Skip to main content

After more than a decade of mayor-driven austerity, Toronto has a growing backlog of infrastructure repairs, big and small. Whoever wins Oct. 24′s municipal election has a costly job ahead – or will see public services deteriorate further

Open this photo in gallery:

Frost-damaged pavement blocks the path of a TTC streetcar this past March. Toronto's backlog of maintenance costs for transit, roads and parks is set to reach $13-billion in the next 10 years.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Toronto is planning to deteriorate. It’s right there in black and white.

The city’s latest budget, passed earlier this year, shows that upkeep of roads, parks and transit will fall further behind over the next five years, with the downward slide then picking up pace.

Over the next decade, the bill for what bureaucrats call the “state-of-good-repair” backlog – essentially, maintenance and replacement of municipal assets that is not being done – will balloon to over $13-billion for those three city departments alone. It’s a shortfall that will affect quality of life for residents. Expect worse roads, less reliable transit vehicles and worn parks.

Open this photo in gallery:

Mayoral candidates Gil Penalosa and John Tory shake hands after an Oct. 17 debate.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

John Tory, who is running for a third mayoral term in the Oct. 24 municipal election, has already been fielding complaints that the city is suffering from overflowing garbage cans, proliferating potholes and malfunctioning amenities.

He likes to counter that Toronto often features on most-livable-city lists, so it can’t be doing too badly. And Mr. Tory recently voiced his commitment to parks. But critics aren’t convinced.

Mr. Tory’s main opponent, the urbanist Gil Penalosa, said that best-city lists can use unscientific criteria or judge a place’s merits based solely on its appeal to high-earners.

“I’ve been here for about 23 years, and I think that the city’s worse than at any time,” he said. “I’ve been in every single ward … when I tell anybody the city’s falling apart, everybody agrees. I have not met one single person that has said, ‘oh no no, I think the city’s doing fine.’ ”

Toronto’s massive capital liability is partly the result of waves of downloading by the provincial government, which has transferred responsibilities to cities without offering money to fund them.

But it is also the result of decisions by city politicians to fund their pet priorities, or push into the future small costs that then snowball into major bills. And it reflects more than a decade of mayor-directed austerity. Toronto is spending less per capita than it did 10 years ago.

Here are three areas where the looming shortfalls will be particularly acute.

Open this photo in gallery:

Commuters crowd the stairs at Ossington station on a January day in 2020, when the partial derailment of a subway car shut down a stretch of the Bloor line.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Transit: ‘Coming unglued’

The Toronto Transit Commission runs the most heavily used transit system in the country. And despite billions in government cash for new subway and light-rail lines, the TTC’s state-of-good-repair backlog for the tracks, trains and buses it already has is projected to grow by billions over the next decade.

Without a lot more money, riders will be boarding increasingly jammed vehicles that are aged and prone to breaking down.

And putting off repair work can lead to serious safety risks. Transit blogger and advocate Steve Munro points to a subway crash in 1995 that killed three people. It was a wakeup call for Toronto’s transit agency, which had been forced to defer maintenance in an era of tight budgets. “It doesn’t take too many years for things to start coming unglued,” he said. “I don’t want see budgets like that again, but it’s very much the kind of thing that could happen.”

According to the TTC, nearly 1,700 vehicles will be nearing the end of their “useful life” over the next decade. Replacing them would cost about $3.5-billion. Another $1.2-billion is needed over the next decade to do midlife overhaul of somewhat newer buses and subway cars. And $2.3-billion is needed over the next decade to add capacity on the two main subway lines.

The city has traditionally sought funding for major transit purchases from higher levels of government. But both Queen’s Park and Ottawa are facing their own budget pressures and can counter requests by pointing to investments they have made in recent years.

Although looking a decade out can feel long, it isn’t really. Major vehicle purchases can take years from order to delivery and debate about the new fleet of subway trains needed for the Bloor-Danforth line hasn’t even begun. The TTC does have a stopgap solution if it can’t buy those subway cars in time: Find $100-million and use it to extend the life of existing trains from 30 to 40 years. But that would only set up a much bigger bill down the road.

