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Peeking behind TTC curtain

Transit officials defend huge maintenance budget

Joseph Hall
TRANSPORTATION REPORTER
Commuter Corner

Suspended beneath the Prince Edward Viaduct - about the midway point in its arching tiptoe across the Don Valley - a thin metal platform offers a dizzying view down to the gray-green river flowing sluggishly below.

As a subway train thunders past about half a metre overhead, Toronto Transit Commission superintendent Warren Bartram stoops down on the hanging catwalk and points to the concrete structure to which it’s attached.

There, outlined in black ink, a deep crack has fissured across a beam that supports the tracks above.

Bartram marks this exhibit A for the defence.

“No matter what anyone says, this is a serious problem,” says Bartram, who is in charge of the TTC’s track and structures department.

“We’ve already had one (beam) fail. It fell about eight inches before it wedged itself on to something but it could have gone right down into the valley.”

Crouched in this tight little shelf below the bridge that’s also known as the Bloor Viaduct, Bartram stands accused.

He, along with the rest of the TTC’s senior staff, have been charged by city budget chief David Shiner with padding their funding demands.

Challenging a system request for $1.5 billion in capital funding over the next five years, Shiner says outright that the TTC is exaggerating its needs.

In particular, he says, the system has been goosing its repair and maintenance budget, which TTC staff say will cost between $150 million and $200 million annually over the next half decade.

This rigourous infrastructure program is an ongoing part of the system’s “state of good repair” schedule, which was introduced after a 1995 subway accident claimed the lives of three passengers.

For TTC staff, the words “state of good repair” have evolved into a devotional mantra. But for Shiner, they’re meant to cast a spell of credulity over the people who hold the purse strings at city hall.

Shiner says the policy was brought in at a time when system maintenance had been long ignored and that the cost of upgrading was justifiably high in the years following the program’s inception. “Unfortunately, it appears the TTC expects that upgraded (budget) level to continue forever.”

TTC chief general manager Rick Ducharme says it will never come down because, with its aging infrastructure, the TTC will always need about $200 million a year to keep the system safe. So Ducharme issued Shiner’s budget committee a challenge: Take a look at the system’s maintenance budget, pick some items at random and TTC staff will bring committee members to the site, show them the problem and the proposed solutions.

Hearing of the offer, The Star took Ducharme up on it.

Three projects from the TTC’s capital budget books were picked at random, including the system’s bus rebuild project, its tunnel leak repair program and the Prince Edward Viaduct beam replacement effort.

THE VIADUCT

There are 280 concrete beams supporting the subway tracks that run beneath Bloor St. across the Prince Edward Viaduct.

Installed in the early 1960s, the beams have been under constant assault from the overhead roadway, which has been leaking salty water on them for more than three decades.

Slipping down through a track-level grate on to one of dozens of hanging walkways used to inspect the aging concrete, Bartram points out the resulting damage.

“This is not okay, this is not okay,” he says, pointing to a slab of steel bolted to the concrete beam to keep it from sheering in two along a visible crack line.

“We’ve put this steel here to give us a couple of more years, but this whole beam needs to be replaced.”

The TTC would like to spend $376,000 to replace nine of the crumbling beams this year and wants to spend $3.2 million over the next five years to install 61 new ones.

The beams, some weigh 10.5 tonnes, are hoisted out with cranes designed to fit in the tunnel then are replaced with new ones during lightning Saturday night repair raids.

The new beams - about 95 have already been installed - are expected to have a lifespan of more than 50 years.

BUS REBUILD PROJECT

The back of the bus is an ugly tangle of brown and rusted metal.

Its outer metal shell removed, the vehicle’s exposed inner skeleton is pocked and blistered with corrosion.

Bob Boutilier, deputy general manager of TTC surface operations, peels off a piece of rusted steel. “This is structure, this is structure, this is what’s holding this vehicle together,” Boutilier says. “And this is typical.”

Boutilier is in charge of the TTC’s bus rebuild program - a six-year-old plan that’s unique to the TTC and one that has literally kept the system on the road. “Do we want to rebuild this? No, we’d rather buy new,” Boutilier says. `But it was a matter of survival.”

For its bus fleet, the TTC found survival in a set of harsh numbers.

In the United States, buses are expected to last 12 years, after which the funding governments will pay for replacements.

In Canada, a country not known to be easy on road-going vehicles, buses are expected to last 18 years before they can be replaced.

The problem was many of the buses built by North American manufacturers in the 1980s were not even lasting 12 years. “They were rusting out completely,” Boutilier says.

“Their frames were made of tubular steal and water was getting inside the frame, you can see it oozing out. So it’s rusting from the inside and out.”

The tubular metal buses replaced solid-steel-framed General Motors buses - which had been standard issue across North America for decades - when the auto giant got out of the transit business in the 1980s.

To save its fleet, the TTC initiated the rebuild program, system operations boss Gary Webster says.

Taking the sturdy GM buses, the TTC set up its own small assembly line to get another six years out of the ancient vehicles for about $120,000 each.

A new bus can cost $500,000.

With an ongoing overhaul of its old GM fleet and the major resuscitation of more recent buses, the TTC hopes to rebuild up to four buses a week through 2005.

The cost of rebuilding the GM buses alone is about $6 million a year.

TUNNEL LEAK REPAIR

It’s a ghostly scene in a haunted place.

Deep under Bay St., 3:05 a.m., just up the tunnel from the Lower Bay subway station which was abandoned in the 1960s, TTC engineer Luigi Narduzzo points to an old pump room at the side of the tunnel.

“They say there’s a ghost lives in there,” the leak remediation specialist says. “It’s supposed to be a lady in a red dress. Maybe she jumped.”

There’s no lady in red about, but up ahead is a spectral scene, made up of white-suited workers moving around in the eerie glow of flood lights.

The workers, dressed from head to toe in protective suits, are using the precious few hours of subway shutdown to stop as many tunnel leaks as possible. Drilling through the tunnel wall along crack lines, Narduzzo’s men tap in metal tubes, to which they attach high pressure hoses.

Then, using an acrylic substance with the consistency of Jell-O, they pump a protective waterproof layer around the tunnel’s outer shell.

“What we’re basically doing is putting a condom around the tunnel wall,” Narduzzo says.

“And from our experience so far, it seems to be working really well.”

Something had to.

The damage that leaking tunnels have caused the system run far beyond the displaced and discoloured station tiles visible to passengers. Hundreds of subway signals, thousands of track connectors and miles of tunnel walls have been destroyed by seeping water.

The tunnel leak remediation program is looking to fix some 300 leak sites, some of them hundreds of metres long, throughout the 57-kilometre subway system.

The cost of more than $4.1 million a year should drop to $2.2 million in 2005 as the problem eases.

“We’ll get to a steady state, where we’ll just have regular maintenance,” Bartram says.

“But after that, well, there are a lot of places where the tunnel is sagging and we’ll have to start to fix that. It really never stops.”




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