The future of Toronto public transit is much more appealing than the present. Who doesn't want to believe in a city where new-wave streetcars zip along dedicated lanes at speeds that make cars redundant? But to achieve the politicians' vision of fast-laned life on Eglinton and Sheppard, Finch and Don Mills, Jane and the Lake Shore, you have to get past the mess that is St. Clair West.
Depending on the math, we're some seven years into the creation of a $100-million streetcar line that's the prototype for the $10-billion expansion of Toronto's light-rail transit system - the prototype for what not to do.
"We've got a terrible lot to learn from St. Clair," admits Joe Mihevc, the councillor who led the fight for the St. Clair line.
But while they learn, we suffer. Let's see, how long have we been the lab rats for Transit City's mad scientists? The talk began in 2002. Track reconstruction was scheduled for 2004 - a two-to-three-year process, so they said. A year later, opponents launched a lawsuit that derailed construction. But then the judicial panel that nixed the project removed itself from the case, owing to a perception of bias, and we started over. Apart from numerous other delays, the real time-waster since then has been the squabbles between utility companies and the Toronto Transit Commission over who has first dibs on tearing up our roads, and driving us nuts.
Daily life in my neighbourhood, halfway between Yonge and Keele, has become hugely discouraging as a hopelessly drawn-out process takes its toll.
I'm walking along St. Clair just west of Oakwood, where the road narrows to one skinny lane each way to hasten construction - only, nothing is happening. Broad-beamed trucks brush against dying curbside trees; cyclists squeezed off the road scatter pedestrians from pitted sidewalks. Beyond barricades decorated with signs proclaiming "Shop on St. Clair, Show You Care," is a desolate trench where the tracks should be.
We were warned to expect 24-hour-a-day construction activity, a painful yet understandable pace. But it turns out that the contractors hired by the TTC were too small-scaled to adjust to the project's changing demands. "With large contractors," says Adam Giambrone, "you have more options. You can force them to work evenings and weekends. With small ones, technically you can compel them, but if we tried, we would have forced them into bankruptcy."
Over long stretches of St. Clair, the workers are absent.
"Look, nobody's working," says Henry Nguyen, the manager of Danny's Vacuums, as he contemplates the street. "They're supposed to be finished by now." I'd tell him not to hold his breath, but at this very moment a tank truck pumps out the nauseating contents of a porta-potty - proof, at least, that someone worked here once. Mr. Nguyen closes his propped-open door, which discourages business but preserves his own well-being.
To survive the St. Clair debacle, you have to look away. Every time I leave my house, I witness the broken pavement churned up by buses diverted onto our quiet streets when the St. Clair/Oakwood intersection is closed for three weeks. At nearby Alberta and St. Clair, there's a perennial eyesore, a storage site for construction debris that resembles a garbage dump with its hodgepodge of manhole covers, orange-coloured mesh, splicing chambers, abandoned wood flats, discarded pizza boxes and unused decorative bricks. This is industrial blight taken to a bold new level, an Ed Burtynsky photograph waiting to happen.
"It's downtown Beirut out there," says Lisa Guluzian of World Class Bakers as she offers me a delicate chocolate-chip cookie. Following her gaze past a new light standard installed in such a way as to squeeze out her patio, you behold a dispiriting panorama: a bombsite-like hole where part of the road used to be. As we commiserate, a good Samaritan lifts an older woman's walker from the pit onto what's left of the road, and then hauls up the woman as well. This is what it takes to buy cookies.
In assessing where things went off the rails, as it were, Mr. Mihevc singles out communications: People didn't understand that the project grew from being a straightforward TTC reconstruction into a complex urban renewal project. Watermains, gas pipes and hydro lines all got upgraded, the cables of unsightly hydro poles buried.
"Once you tell people the story, their anxieties go down," Mr. Mihevc says. "We have to remind them why we're doing this, what our goals are. When we talk to folks on Eglinton, we have to say, 'This is messy, you're going to live with some pain for a few years.' But a lot is forgiven when the project is done."
