After spending $1.3-million and three years on planning, the city is halting work on a $22-million foot bridge to Fort York designed to be a landmark on par with London's Millennium Bridge and act as a centrepiece for War of 1812 bicentennial celebrations next year.
Late Tuesday night, following an exhausting debate over garbage privatization, right-leaning councillors on the public works and infrastructure committee cited budget concerns as they voted to punt the bridge back to its planning stages just as a contract was to be awarded.
The decision will set the project back four or five years, according to city staff, casting doubt on whether it will ever go ahead.
"You killed the whole thing," yelled a visibly upset Councillor Mike Layton, whose ward encompasses Fort York, to David Shiner, the councillor who led efforts to stop the project and have city staff explore a cheaper option. "No more bridge."
Construction of the pedestrian and cycle crossing was timed to coincide with the large bicentennial events planned for Fort York next June and intended to link two growing neighbourhoods of Toronto cut off from one another by railroad tracks. The bridge featured a twisting double-helix design across its 200-metre span from Stanley Park in the north to the west side of the Fort York grounds.
Metrolinx had granted the city a brief period to erect the bridge, a window that will have to be renegotiated when the city comes up with a new plan. "Any change in design or scope of this project would mean that probably the earliest you could get a bridge in there is 2015, 2016," said Gary Welsh, general manager of transportation services.
The eleventh-hour motion to scrap the bridge clearly blindsided Mr. Layton, who expected the committee to approve the contract that night.
"I asked my colleague what his plans and thoughts were for this project in my ward and nothing was offered to me," said Mr. Layton. "Without any warning he drops this on us, a motion that essentially cancels the entire project.… It's a beautiful bridge, an epic piece that connects a historic site with the rest of the city, something like the pedestrian bridge in London."
Mr. Shiner told the committee that the bridge was indeed beautiful, but far too expensive for the cash-strapped city. "I know that this bridge is almost like a piece of public artwork the way it spans across there," he said, "but I don't believe it is something that I can support" given the price.
The bridge was originally budgeted at $18-million, roughly $4.4-million less than the most recent estimate. The city's bridge rehabilitation fund was expected to shell out for the overage.
"Going $4.4-million over budget would require the cancellation of two much-needed bridge rehabilitations," said Mr. Shiner, who believes the city can find a low-cost alternative – such as expanding foot paths along the Bathurst and Strachan bridges – in time for next year.
He also noticed that the bridge would touch two city properties – one on Wellington Street and another at 10 Ordnance St. – that could be sold for around $75-million combined. "Nobody knew that this little version of the Golden Gate Bridge was going to cost a hundred million," he said. "It was incumbent upon Councillor Layton to be honest and upfront with us about those costs."
The national historic site was slated for a $35-million revitalization ahead of the bicentennial, a project being spearheaded in part by the Fort York Foundation, whose backers include prominent Ontarians such as Lincoln Alexander, Hilary Weston, James Bartleman, John Tory and Andy Pringle, former chair of the PC Ontario Fund.
The foundation's chair was incredulous at news of the bridge cancellation. "I'd be surprised if the project could be set back that quickly," said Andrew Stewart. "The bridge is such a vital and important element within that neighbourhood's revitalization. All we can do now is go to councillors and check to see what they were thinking."