Fri, Feb
24
2012

Hyperbole and Axes to Grind on St. Clair Avenue

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Crossposted to Transit Toronto

Is it my imagination, or does mayor Rob Ford and his allies sound a little desperate when it comes to selling their unfunded and unrealistic subway plan? Since city council took the step of voting down Rob Ford’s memorandum of understanding with the province and backing an older, council-approved memorandum that calls for surface LRTs on portions of Eglinton, Finch West and Sheppard East, the rhetoric has taken a turn for the heated and hyperbolic.

The newspaper that’s carried Ford’s water for most of this debate, The Toronto Sun, has echoed this rhetoric. Earlier today, they released an editorial lambasting former mayor David Miller’s record on public transportation. True, Miller invited these comments on himself when he stepped up to criticize Ford’s handling of the transit file, but they go too far in their drive to attack Miller’s record and defend Ford’s inaction. Consider their take on that poster-child of Miller’s supposed transit disaster, the renewal of the St. Clair streetcar:

Miller presided over some of the biggest fiascoes in the TTC’s history, including the neighborhood-destroying, economy-killing, St. Clair streetcar right-of-way — more than 100% over budget and two years late.

(link)

“Neighbourhood-destroying” (note the American spelling. Interesting), “economy killing”, “more than 100% over budget”, “two years late”. Well, the Sun’s comments mirror those made by Rob Ford’s brother Doug who also labelled LRTs as “neighbourhood-destroying”. They’ve been consistently applied in the Sun Board’s criticism of city council’s decision to vote against Ford’s fiscally irresponsible subway plan. However, of these four hyperbolic statements, only one is correct. Care to guess which one? Well, those of you who picked (d) “two years late”, give yourself a gold star. But that criticism, while valid, can’t be levelled exclusively on Miller.

What Doug Ford or the Sun’s editorial board neglect to mention is that a lot of St. Clair’s schedule was thrown out of whack by events out of city council’s control. On Tuesday, October 11, 2005, construction had been going on for a month before things ground to a halt on this day when a court granted an injunction stopping everything. Opponents had appealed the OMB decision approving construction, citing an error of law. The court stated that the St. Clair project represented a “rapid transit project”, mostly because that was how the Spadina and Queen’s Quay streetcar lines had been promoted. And although the 2004 Toronto Official Plan called for such an improvement for St. Clair, and although that same official plan had been approved by Toronto city council, it had yet to be approved by the OMB, so an earlier official plan was in force, calling for St. Clair to receive “surface transit improvement” only.

It took a few weeks for the City of Toronto to appeal this ruling, which they successfully did, when they uncovered that Justice Ted Matlow — one of the three judges on the panel — had failed to disclose that he’d been the head of a Forest Hill community association that had argued with city officials on this project. On Friday, November 4, 2005, a month after the initial injunction, the three-judge panel officially removed itself from the case, citing an “appearance of bias” on the part of Justice Matlow. This forced a new trial, which the city won. In addition, during this period, the OMB approved the City of Toronto’s 2004 Official Plan, which rendered the objection moot. Justice Matlow was found guilty of judicial misconduct, though the Canadian Judicial Council decided against removing Matlow from office.

But construction had ground to a halt for a month or more while these legal issues were worked out. Tenders had to be re-issued. And a schedule that had been designed to pace through St. Clair quickly came down like a line of dominoes, with the effects of this incident rippling out into the future. If Ford and the Sun board want to complain about St. Clair opening two years late, they may want to note the contribution of Justice Matlow. But then that would lessen the impact of the St. Clair “debacle” as a weapon to bash the Miller Administration with and to shield their own record from criticism.

A lot went wrong during the construction of St. Clair. Construction workers found buried power cables that weren’t where they should have been. A dire lack of coordination between the TTC, the city’s roads commission, and Toronto Hydro meant that portions of the street were ripped up and repaired three times or more. This lack of coordination was a major frustration for supporters of this line who, I admit, wanted to find City managers and give them a thorough shake. Hadn’t Toronto coordinated things better before? Well, it turns out that they had. There used to have been a whole office whose job it was to gather the construction planners of the various city agencies, sit them down, and hammer out a schedule where each department’s work would complement the others rather than clash. And where was that agency in 2005? Gone. Axed by the Lastman administration as a budget saving measure. That seems penny-wise and pound-foolish, if you ask me, and certainly worthy of criticism. Indeed, it was the problems surrounding the construction of St. Clair that led to the re-establishment of the Major Infrastructure Co-ordinating Office at the City in 2009. Will Ford and the Sun board mention this mistake of the Lastman administration? I doubt it, as that would distract from their agenda of labelling everything Miller touched as tainted.

And what of the criticism “neighbourhood-destroying” and “economy killing”? One would think from this choice of words that St. Clair is a smoking crater. And, by that logic, Spadina and Queen’s Quay should be smoking craters as well. Are they? Well, I recently had a chance to talk to someone who lived through the St. Clair construction period and who is still in the neighbourhood. She does recount a horror show of construction, but she is quite happy with her street now that construction is over. Indeed, she sniffed at Ford’s anti-streetcar agenda. “It’s really helping the neighbourhood, now,” she said. “And he wants to take it away, after all the work we put into it? It’s silly!”