At the recently opened Room Service restaurant, an upscale Caribbean spot just west of Oakwood serving Scotch bonnet grilled salmon, there's still room for optimism. Its uni-named co-proprietor, Washington, knew about the potential for pain, having talked to TTC officials. "We inquired how long construction would take," he says, "and they mentioned that they were way behind schedule and couldn't give me a date when the streetcar would reopen."
Year end? Early 2010? It's academic when you've lost the lucrative summer-patio season, for who wants to savour peppery salmon in view of a construction site? "It's been very challenging and sometimes depressing," Washington says, and then adds, touchingly, "but I can also see a spark of hope."
Hope becomes euphoria in the rubble west of Caledonia where Don Panos is getting his new sidewalk, if not yet a streetcar line. "Seek and ye shall find," he shouts at confused pedestrians who can't believe a fenced-off strip of menacing St. Clair is their temporary safe passage to his shop, Don's Wholesale Meats.
"The revitalization of St. Clair, that's what we're hoping for," he tells me, as an oncoming cement truck beeps. "We've got to get residents shopping on St. Clair again, because as the main street goes, so goes the neighbourhood."
He breaks off suddenly. "Ma'am, ma'am! Don't go there!" A customer has stumbled onto his still-wet sidewalk. He comes to her aid, then shouts at the construction crew to report the damage.
"Don't worry about it," says a passing city inspector. "They're going to have to do it all over again anyway." It turns out that the specifications for the sidewalk are wrong - Mr. Panos's walkway needs to be torn up and replaced. And so another day is lost.
The never-ending story
November, 2002: Toronto plan calls for new streetcar-only lanes on St. Clair Avenue
October, 2003: TTC consultation with residents on plan to replace tracks between Yonge and Keele. Estimated cost is $25-million, with a completion date pegged at fall of 2005.
September, 2004: City releases an official plan for the project. Cost has risen to $45-million, now including money for streetscaping, parking lots and public art. Completion date is now summer, 2007.
Summer, 2005: Community group takes city to court to halt the project, resulting in halted construction the day before it is slated to begin.
November, 2005: The divisional court panel removes itself from the case owing to a perception of bias on the part of one member, Justice Ted Matlow. Case to go to new panel.
January, 2006: The Ontario Court of Appeal refuses to hear an appeal from a St. Clair community group.
February, 2006: A panel of the Superior Court green-lights the project. Completion now pegged for 2008.
June, 2008: A leaked Fire Services report predicts that dedicated lanes will hamper response to calls. Chief William Stewart overrules the report and says improvements have been made.
July, 2009: Construction continues, with no streetcars running between Bathurst and Keele. Final cost, now including new utilities, estimated to be $100-million.
December, 2009: Streetcars running end to end. Maybe.
St. Clair West's long-running construction nightmare is about to spread. Next stop: Sheppard Avenue East, where the first of Toronto's new dedicated light-rail lines is slated to break ground this fall.
FINCH LIGHTRAPID TRANSIT
A 23-kilometre lightrail line from Highway 27 in Etobicoke to Finch subway station on the Yonge line that continues east from Finch station to Don Mills subway station on the Sheppard line.
Current cost estimate: $ 1.2-billion
Completion date: 2013
EGLINTON CROSSTOWN RAPID TRANSIT
A 31-kilometre light-rail line from Kennedy station to Pearson airport, with a 13-kilometre tunnelled section from approximately Leslie Street to Keele Street.
Current cost estimate: $ 4.6-billion
Completion date: 2016
SHEPPARD LIGHTRAPID TRANSIT
A 15-kilometre lightrail line from the Don Mills subway station to Meadowvale Road. Construction is expected to start at the end of this year.
Current cost estimate: $ 950-million
Completion date: 2013
THE GLOBE AND MAIL