Another construction season came and went without the completion of a downtown project, increasing weariness among residents and business owners, some of whom think the project has become the symbol of municipal inefficiency in a year where taxes are set to rise significantly as Toronto grapples with major financial strains.
The project to replace streetcar tracks on Wellington St. East began in March of 2021, but the city said the project was delayed after the discovery of underground utility conflicts. Work came to a halt that June to address the issue and began again the following March.
Construction was supposed to end in October of 2022 and while the road work has indeed been completed, the sidewalks are not. A combination of fenced-off pits and temporary asphalt in place of sidewalks remain, leaving many to wonder how much longer they’ll be left to endure the project.
Chris Taylor owns Wellington Healthcare and said the project has come to signify government waste and a lack of accountability for area residents.
“This is the second winter that they have postponed work for the season,” he said. Outside of the recent track work, the area which neighbours St. Lawrence Market, he said, has seen both roads and sidewalks torn up in one way or another for close to a decade.
“We get an email occasionally that says ‘we understand you’re frustrated, we understand there are issues, but please still be patient,’” he said. “Patience is running out.”
“You understand that being in the downtown of a metropolitan city that there are going to be construction issues, that’s part of the deal, you accept that when you start,” said Taylor, “but this is just unnecessarily long.”
While the brickwork in front of his business has been completed, he said the temporary measures before made it difficult for his clients to access his clinic for rehab and physiotherapy, regardless of whether they were able-bodied or not. Now, he’s forced to stare out at construction cones wondering whether the city will finish the project within the new timeframe.
Taylor said the city’s financial struggles, revealed in the current budget process and rising taxes for residents, should have politicians looking at construction projects for potential savings.
A city official told Global News in an email that 8 per cent of Toronto’s Engineering and Construction Services (ECS) division construction contracts weren’t completed on or below budget for 2022. But they said the Wellington St. East project, despite its delays, remains on budget.
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“Unfortunately we’re the victims of a case study in how things could be better handled in terms of looking for efficiencies and how and why things are going wrong,” said Taylor.
Some are wondering if the city could be doing more to save money during construction projects at a time where the city’s finances are stretched thin and municipal tax bills are set to rise 7 per cent for homeowners through a combined 5.5-per cent property tax increase and an annual jump for the City Building Levy.
Mobushar Pannu is a director with the city’s ECS division, who said there were many issues that lead to the delay. “For projects of this magnitude and in downtown Toronto area, it is sometimes very difficult to know exact location of these utilities and a lot of the work had to be redesigned and then some of the products had to be reordered,” he said.
On top of that, Pannu said supply chain issues made it difficult to get the materials needed and there were labour challenges where the subcontractor didn’t have “sufficient resources to allocate on all of the construction that is going on in downtown Toronto and other areas.”
“Then we had challenges with other private building works that were happening, so we needed to accommodate their needs, as well, so that delayed the project,” said Pannu.
In older areas of the city, he said delays can’t be anticipated until they break ground. Pannu also said there are processes set out to make sure that subcontractors aren’t taking advantage of the city and causing needless delays.
Global News asked Mayor John Tory whether the city needs to take a closer look at its construction process as a means to save money and he said the city needs to do better in order to have a more efficient municipal government. But he added between hidden utilities and supply chain issues, there are situations that remain beyond the city’s control.
Tory said there was another recent project on Bay Street where the road was dug up for what was thought to be a short project, only to discover a hydro installation that wasn’t marked on any of the city’s charts.
“You wonder how that could have happened, 30, 40 years ago, but it did,” said Tory. “And so I think we’re going to have to use technology and more diligence.”
“The bottom line is we’re getting the work done, we’re putting in the new streetcar tracks, the new water mains, we’re rebuilding the sidewalks, all of which are in the interest of a more liveable city that functions in light of all the growth we’re having,” said Tory. “But we can always do better and this is one example of where I’m sure there were some lessons to be learned, but some circumstances that explain why there were delays with this project.”
An update on the city’s website said the sidewalk restoration will continue until Jan. 27. Residents and business owners like Taylor are hoping the project will be completed within that time frame.
“I expect it will be done, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are further issues that delay it,” Taylor said.