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Tearing up Toronto’s roads: How major TTC construction projects work

TTC crews and construction workers tear up the intersection of Queen Street West and Spadina Avenue on July 13, 2012.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

As the TTC tears up the intersection of Queen West and Spadina, Torontonians can't help but have recent construction disasters top of mind – projects complicated by unexpected work involving gas, phone, hydro and cable. Last summer, Dundas Street West residents found out new gas lines meant cutting up freshly poured sidewalks between Dufferin Street and Lansdowne Avenue. That was after streetcar track replacements and water main work. Bloor Street's revitalization was $4.5-million more than expected, largely because Toronto Hydro's work became more extensive than originally planned. And who will ever forget St. Clair?

In hopes of cutting down on unexpected utility maintenance that hasn't been aligned with planned work, an infrastructure co-ordination office was opened in 2008. Queen and Spadina is one of the last projects not to go through the office – it won't have all city projects under its aegis until 2013.

Here is a look at how major construction projects work and what is changing.

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Planning

The discussions about non-emergency construction projects begin years in advance. Detailed planning of the work at Queen and Spadina, for example, began in 2010.

Although work sometimes has to be pushed back because of funding, the redo of the intersection was always scheduled for 2012, said TTC chief project manager Tony Baik.

"The condition of the streetcar track was posing real reliability issues and left unchecked it could have posed safety issues," said Mr. Baik. As well, the platforms are being changed to fit new vehicles that should roll out in 2014.

Road work is being combined with transit construction, but no other maintenance is planned during the closure. There's no foreseeable maintenance needed at the intersection by Toronto Hydro or Enbridge Gas Distribution, spokeswomen for the utilities said.

Co-ordinating

Before the process was changed with the creation of the Major Capital Infrastructure Coordination, construction projects were plotted on paper maps.

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Born out of a municipal review, the office's key task is co-ordinating work between the city and utility companies.

Director Jeffrey Climans actively seeks out construction plans from utility companies years ahead of time. Before, the technical services division overseeing the construction also had to play the role of co-ordinator. Transportation services compiled project information once a year on a map and it was given to senior staff in a wall-size format, Mr. Climans said.

This year, a digital map was launched to help staff visualize construction that is being planned years in advance.

"We don't want to see transportation services reconstruct a road, which should have a 30-year lifespan, and two or three years later Toronto Water tears up the road in order to reconstruct its water main," Mr. Climans said.

Digging

Once a project has a rough timeline, it is looked at closely by a team of engineers, designers and other city staff including a work zone traffic co-ordinator, who is familiar with the area's traffic patterns and other disruptions. The fortnight selected for work at Queen and Spadina was carefully chosen – it falls between the Honda Indy and Caribana (Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival) parade. In recent years, about one million people have attended the parade, which will be held on Aug. 4, almost two weeks after the intersection is scheduled to reopen.

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Construction planned for nearby roads is looked at as well.

"If you have two parallel ones in close proximity, the flags are raised immediately," said Gord MacMillan, director of design and construction with the linear infrastructure branch of technical services. Construction on Adelaide Street raised flags, Mr. MacMillan said, but the group determined it wouldn't create much trouble because it is not a full road closure.

Although shutting down an entire major intersection is "very rare," it was the most productive option for Queen and Spadina, Mr. MacMillan said.

"Sometimes it's better to just suffer through that little period and get the work done very quickly," he said. A contractor hired by the city is removing the old tracks and preparing the road before TTC workers replace the unusual "grand union" tracks at the intersection, one of only three in the city where a pair of two-way tracks meet.

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