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Toronto's summertime roadwork fest the start of a noisier – but sounder – future

Construction work at the intersection of Dundas St. West and Spadina Ave. on July 15 2014. Traffic lanes have been reduced to single lanes in all directions and busses are running on the Spadina route instead of streetcars. The work is expected to be complete by the end of August this year.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Stephen Buckley and Jeffrey Climans understand that they may not be the most popular guys in Toronto right now. Mr. Buckley is the city's general manager of Transportation Services. Mr. Climans is director of Major Capital Infrastructure Coordination. Together, they help oversee the scores of projects that have torn up roads, blocked lanes, diverted buses and streetcars and turned Toronto into what sometimes seems like one giant construction site.

Bloor Street West is getting new sidewalks and asphalt. Dundas and Spadina is being dug up for track and water-main work. Construction fencing is going in and heavy equipment setting up on Eglinton Avenue for the Crosstown light-rail transit project. Then, of course, there is the Gardiner Expressway, now in the midst of a massive rehabilitation that often slows traffic to a crawl even more snail-like than usual. With contractors hurrying to finish projects for next year's Pan American Games as well, it is feeling like the worst construction season in years.

Mr. Buckley and Mr. Climans don't try to minimize the public's annoyance. They hear about it all the time.

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After decades of short-sighted underinvestment, Toronto is finally making progress against its repair and maintenance backlog. "We are at the point where we feel we are no longer losing ground," says Mr. Buckley. "There are cities that aren't making these investments that in 10 or 20 years are going to be in a bad situation, where I think Toronto, by doing the right thing, will be in a much better situation."

Much of Toronto's infrastructure was built in the postwar years and is now reaching the end of its natural life, which means a lot of major work has to be done at once. Mr. Climans says the city is spending close to a billion dollars a year on various projects and will continue spending at that pace for seven or eight years at least. This summer's construction blitz is only the beginning.

To illustrate the scale of the work, Mr. Climans pulls up a website the city uses to track and co-ordinate all its projects. It's called T.O. INview (for infrastructure viewer). Click on road resurfacing and dozens of squiggles appear on a map of the city to show those projects. Click on bridge rehabilitation and several dots appear. Do the same for water-main replacement, on-street bikeway construction, gas-line work, laying of communications cable, storm-water management and all the other kinds of projects and soon the surface of Toronto is nearly covered with the multicoloured tattoos of its work boom.

The result, no way around it, is a big mess. Viewed from the ground, it can seem as if nobody is in charge. Drivers fumed when lanes closings on Lake Shore Boulevard this spring coincided with the Gardiner work.

Campaigning politicians, picking up on the frustration, insist things would be different if they were in charge. John Tory said this week that if he became mayor he would set up a special committee to co-ordinate projects and make himself its boss for the first six months. Karen Stintz says she would appoint a "transportation czar" instead. Olivia Chow would fine companies like condo builders that needlessly close down road lanes for construction.

If only it were so simple. The task of rebuilding the nerves and arteries of an aging city is almost unimaginably complex. When you dig up a street in Toronto, it often means bringing in everyone that has stuff underground. Do the water folks need to get in there to fix their pipes? How about the telecommunications companies and their fibre optics?

Mr. Buckley and Mr. Climans help choreograph this delicate ballet of cranes, diggers and dump trucks. After the bad press over poorly co-ordinated projects such as the St. Clair streetcar line, they have been working hard to make sure work is done in the right sequence and with the minimum inconvenience to residents.

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"We have to invest, we have to improve, we have to upgrade the infrastructure – it's a necessary evil – but we're doing it in a kinder, gentler way," says Mr. Climans. That means taking more care to tell the public about planned construction and its effects.

T.O. INview gives all the players a heads-up about what work is planned and where, in case they have to do work of their own in the same place. "We are putting all our marching orders out in plain view," Mr. Climans says. The aim is "less surprise, less uncertainty and ultimately more accountability." A second website for the general public lists all the construction projects ward by ward, as well as the many parades, marathons and other special events that can snarl traffic.

Yes, Toronto could get projects done faster by ordering round-the-clock work on high-priority projects, as Mr. Tory proposed this week. The city is considering just such a step. But it would boost the cost, and in a city where more and more people are living on busy main streets, residents would be sure to complain about nighttime work.

As Mr. Climans puts it, "we can't turn the city off." Along with Mr. Buckley, he is faced with the challenge of "shoehorning into a vibrant, active environment all the investment that is required not just for the next year but for the next 10 or 100 years."

It's easy to rant about the crazy amount of work that is tearing up the city, but wouldn't it be worse if the work wasn't being done at all? Many people who complain now about all the road work were complaining not long ago about the poor condition of the roads.

It's easy to cast blame, too – to say that all we need is a new mayor to crack the whip. But it isn't Rob Ford's fault that the city is overwhelmed by construction right now. It isn't anyone's fault. It's just that we have a whole lot of important and necessary work to do at the same time. It's going to be a pain no matter who is in the mayor's chair.

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So if you feel like fuming over all the congestion and roadwork, fume away. But don't forget the payoff: a better, sounder city down the (torn-up) road.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More


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