Speaking at the opening ceremony of the Scarborough Subway Extension Last month, Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney had a message for skeptics.
When Prime Minister Doug Ford announced his subway expansion plan two years ago, he said, critics scoffed that it couldn’t be done.
“But look where we are today … We are building transit for people, and we are going full blast,” Mulroney said at the June 23 event at a job site in eastern Toronto. “For Critics: Premier Ford Has Made The Impossible Possible”.
But while the inauguration marked a milestone for the Ontario government’s subway program, it still has a lot of work to do before it can claim to have turned its transit plans into reality.
Those plans are huge and far from finished. Over the next decade or so, the province expects to deliver more than $ 60 billion in transit projects in Toronto and the surrounding area, including the completion of at least eight new subway and LRT lines or extensions, and significant improvements to the regional rail network.
Building both at once would be difficult under any conditions. But to keep its transit program on track, the province will have to overcome market disruptions caused by the pandemic, address a looming construction labor shortage, and repair a troubled relationship with the private sector contractors in charge. to build the new lines, some of which accuse the provincial agencies. ‘Controversial management of rail projects increases costs and makes it difficult to complete.
Given the size of the plan and the challenges it faces, can the province do it all?
Michael Lindsay, president and CEO of Infrastructure Ontario (IO), the independent agency that, along with Metrolinx, oversees transit acquisitions, says the plan is underway.
“I’m pretty sure,” he said, explaining that IO is constantly monitoring the construction market’s capacity for pinch points and is preparing work to ensure the industry can handle it.
“I think our track record here in the province of Ontario is holistically very good in delivering projects on time and on budget,” he said.
But Ontario NDP traffic critic Tom Rakocevic (Humber River-Black Creek) said the government’s record is poor.
“Even before the pandemic, Ontario was years behind in completing the promised transit projects that residents and travelers urgently need to ease congestion,” Rakocevic said in a statement, noting setbacks at the Eglinton Crosstown LRT and Ford’s Ontario Line.
He said the government also “has a history of destroying out-of-the-box transit projects like the Hamilton LRT and Toronto’s canceled helpline.”
While experts have questioned the wisdom of some projects in the province’s plan, most agree that the new lines will be critical to keeping the GTA moving for years to come. Despite the fact that the number of passengers plummeted during the pandemic, according to the provincial screenings released this springBy 2046, the region’s population is expected to grow by more than 40 percent, to almost 10 million.
“COVID will be forgotten as a traffic shock by the end of 2022,” predicted Phil Verster, CEO of Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency.
Major transit construction, largely started by Ontario’s former Liberal government, is already underway, with the Eglinton Crosstown and Finch West LRTs in Toronto, and the Hurontario LRTs in Mississauga-Brampton expected to open. in the next three years.
In addition to the Scarborough subway, the $ 28.5 billion transit plan that Ford launched in 2019 included the LRT Eglinton West, the Yonge North subway extension, and the Ontario Line. Earlier this year, the Ontario government added a fifth project by resurrecting the Hamilton LRT that it canceled in 2019.
The largest project on the provincial pipeline is the $ 17 billion GO transit expansion program, which will require adding more than 200 kilometers of track and electrifying parts of the regional rail network, and is intended to transform the passenger lines of GO rush hours on an all-day service.
Transit megaprojects will have to compete for resources with other major provincial infrastructure works, including new hospitals and nuclear power refurbishment, at a time when experts predict a labor shortage.
BuildForce Canada, an industry organization that monitors the construction labor market, estimates that over the next 10 years more than 92,000 workers will retire in Ontario’s construction sector, the equivalent of 21 percent of the workforce.
To replace retirees and keep up with anticipated demand, the industry will need to hire and train more than 116,000 workers over the next 10 years. The sector is on track to attract some 80,000 younger workers during that time, but that would still leave the province with some 31,000 shorts.
The industry hiring rate has been improving, but “it is not enough right now to keep up with the overall construction demands,” said BuildForce CEO Bill Ferreira.
