Toronto street repair: a case of imbalance

A major intersection in Toronto is closed for two weeks to renovate the streetcar tracks that pass through it.  Whether the intersection should have been closed only at night – turning a two week job into a two-month nightmare – is a question on the minds of many.  Unfortunately, we’ll never know for sure, because no one seems interested in determining the balance point of this situation.

The intersection of Queen and Spadina in Toronto is not only one of the city’s busiest intersections, it is one of the very few with all-way streetcar tracks that can turn in any direction.  The complexity of the track system at that intersection is huge.  And it needs to be renovated.

So the City of Toronto has decided to close the entire intersection down for two whole weeks to get the work done as quickly as possible.  This has obviously raised the hackles of many drivers who use that intersection in their commutes to and from work.

The alternative would have been to only close the intersection at night, but the cost of the renovation would have been much, much higher.  Workers get paid extra; equipment is in use only a few hours a day; there’s more security needed; there’s increased risk of damage during the day, as well as increased danger of accidents between cars driving through the intersection….

You would think that, given all the risks and costs associated with doing the work only at night, it would be plainly obvious to everyone that a little pain now will save significant costs and risk in the longer term.  Yet people are angry.  And if obvious why: their lives are being directly affected by the two-week closure.  If the intersection had only been closed at night, they could have still gotten through – albeit more slowly – and their lives would not have been so disrupted.

It’s a good argument.  And unfortunately, there seems to be no information to suggest that a proper cost-benefit analysis was done of the project.  It seems instead that some kind of educated guess was used to decide that a two-week closure was the more economical and less risky option.

Unfortunately, these kinds of decisions are far too complex to be made via guesses, educated or otherwise.

Yes, there are definite costs and risks associated with working only at night that are not present in the two-straight-weeks scenario.  However, the two-week closure imposes a number of cost sources that, quite frankly, I doubt the City politicians considered.

  1. The cost of lost productivity by those who must find another way to work for those two weeks.  This includes the delivery trucks and other commercial vehicles, the travel times of which will increase due to the two-week closure.  But we must also account for everyone’s time.  While the loss of productivity incurred by any one person because of a two-week closure is probably not that much, one must multiply that loss by the number of persons affected, which is probably rather large.
  2. Losses incurred by businesses near the intersection due to lack of access to their facilities during construction.  In this case, while the total amount may not be large compared to other costs of the project from the City’s point of view, they might be large enough to depress those businesses – possibly for quite a long time even after the construction is finished.

Now, I can find neither evidence that a deep analysis was conducted, nor that it was not conducted.  This in itself is a shame.  If I were a reporter preparing an article about this project, I most certainly would have wanted to know the nature of the analysis done to decide how best to implement it.  This appears not to be the case.

So it may well be that an appropriate analysis was conducted.  But based on how the current administration of the City tends to work, I would be quite frankly surprised.  Also, if they had done the analysis, it could have been used to put a positive spin: Our calculations have shown that, taking into account lost revenues of nearby business, and lost productivity of commuters who use the intersection, there remain long-term benefits – that is, accounting for both the City costs and the costs of its citizens and businesses, we know a two-week closure is the overall best solution.

See what I mean?

Here’s my point: I really don’t think the City planners took a properly balanced approach to deciding how to do the renovations at Queen and Spadina.  I don’t think they tried to balance the costs to the City against the costs to its citizens and businesses.  If they had done the analysis, it would have made their case for them.  They didn’t use it, so it seems they didn’t do it either.

And that’s a problem for me.  Balance is fundamental to any situation.  Considering the relative fragility of our economy, it seems unwise to not have done all the appropriate analyses to decide the approach that is, overall, the most economical.  It wouldn’t have been that hard to do.  There’s plenty of data about traffic patterns in the area, and Toronto has extensive abilities to simulate traffic.  They could have done the analyses with a reasonable degree of certainty.  And then they would have known, instead of just guessing.

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