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Power outage sounds alarm bells over Toronto’s failing transit infrastructure

A shuttle bus beside a stalled streetcar at the intersection of Queen St. East and Sumach St. on March 1. A power outage left thousands of commuters scrambling to find other means of transportation during morning rush hour.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

As mayors across the country clamour for infrastructure spending, an electrical fire that shut down the busiest parts of Toronto's downtown transit system was a stark reminder of how much the city relies on its thinly stretched transportation system to keep residents moving.

Commuters overwhelmed emergency buses, paid surge-pricing rates for Uber and resorted to hitchhiking Tuesday morning when transit in much of downtown Toronto was put out of commission.

The busiest parts of subway and streetcar lines were at a standstill through the morning rush hour, leaving hundreds of thousands of people struggling to get to work. The full subway system opened more than four hours late and some streetcars were out even longer. Although the cause of the fire is still under investigation, its massive impact illustrates how vulnerable cities are to infrastructure failings.

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The state of the country's infrastructure is increasingly raising alarm bells in cities right across the country, with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities warning earlier this year that there is about $50-billion worth of bridges, roads and transit that are in poor or very poor condition.

The federal government, which is keen to make big investments in infrastructure, has indicated that some of its spending may be directed to maintenance. It's a position that has been warmly welcomed by mayors and city officials, who note that they have far less tax revenue available to invest than do the other levels of government.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said he was "really heartened" by the signals from Ottawa.

"We're sort of trying to put chewing gum and chicken wire on stuff that should've been replaced," he said, stressing that he didn't yet know the specifics of what caused Tuesday's problems. "We're making a huge mistake to not invest money in these areas, because we both let people down and we are not protecting public assets."

Elected officials have traditionally preferred to fund new projects that offer more political advantage. But the unglamorous work done behind the scenes is necessary to keep these infrastructure systems going.

"If we allow it to continue to deteriorate, that puts our economy at risk, it puts quality of life of Canadians at risk, as well," said Raymond Louie, Federation of Canadian Municipalities president. "The infrastructure that today needs some repair would be less costly to repair today than it would be if there were a catastrophic failure at a later point in time, with continued deference."

Toronto Transit Commission Chair Josh Colle called Tuesday's problems a reminder of how "critical yet fragile" the system can be, noting that the agency is racing to catch up on work that "should've been done" years ago.

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"We've neglected the nuts and bolts for so long," he said. "People have to get their heads around the fact that you cannot keep pushing it off. We've been doing it for at the very least a generation, probably even more."

Some of the coming infrastructure bills are enormous, and not just in transit. In 2012, Toronto Hydro said that nearly half of its equipment was past its "useful life," or would be within a decade. The replacement cost for this equipment was pegged at $5-billion. The city plans to spend $4.5-billion over the next decade on road infrastructure, an amount that will essentially maintain the current backlog.

At the TTC, the cost of crucial maintenance over the next decade is $8.2-billion – roughly the cost of building the downtown relief line.

"The standard state of good repair … all of those things that keep the system running day to day, those things are funded, and we would collapse if they weren't," TTC spokesman Brad Ross said.

However, this does not include some items that have potential to increase the reliability of the system. Platform-edge doors, for example, would deter suicides and also help end fires at track level, a perennial cause of delays. But they would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and have repeatedly been pushed "below the line" in the budget, effectively deemed a nice-to-have.

"We need a two-pronged approach: improve service now and build sensible lines quickly for tomorrow, so we've got a backup," said Jess Bell, speaking for the advocacy group TTC Riders.

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"There's 1.8 million of us who are being delayed time and time again because the system isn't working properly. It seems like politicians should get their priorities right, and listen to riders more frequently."

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