TTC struggles to finish building ‘on-time and on-budget,’ Leslie Street garage for new super-sized streetcars

Peter Kuitenbrouwer of National post

The Leslie Barns, under construction at Leslie Street and Lake Shore Boulevard, are now expected to cost $500-million, up nearly 50% from the original price tag.

Tyler Anderson/National PostThe Leslie Barns, under construction at Leslie Street and Lake Shore Boulevard, are now expected to cost $500-million, up nearly 50% from the original price tag.TO0928_Street_Car_house_C_AB

Akram E. Yoannis, senior project manager at the TTC, stands with five people wearing reflective orange vests on the plywood deck outside a construction trailer, southeast of Lake Shore Boulevard East at Leslie Street. Before him sprawl 22 acres, mostly of dirt. From the dirt rises framing in silvery steel beams: the skeleton of the Leslie Barns, a garage for Toronto’s new super-sized streetcars. Steelworkers, silhouetted against the blue sky, stride along the beams.

Across the plywood deck a door opens, banging into Mr. Yoannis. Three men emerge.

“This is a door,” growls a tall man in a hard hat. “The door needs to be able to open at all times.” The trio stride off across the vast expanse of dirt.

Given our mayor’s love of subways, there is irony in the fact that the biggest capital project of his term is a streetcar garage. Council approved the project in 2009, and work began in 2010, the year Rob Ford took over as mayor. The TTC says the barns will open as Rob Ford’s term ends, in the fall of 2014.

At first the grouchy tone of a worker here took me aback. But now I grasp some of the challenges of this project. The Leslie Barns is rising on a landfill site. Pouring foundations has taken longer than Pomerleau, the Quebec-based contractor, expected. Underground methane gas is a problem, too. Moving pipes under Leslie Street is also pricey. The barns now will cost $500-million, up nearly 50% from the original price tag. The TTC will go cap in hand to the budget committee in December, seeking $60-million more for this job.

Mr. Yoannis climbs off the construction trailer deck to the gravel roadway, and we walk east toward a new lake on the site, which will catch storm water. The butts of wide pillars rise from the earth. These caissons, which go down about 11 metres to the till layer, will hold huge posts. On the posts, workers will string a prodigious web of overhead wires as a power source for 8.2 kilometres of streetcar tracks that will encircle and enter the Leslie Barns.

At present the TTC repairs streetcars at its Hillcrest complex on Bathurst Street. The TTC needs this facility because our new low-floor cars will have power systems on the roof. Mechanics will stand on special platforms to work on 30 cars at a time. One hundred cars will sleep on storage tracks here overnight.

Before beginning this project, workers removed a hillside, hauling about 2,000 dumptruck loads of contaminated soil to Niagara. That job cost $90-million. Today about 175 workers toil here, building the new facility. As we walk, we dodge out of the way as Volvo trucks, their tires taller than my car, rumble past.

We stop at the lip of a pit. Mr. Yoannis points to a black sheet lining a hole. Workers are laying low-density polyvinyl chloride membrane “to stop methane gas from seeping into the carhouse,” he says. “There will be pipes to vent it.”

Darren Calabrese/National Post

Darren Calabrese/National PostOne of the TTC’s new low-floor, super-sized streetcars.

Last year, Pomerleau told the TTC they could deliver the Leslie Barns by the summer of 2014, Mr. Yoannis says.

“Right now they are saying the fall of 2014 and we are seeing if we can make up the time. The contractor is adding more resources to get the structure built faster.”

I ask him to describe the challenges.

“It’s a contractor’s problem,” Mr. Yoannis says. “I don’t want to badmouth the contractor. It is taking them longer to pour the foundations than anticipated. We met with them and asked them to accelerate that portion of the work.”

Pomerleau has even less to say.

“We are bound by contractual obligation with our client and we are not allowed to comment,” Carolyne Van Der Meer, a Pomerleau spokeswoman, says from Montreal. “That is also out of respect for our client.”

Tyler Anderson/National Post

Tyler Anderson/National PostAt $105-million, the two-block connecting track along Leslie Street, from Commissioners Street to Queen Street, is possibly the world’s most expensive streetcar spur line.

The TTC raised eyebrows at city hall and in the construction industry over its decision to lay connecting tracks for the streetcars along Leslie Street, from Commissioners Street to Queen Street, and for how it awarded that deal.

Originally, the TTC budgeted $14-million to lay the Leslie track. Then the TTC called Toronto Water, and learned the utility owns two “very large” storm sewers in an eight-by-eight foot box culvert, plus two sanitary sewers and a water main, all running under Leslie, says Lou Di Geronimo, general manager at Toronto Water. He asked the TTC to relocate those pipes.

“They did not think it would have any impact below ground,” marvels Councillor Paula Fletcher, whose ward runs east to Leslie Street. “They just wanted their Leslie Street line, and they were not able to think outside the box. I tried to change it three times.”

Four firms sought to prequalify for the contract to lay the Leslie tracks. The TTC prequalified only one company: Pomerleau. Essentially, that made it a sole-source contract. Pomerleau then submitted a price that “significantly exceeded the acceptable range of independent estimates obtained by staff for this process,” a TTC report says.

Finally Pomerleau and the TTC agreed to $105-million, making this two-block stretch of track possibly the world’s most expensive streetcar spur line. Excavation has begun.

Darren Calabrese/National Post

Darren Calabrese/National PostAnother view of the TTC’s new low-floor, super-sized streetcars.

Meanwhile Mary-Margaret McMahon, who fought against the Leslie Barns as a rookie local councillor, has changed her tune.

“I’m not going to fight an old battle but I’ll fight for a beautiful facility and a construction process that’s on-time and on-budget,” she says. “We’re not going to have another St. Clair.

“We are in a good space, I think, with this project. I can’t tell you how many meetings we had. Dandy Andy [Byford, CEO of the TTC] I call him, best thing since sliced bread for the TTC I think.”

The TTC is doing a good job to help the neighbours through this invasive surgery. The commission has opened a liaison office on Queen Street and kept the Martin Goodman Trail open during the construction. Plus the TTC brought Les Kelman, former director of traffic management, out of retirement to handle “disruption management” at the corner of Leslie and Lake Shore.

“Leslie Street is a pilot to see whether we technocrats can perform better than on St. Clair,” he says. Early results are encouraging.

Now, if only they can get the barns built by the time the new streetcars roll in from Thunder Bay, about a year from now.

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