But he predicted that the sector will intensify its efforts in the coming years to meet demand, in part by diversifying hiring to appeal to underrepresented groups in construction, including women, indigenous peoples and new Canadians.
The Ontario Ministry of Labor, Training and Skills Development says it is addressing the shortage by investing $ 1.1 billion in training and simplifying the skilled trades and apprenticeship system.
To make it easier for the private sector to handle concurrent transit constructions, Metrolinx and IO have also started to divide the work on the projects into smaller contracts.
The contract for the construction of tunnels on the Scarborough tube extension was awarded in May, allowing some construction to start earlier. The more substantial work on stations and tracks is not scheduled to begin until sometime after a separate contract closes in spring 2023, prior to completion in 2030. A similar approach is being taken in other elements of the contract program. metro of the province.
The piecemeal strategy could help address the concerns of contractors who have criticized the agencies for what they consider their approach too aggressive for large transit contracts.
The criticism focuses on the procurement model of the province’s public private company (P3), under which private companies are responsible for designing, financing, building and even operating new lines. The province generally issues the P3 payment once the work is completed, and strict financial penalties for delays are written into the contracts.
The model is designed to shift the risk of delays and cost overruns to the private sector by providing builders with financial incentives to stay on schedule and on budget.
But industry sources say the perception of some contractors is that instead of working collaboratively to address the construction issues that inevitably arise in complex transit projects, Metrolinx fights builders at every step and forces them through claims processes. contradictory or costly court fights. Metrolinx and IO are currently embroiled in a disorderly lawsuit with the consortium building the Eglinton Crosstown over delays on that line.
Such disputes run the risk of wiping out the profits that contractors embed in their job postings, and sources who spoke to Star said some builders no longer want to bid on larger provincial transit lines.
“Over time, companies will decide these projects are not worth risking,” said an industry source, speaking anonymously to discuss sensitive acquisitions discussions.
Three industry sources told Star contractors that they have begun adding premiums to provincial transit contract bids to account for what they see as the aggressive approach by provincial agencies.
“There is a real concern that if we bid on these types of projects as we have in the past, we are likely to lose money,” said an industry source, describing the thinking of the contractors.
“So if we are going to go ahead and do it, we will apply a premium to the price that we think will result in a profit. So that’s not good for taxpayers, obviously, because (they’re) paying more per kilometer to do transportation projects. “
Contractors who charge more could also make it difficult to build transit on time, because if the province doesn’t get enough bids that fit within budget, it may be forced to redesign its acquisitions.
Something similar to that scenario appears to have played out with GO Expansion, after the contractors initially balked at the risk involved in their acquisition. Although the work was supposed to be substantially complete by 2025, this week an IO spokesperson did not confirm that date. Metrolinx and IO maintain that GO Expansion is on the right track.
Verster, the CEO of Metrolinx, said his agency has heard criticism and is moving away from traditional P3s to hire models that are less risky for builders. The Faster Construction Act passed by the Ontario government last year also aims to reduce regulatory hurdles that can paralyze the work of contractors.
Verster acknowledged that the agency has recently received higher-than-expected offers, prompting it to postpone some jobs. But he attributed the trend to pandemic supply chain problems rather than contractors charging more to work with Metrolinx. He noted that the price of materials such as steel and wood has doubled during COVID-19.
Verster denied taking too hard a line with contractors.
“Metrolinx has worked hard to protect taxpayer funds. And what we have implemented is a commercial management around our contracts that makes contractors accountable for what they offer, ”he said.
$ 60 billion transit pipeline
Here are some of the main provincial projects, their costs and expected delivery dates:
- Eglinton Crosstown LRT, $ 9.1 billion, late 2022
- Hurontario LRT, $ 4.6 billion, late 2024
- Ontario Line, at least $ 11 billion, by 2030
- Scarborough metro extension, at least $ 5.5 billion, 2029/30
- GO expansion, $ 17 billion in total, gradual after 2025