By Ben Spurr Transportation Reporter Toronto Star
The COVID-19 crisis could force significant delays to major Toronto-area transit projects, experts warn, a development that would be a painful setback for a region that was already decades behind in building an adequate network.
While it’s still not clear how long the crisis will last and how much damage it will wreak on the province’s economy, it has the potential to affect lines already under construction, like the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, as well as those still in the planning stages, like the Ontario Line and other projects in the Progressive Conservative government’s $28.5-billion network expansion plan.
And on Wednesday, Crosslinx Transit Solutions, the consortium building the $5.3-billion LRT, said a work site had been closed after one worker tested positive for COVID-19 and two more were deemed presumptive cases pending test results.
Crosslinx spokesperson Kirsten Jenkins said the Black Creek and Eglinton site office will undergo deep cleaning and was expected to reopen next week.
“Overall I think the pandemic will have a negative impact on completion dates” for transit projects, said Andy Manahan, executive director of the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario, which represents labour and management construction groups across the province.
He said in the short-term, projects are likely to be delayed by health precautions that prevent construction crews from working normally, and in the long-term could be affected by disruptions to global construction supply chains and government funding constraints caused by the economic downturn that’s already started to grip the province.
That means work should continue on the Eglinton Crosstown, the 19-kilometre midtown line that’s been under construction since 2011. Work on the 11-kilometre Finch West LRT, scheduled to open in 2023, should also move ahead.
“However, there is a clear expectation for all of our contractors to ensure the health and safety of all of their workers and if that cannot be guaranteed work must immediately cease,” said Aikins.
Even before the COVID crisis hit, the Eglinton Crosstown was set to be delayed past the province’s September 2021 completion date.
On Tuesday, Jenkins, the Crosslinx spokesperson, said the consortium had changed shift schedules and taken other steps to allow for social distancing, but declined to say whether it believes the LRT will be further delayed by COVID-19. She noted Crosslinx has seen an increase in absenteeism as workers self-isolate, call in sick, or simply don’t show up for their shifts.
A spokesperson for the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 183, which represents about 350 people working on the Crosstown, said although the government is allowing construction to proceed, work will likely have to slow to allow crew members to follow public health recommendations to keep two metres apart.
“I would imagine that the level of productivity would be reduced under these circumstances,” said Jason Ottey, director of communications for LIUNA Local 183. He said construction schedules on the Crosstown will likely have to be adjusted to account for“spreading that work out appropriately” and allowing for social distancing.
The Crosstown’s completion could also be affected by Bombardier’s announcement Tuesday that it’s suspending non-essential production at its Ontario and Quebec facilities as a result of the pandemic. The company is building the fleet for the Crosstown, and delays to vehicle production could force the LRT’s opening day to be pushed back further.
Bombardier spokesperson Sandra Buckler said work on the Crosstown vehicles is continuing at the company’s Kingston, Ont. plant, but didn’t answer directly when asked whether the company will meet fleet delivery deadlines. She said as a result of COVID-19, the company is “experiencing many supply chain issues; however, we are continuing to do what we can.”
In the longer term, the outbreak could also disrupt plans for the four transit projects that make up the provincial government’s $28.5-billion GTA expansion—the Ontario Line, Yonge North subway extension, Scarborough subway extension, and Eglinton West LRT.
According to the schedule Premier Ford announced last April, the Ontario Line is slated for completion as early as 2027, a timeline many experts had warned was unrealistic before the crisis. The other projects would be finished between 2029 and 2031.
Although the province cited financial constraints in its cancellation the Hamilton LRT last December before the outbreak began, Aikins said the provincial government “has provided assurances” that funding for its four GTA projects “will not be impacted by the COVID pandemic.”