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Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford spoke briefly before handing over the podium to Denzil Minnan-Wong, at podium, Chair of Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, during a press conference at City Hall on Feb. 7, 2011. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford spoke briefly before handing over the podium to Denzil Minnan-Wong, at podium, Chair of Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, during a press conference at City Hall on Feb. 7, 2011. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

They dig, then they dig again, then... Add to ...

When residents of the Dundas West area saw backhoes pulling up the street this spring, they could only shake their heads. Again? Dundas has been under on-and-off construction for five long years.

First, they pulled up and replaced the streetcar tracks, a huge and messy project that left the street in shambles for the spring and summer of 2007. Then they dug into the road to replace aging water mains in 2009 and 2010. Long blue hoses snaked along the street to carry water while the work was under way.

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Now they are putting in new, improved sidewalks and repaving the roadway. Work started last August and is supposed to wrap up by October. In the meantime, half the road has been dug up west of Bathurst Street. Traffic is slow, shuttle buses have once again replaced the detoured 505 streetcar and those too-familiar black-and-orange pylons line the street.

An obvious question arises. Why couldn't they do all the work together, instead of spreading it out over five years? If the TTC needed to replace the streetcar tracks, couldn't they put in the water mains and upgrade the sidewalks at the same time? That, apparently, would be too simple.

Gord MacMillan, director of design and construction for linear infrastructure, told me the city normally likes to do all the work at once if it can. In the Dundas case, it faced an immediate need to replace the streetcar tracks. There wasn't enough time to consult with the merchants' association and other locals about the design of the new street, so that work was delayed.

Then came the water main issue. After the new streetcar tracks went in, it was discovered that "surprise, surprise, we have to deal with inadequate water pipes," says Joe Pantalone, who was the long-time councillor for the area till he ran for mayor last year. Up went the black-and-orange pylons again.

Although his politics lean to the left and he was never the kind to rant and rave about the inefficiency of the public service, Mr. Pantalone says he is frustrated at the city's failure to co-ordinate work on projects such as Dundas. "The city is downloading all the aggravation onto the general public and this is not acceptable."

It is not the first time, of course. The infamous construction delays and cost overruns on the St. Clair streetcar line were due in part to a failure to synchronize gas, hydro and water-line work with the installation of the new dedicated line. A report on that project was called Getting it Right, but Denzil Minnan-Wong, head of the public works committee, concedes "we've still got to get it right and we're not there yet."

With huge, multibillion-dollar subway projects on the boards, he says the city has to be better at organizing complex projects where many players are involved. To that end, city council passed a motion last year to establish the position of Project Lead - a single official to crack the whip on big roadway projects.

Not all city road projects are a disaster, it is good to remember. The dedicated officials like Gord MacMillan who handle these things face a Rubik's cube of decision-making and budgeting that sometimes makes seamless co-ordination impossible. But there has to be a better way to run a railroad than what we've seen on Dundas and St. Clair, not to mention Roncesvalles and Bloor Street through Yorkville.

The good news about Dundas is that, once work is finally finished, it should be pretty nice. The handsome new sidewalks will have brick edges, corner parkettes and lots of new trees. The freshly laid roadway will be free of the ugly slashes left by gas and telecommunications contractors that made it a bone-rattling ride for cyclists.

The bad news: More work on the stretch west of University Avenue is scheduled for 2013.

 

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