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Governments need to deliver big infrastructure projects honestly

The least surprising news of the year is that the Spadina subway extension is going way over budget. After what has happened with the St. Clair streetcar line, the Queens Quay rebuild and the renovations of Union Station, the Sony Centre and Nathan Phillips Square, news of construction delays and cost overruns have become dog bites man for the weary residents of Toronto.

The idea of extending the Spadina subway northward goes back at least to the mid-1990s, when the NDP government of Bob Rae proposed taking it up to York University. Plans started firming up after the City of Vaughan sought to extend it all the way to the intersection of Highway 7 and Jane Street, where it was planning to build a new city centre. But the project was held up by the usual things – environmental assessment, funding delays, public consultations – and tunnelling didn't start until January, 2011, when mayor Rob Ford and then-transportation minister Kathleen Wynne presided over the official launch of the tunnel-boring machines.

The plan then was to open the line in late 2015. That was later pushed back to the fall of 2016. Now, the Toronto Transit Commission says it will be at least 2017 before trains start running. Even that could turn out to be optimistic, given all the problems the project has encountered.

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The death of a construction worker triggered a provincial investigation that halted some of the work. The discovery that the water table was higher than expected in some places pushed up the costs of construction at stations. So did making sure that the stations were up to the Toronto Green Standard, a benchmark of environmentally sustainable design. In the case of Downsview Park station, writes James Bow, editor of the Transit Toronto website, costs nearly doubled, to more than $100-million.

The whole project was expected to cost about $2.5-billion. What the actual cost will be, who can tell. Even the TTC chair, Josh Colle, is in the dark. "We don't know, which is troubling in itself," he told CBC Radio.

Why do big projects like these so often go over time and over budget? Ryerson University professor Murtaza Haider says that delays and overruns on megaprojects are common all over the world. Proponents of big projects consistently low-ball the cost for fear that the sticker shock might prevent them from ever getting built. "It is a very serious issue that goes to the heart of the credibility of all those who are building the infrastructure," he says.

The hitches with the Spadina line are especially serious for a city such as Toronto that must spend billions to renew and build out its infrastructure. "If this is the norm, we have a problem," says Prof. Haider.

Yes, we do. The dynamic at work here is universal and troubling. A government that announces a big, expensive project is loath to admit that things have gone wrong and that it is spending more public money than it said it would.

Instead, it grabs any opportunity to boast about how great the project is and how well it is going. Rather than being a monitor, it turns into a cheerleader. "2014 was a busy year," trumpets the official website of the Spadina extension, announcing "a number of positive outcomes." Construction of six new subway stations is "well underway" and crews had installed 60 per cent of the subway track by the end of last year. Hurray.

Once, just once, could an official site admit that, say, "This project has run into some serious problems. It is taking longer and costing more than we expected, for the following reasons."

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Mayor John Tory says he is "furious" over what has happened on the Spadina project, and he should be. So should everyone in the city. Toronto desperately needs better transit. It is going to take a lot of money to build it. If governments want to persuade the public of the need to spend that money, they have to do a much better job of delivering big, complicated projects. That starts with simple honesty.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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