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How the price tag doubled for the St. Clair line

Lack of central oversight, construction add-ons blamed for the cost skyrocketing to $106-million

Kelly GrantCity Hall Bureau Chief— From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail
Last updated on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010 03:24AM EST

The price tag of the new St. Clair streetcar line nearly doubled because nobody was in charge as the project’s scope ballooned, public consultation ran amok and more than 20 small contractors tripped over each other.

That’s the conclusion of a new study to be presented tomorrow to the TTC’s board, which is trying to learn from its mistakes as it embarks on a 120-kilometre light-rail expansion modelled on St. Clair’s exclusive right-of-way.

“It’s no secret this thing was not the city and the TTC’s finest hour in the eyes of the public,” said Richard Soberman, co-author of the report and former chairman of the University of Toronto’s department of civil engineering.

When city council approved the 6.8-kilometre St. Clair line in September, 2004, it predicted the project would cost $48-million.

The figure was revised to $65-million before construction began.

Now, six years later, the final cost is expected to be $106-million and the last 300 metres of the line won’t open until June.

Dr. Soberman and co-author Les Kelman found the city and TTC failed to co-ordinate because there was no clear boss.

“Various elements of the project were neither centralized nor controlled by any single entity,” the report says.

The study also criticized the TTC for letting public consultations drag on indefinitely and for allowing “scope creep.”

Once shovels were in the ground, transit upgrades and unrelated jobs such as burying hydro lines piled up, increasing the costs and the construction headaches.

Those headaches linger for some business owners on St. Clair West.

Although construction is finished and streetcars are rolling from Yonge Street to Lansdowne Avenue, shoppers haven’t returned, said the executive director of the Corso Italia Business Improvement Area.

“It’s done nothing. It’s been of little value to the businesses and little value to the residents,” Jeff Gillan said. His wife owns Carmen’s Designs, a children’s clothing shop and one of approximately 250 businesses between Dufferin Street and Lansdowne.

To avoid laying off staff, she hasn’t taken a paycheque in three months, Mr. Gillan said.

Don’s Meats, located on the unfinished stretch of the streetcar route west of Lansdowne, hasn’t suffered as much as some of its neighbours.

That’s because construction crews ripped up the road outside the shop in small chunks rather than several blocks at a time, mitigating the traffic jams that paralyzed other sections of the St. Clair line, said Don Panos, who has owned a wholesale and retail meat shop in the area for 26 years.

The TTC should apply that construction lesson to its new light-rail routes, Mr. Panos said.

The transit authority also needs to avoid dividing the community, as happened on St. Clair. “They [the TTC and the city] were adamant and forced their will on the people,” Mr. Panos said.

The councillor who championed St. Clair’s exclusive right-of-way said many of the problems identified in the report have already been remedied for the first Transit City lines to be built on Eglinton, Sheppard and Finch avenues.

“You need to know where the buck stops,” said Joe Mihevc, a TTC commissioner whose Ward 21 includes most of St. Clair West. “On Eglinton, Sheppard and Finch, it’s the TTC that will be in charge. It’s their puppy.”

The TTC is already looking to replace the mishmash of small contractors that built St. Clair with larger contractors capable of co-ordinating sprawling projects. Teams of communications staff will keep people abreast of Transit City developments; one employee with 16 other projects on his watch handled communications for the St. Clair line, Mr. Mihevc said.

So far, Mark Bozian is cautiously optimistic about the 15-kilometre light-rail line outside his Toyota dealership on Sheppard Avenue East, where he chairs the business improvement area. Pre-construction broke ground last month.

“We want it to be done in a consensual, prudent, businesslike fashion,” Mr. Bozian said. “If they don’t, we’ll end up with the same nightmare as St. Clair.”

Off the Rails

The St. Clair Avenue West streetcar line leapt in cost from its conception to its completion over half a decade. Here is a list of key numbers relating to the project:

$48-million initial cost estimate, September 2004 $65-million updated cost estimate $106-million estimated final cost 5 the number of years to complete, assuming the full line opens by June 201020 the minimum number of small construction contracts awarded for projects relating to the line 8 the number of months a judicial review delayed the project Source: Getting it Right: Lessons from the Implementation of the St. Clair Streetcar for the Implementation of Transit City.