True, this is anecdotal evidence, but John Lorinc of the Globe and Mail found more where that came from:

Since the June, 2010, completion of the right-of-way from Yonge Street to Gunns Loop, overall traffic and peak-period volumes have fallen sharply; transit ridership has jumped 13 per cent, while service frequency has improved; and collisions and personal injuries have plummeted by a third, according to city and TTC data compiled by The Globe and Mail. The St. Clair line now ranks eighth for productivity (boardings per hour) among the TTC’s 150 surface routes (the top spot belongs to the Spadina LRT), according to Mitch Stambler, the TTC’s manager of service planning.

(link)

I’ve ridden on the St. Clair streetcar numerous times since the right-of-way opened. I’ve visited the stores of the neighbourhood. Is St. Clair a smoking crater? Hardly. I’ve seen no shuttered stores. There’s plenty of business going on the street. Riders step aboard the streetcar with loaded bags. If anything, the area seems to be heading for a renaissance.

Furthermore, I suspect that the shop owners and tenants who lived through the construction horror show are a little miffed to hear continued dismissals of their neighbourhood by Ford and the Sun Board. Such words are not conducive to rebuilding business.

There are other exaggerations that the Sun Board puts in its editorial to artificially bolster their case against LRT, Miller’s record and the St. Clair project, starting with the claim that the St. Clair reconstruction was “more than 100% over budget”. Well, the St. Clair project was initially budgeted at $65 million when it was approved in 2005, and the final cost was tallied at $106 million. That’s 63% over budget, not over 100%, for those of you who have difficulty doing the math (like the Sun Board, apparently) and it neglects to mention that, again, a lot of these cost increases were out of the TTC’s control.

First of all, even the $65 million budget figure makes some assumptions that seem almost designed to inflate the cost of the project to the shock of all and sundry. That $65 million (and the $106 million which followed) covers everything — tracks, concrete, road widenings, sidewalk work, hydro wire burial and street furniture. What it doesn’t mention is that, in 2003 when the project was first mooted, that the tracks along St. Clair had reached the end of their design life and needed to be replaced. So unless Ford and the Sun Board wanted to eliminate streetcars outright from St. Clair and replace them permanently with buses (Ford does; I’m less sure about the Sun Board, and I’m pretty certain that the business owners wouldn’t want the streetcars to outright disappear, especially now that the line is pulling its weight), all the while without replacing or even paving over the old streetcar tracks, then the cost of rehabilitating the tracks is not something that you would have eliminated by not proceeding with the St. Clair project in 2005. The decision the City of Toronto took in 2004 was whether to rebuild the tracks as normal (and keep the streetcars operating in mixed traffic), or upgrade those tracks to separate from the surrounding car traffic (as is seen on Spadina or Queen’s Quay).

How much would this unavoidable construction have cost? I’ve not heard a proper figure, but the initial budget proposed by the TTC to make the upgrade was $7 million more than what the TTC already budgeted for construction on St. Clair in 2005. So the actual amount of new spending on St. Clair is significantly lower than the number that’s been thrown around. And the $41 million that got added after the fact? Some of that was the cost of dealing with the delays associated with the injunction that stopped construction for a whole month and disrupted schedules to the point that work finished two years late. There were also a number of add-ons that the City of Toronto put onto the project at the behest of the community and local councillors, including burying hydro wires, new street furniture and replacing lead pipes.

Ford and the Sun Board don’t like to mention that. I suspect it’s because it diffuses the responsibility for the cost overruns and delays across a far wider array of targets, some of whom Ford and the Sun Board might consider to be friendly. So these facts get buried in their agenda to bury Miller and attack LRTs in all their forms.

Finally, there is the plain fact that what was planned for St. Clair is very different than what is planned for Eglinton or Finch or Sheppard. In spite of the fact that the St. Clair streetcar line operated on private right-of-way when it opened in 1911, the street is far narrower than Spadina, or Eglinton or Finch. On those areas where the Eglinton LRT operates on the surface, the tracks can be built without any reduction in car lanes. The roadway itself will be widened to accommodate both the LRT and automobile traffic. The stations will also be farther apart on Eglinton than on St. Clair.

And does Doug Ford believe that subway construction proceeds from the inside out? Does he honestly think that LRT construction is so much more disruptive? He and his backers should cast their eyes and their minds back to the Sheppard-Yonge intersection as the Sheppard subway was built or, more damningly, to the disruption that took place to the local community around Eglinton West station as construction workers dug a big hole for the Eglinton West subway and then filled it in after Mike Harris cancelled the project. All construction is disruptive. A local business owner estimated that he lost 20% of his clientele and, unlike the businesses on St. Clair, he has nothing to show for it.

Construction disruption is an unfortunate fact of life of living in a growing city. One can argue, however, that LRT construction is less disruptive, as it tends to be smaller scale and over with sooner. The St. Clair streetcar was originally scheduled to take three years to complete; it was done in five. The subway portion of the Eglinton LRT is now under construction as I write this, and the line isn’t expected to open until 2020. Three years more disruption is a lot of disruption.

There is a lot that went wrong with St. Clair, and there is a lot that we can learn from the project that we should apply to the future — not just on transit projects, but in everything the City of Toronto engages the public with. But we won’t have a chance to learn from these mistakes and improve our approach in future if the more fervent critics of St. Clair and the LRT concept refuse to argue in good faith. They have ignored several critical facts in their pursuit of a simple narrative that favours their own agenda, and it does taxpayers across this province a grave disservice. Torontonians deserve better, as do we all.


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