Open this photo in gallery:

Tents at Trinity-Bellwoods in December of 2020, when the pandemic led many homeless Torontonians to camp in parks. Police and city officials would later evict them and fence off stretches of the park.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Parks: ‘Run down’

The pandemic created a surge of demand for city parks, putting pressure on spaces that in some cases were a bit tatty already. Water fountains routinely didn’t work, public toilets were open for only a few months, if at all, and benches, playgrounds and other amenities were showing their age. That pressure is expected to accelerate, particularly as the downtown population keeps growing even as the parks department’s maintenance deficit soars.

The city’s budget shows that Toronto’s parks, forestry and recreation department is projected to fall hundreds of millions of dollars further behind on maintenance and upkeep over the next decade, with its backlog rising from $645-million this year to $940-million in 2032. Based on the 2022 budget, that backlog is the equivalent of just over six full years of capital spending not being done.

Cara Chellew, an organizer with the Toronto Public Space Committee, an advocacy group, says that allowing parks to degrade diminishes quality of life. “They’re spaces where we feel like we can go and belong; they’re places where we can encounter others,” she said. “If our public spaces are run down you just kind of feel like the city’s run down, the services aren’t anything to be proud of. I think it affects us.”

The need for good parks is particularly acute in the fastest-growing parts of downtown Toronto, where smaller residential units are less likely to include private outdoor space.

The neighbourhoods within a short walk of Trinity-Bellwoods park have grown by nearly 16,000 people over the last decade. But that influx has not prompted major investment at the park that serves as their de facto backyard. City data show little capital spending in Trinity-Bellwoods over the past decade. Two projects in 2019 totalled less than $500,000. The most recent significant capital spending prior to that was in 2011 and amounted to only $125,000. Compare that to $2-million the city spent expelling homeless people from encampments in Trinity-Bellwoods and two other downtown parks last summer.

The park is looking increasingly tired. Fences are rusted, the grass is beaten down and graffiti lingers for months or years.

Open this photo in gallery:

Road closings last October on Queen Street West, between Spadina and University, where workers removed the asphalt to replace streetcar tracks and water mains.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Roads: ‘Regular maintenance is not sexy’

Nowhere is Toronto’s infrastructure problem more visible than in its potholed pavement.

Each year, the city does about $120-million worth of roadwork. But the backlog grows by almost triple that amount. Plus, roadwork bills balloon quickly: Once you miss some basic maintenance, a road’s expected 75-year lifespan can be chopped in half. By 2030, city officials said in a budget report last year, the number of major roads they consider “poor” will rise to 54 per cent, from 43 per cent. Nearly half of all local roads, or 47 per cent, will be considered “poor” within eight years, up from 24 per cent.

City staff say the backlog of roadwork is now worth $1.8-billion, excluding the massive refurb of the Gardiner Expressway now under way. That number includes all needed repairs and at the current pace, it will more than double by 2029, hitting $4-billion.

Even if the $2.3-billion being spent on the Gardiner over 10 years – Mr. Tory championed the project – could be redirected to other roads, or other money could be found, there simply aren’t enough workers to manage such a sudden influx. Plus, no one would put up with closing so many roads in one summer.

Mark Berkovitz, manager of transportation asset management, acknowledges the city may have to further cut corners. For example, some local roads, where speed limits are now 30 km/h, could be left in poor condition for longer, unlike heavily travelled expressways.

“No one gets excited when you take out a broom and you sweep the floor or you vacuum the carpet. People are much more excited when you buy something in a nice box and you bring it home and you open it up and it’s nice and shiny,” he said. “Doing regular maintenance is not sexy.”

Future of cities: More from The Globe and Mail

The pandemic showed us myriad ways that public spaces, like parks, are failing people in our cities. Three urban experts spoke with Adrian Lee for the City Space podcast about how to change that.

More from architecture critic Alex Bozikovic

‘I want to give Toronto hope’: Mayoral candidate Gil Penalosa’s vision

Tory’s housing plan could bring real change. But is he ready for a fight?

No reason to believe Ontario’s plans to increase some mayors’ power is about fixing housing

More from columnist Marcus Gee

As apathy spreads, municipal democracies are in danger

The TTC says it wants commuters back. It has a funny way of showing it

Canadian cities are finally rediscovering their neglected waterfronts

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the authors of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles