project - $200M
King Blue Condos (355 King St. W.) – first permit issued June 29, 2015 - hotel/residential condo/commercial project - $200M
Hotel X at Exhibition Place (111 Princes Blvd.) – first permit issued June 20 2013 – hotel project – $180M
St. Michael’s Hospital (30 Bond St.) – first permit issued April 7, 2015 – tower addition - $170M
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