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.

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The politics of pile-driving

I hate it when politics gets in the way of technology and common sense.

In Weston, a community in the Greater Toronto Area, a new mass transit railway is being installed by GO Transit.  Generally, I approve of the expansion of public transit, but in this particular case, there are a number of problems that are causing substantial grief for the residents of the area and make me wonder if this project shouldn’t be stopped – at least temporarily – until the problems can be solved.

To install the railway, many structural elements are being pile-driven into the ground.  Pile-driving is a noisy activity, generating noise at as much as 135 dB, which is somewhere between jackhammer and a jet engine.  And there’s a lot of piles to drive.  Since this project has just recently started, now is the time to make sure that the right technology has been chosen for the job.

There is a “blanket” that is supposed to be installed around the head of the pile-driver, and that can lower the source sound by 15 dB.  (Remember that doubling how loud a noise is adds only 10 dB to the noise rating, so 140 dB is twice as loud as 130 dB.)  But it apparently takes 30-40 minutes to install and to remove, and this seems to be unacceptable to GO.  To confuse matters even more, the installer (GO) is a provincial entity, and the land on which the work is being done is federal land.  GO is saying it’s exempt, therefore, from City of Toronto noise regulations (which seem to be violated quite seriously in this case).

Now, it happens that there’s lots of ways to mitigate the noise.  One way would just be to say: Follow the rules, use the existent blanket, or we’ll sue.  There are also sound dampening walls, but it seems they are not exactly positioned in ideal locations.  Then there’s a variety of other technologies, one of which is outlined in this paper, that show marked noise reductions.

It’s clear that the noise is harmful, and it’s clear that there are ways to lessen the noise.  So what’s the problem?

Part of the answer may lie in papers like this one, the abstract of which I include verbatim:

This paper describes how the Florida Department of Transportation, (FDOT), District II, as a result of various ongoing legal issues with the City of Jacksonville, was abruptly forced to meet compliance within the City of Jacksonville Noise Ordinance program for all ongoing construction projects within the city limits. Specifically FDOT was required to meet the Jacksonville Environmental Protection Board – Rule 4.0 Noise Pollution Control (Section 4.208 Construction or Maintenance Projects). This section of the noise ordinance limits construction related noise levels to 65 dBA when measured at the closest adjacent residential land use property line. Further, the noise ordinance specifically required that all compliance noise monitoring was to be conducted with a real time octave band analyzer. Due to the close proximity of residential land uses along both the east and west sides of Saint Johns Bluff Road, along with the significant noise levels associated with pile driving operations, the FDOT was forced to develop a reasonable and feasible noise abatement technique that would allow the timely completion of the pile driving phase of the roadway construction project. Failure to comply with the local jurisdiction noise ordinance would result in potential project delays until compliance was demonstrated to the City of Jacksonville. The enforcement of this local jurisdiction noise ordinance had wide spread implications ranging from potential project delays on all roadway work within the city limits to increased traffic congestion on roadway projects under construction. Further, all roadway construction projects previously approved by the FDOT had to consider an increased project cost that would specifically include the necessary noise abatement techniques to meet the City of Jacksonville Noise Ordinance for Construction Projects.

Notice the use of language here: FDOT was abruptly forced to obey the law, forced to develop a “reasonable and feasible” way to lessen the noise, and that failure to comply would delay the project, cause increased traffic, and increased cost of future projects.  No where does this abstract mention the health impact of this kind of noise, and the obligation of FDOT to the people of Florida.  And shouldn’t we expect governments to come up with “reasonable” solutions without being forced to do so?  If this attitude is pervasive in the public works world, it doesn’t surprise me at all that we’re having problems in Weston.

So, the problem isn’t technological: there are ways to lower the intensity of the sound.  The problem, it seems to me, is purely political.  There are three levels of government involved here (which is ‘way too many cooks in this kitchen), and they’re not playing fair.

This is one helluva design problem because of the constraints on the system, namely that every level of government is trying to do the least amount of work, and they’re all working for different stakeholder groups and therefore have different (i.e. conflicting) goals.  The City of Toronto is interested in the local residents, but they lack the funding to implement the platinum-level solution themselves – indeed, it likely lacks the funding to try to force the others to satisfy the residents.  GO Transit (the Province of Ontario) has to keep costs severely in check or the rest of the province will start thinking that Toronto is getting most of the available funding, which is politically bad.  The Feds don’t give a tinker’s cuss about this whole matter, because public transit is not something that Ottawa lobbyists (e.g. the auto sector, the petroleum sector, the insurance sector) care about.

I don’t have a feasible solution here, because I refuse to offer a political solution.  Since politics is a purely human construct, it can never outweigh other, real factors, like the health of individuals.  That politics does influence this situation at all scares me.

The correct answer is that the primary stakeholders are the City of Toronto and its residents.  They stand to gain the most from the new GO line, and they stand to suffer the most if and when things go wrong.  So the Province and the Feds should give control of the entire project to the City on a cost recovery basis: As the City identifies costs, the other levels of government just hand over the money to get it done.  If the project ends up costing more than it should have, then too bad – they’ll just have to cough up more cash.

Because people are worth it.