Cities crumbling beneath our feet

Russell Wangersky
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On the railway tracks over Yonge Street in Toronto, the big green and white GO trains start slow and loud and lumber up to speed, dragging double-decker tails of commuter-filled cars behind them out to bedroom communities on both sides of the city.

The trains are packed with people so enured to the travel — so familiar to the very length of it — that you can watch them drop off to sleep within minutes of getting onboard and then wake spontaneously mere minutes before their stops, without so much as an announcement that a stop is even approaching.

It’s a slightly careworn, heavily used but still modern way to flick scores of people out of the city without adding to the automobile gridlock.

The same can’t be said for the underside of the tracks, because, out of plain sight and maybe out of mind, things are anything but modern.

The rail bridge over Yonge is long enough that it feels like a tunnel, a city block’s length of dark, dirty concrete and the echoes of passing vehicles. There’s enough dirt and dust down there that your feet sometimes slip slightly sideways on the accumulated grit, and the walls grow darker as they rise up to the top, stained with years of exhaust.

Midway through the tunnel, when it rains, a stream of water pours through a jagged crack in the ceiling, both sides of the crack white with a calcified paste where something like lime has leached out of the concrete. Further down the sidewalk, there’s another, larger crack, and when you start looking around, you can see dozens upon dozens of places where the concrete is spalling away from the underlying web of steel rebar, and the rebar is furred with red rust.

It’s not hard to imagine those leaks freezing and thawing through the winter, splitting concrete from the roof and widening their passages with every cold season.

Concrete problems

Concrete has been big news in Toronto in the last week or so: the Gardner Expressway, a major downtown arterial that many city residents depend on, has just gotten a troubling inspection report suggesting serious problems with concrete in older portions of the curving, elevated roadway — not a completely unexpected conclusion, given the recent frequency of chunks of loose cement falling onto the road.

Meanwhile, blocks from the Gardner, on Front Street, there is a massive dig going on — a much-needed expansion of the downtown subway core. The same number of blocks on the other side of the Gardner, the city is busy ripping up and moving streetcar tracks from the centre of the road to the edge, to make the system safer.

And it’s not that the expansions and changes aren’t needed; they are. The real question is whether many cities in Canada aren’t flirting with something of an infrastructure tipping-point, especially with regard to  infrastructure that is either buried or just off the beaten track.

It’s not limited to Toronto — I’ve seen similar signs of fingers-crossed lack of care in cities ranging from Vancouver to Montreal to Regina. Cross under some railway tracks in Regina, and you can see spalled concrete in worse condition than the crumbling military bunkers at Cape Spear.

And there are clear signs of it in this province, too.

We need new stuff, too

Now, it’s true that we need services like the city’s Riverhead sewage treatment facility and new vehicles for combined recycling and garbage pickup. It’s true that cities like Corner Brook and Mount Pearl can’t afford to leave service improvements aside to sink money into the mundane, hauling out old pipes and putting in new.

It’s also true, though, that upgrades to services that are out of sight and out of mind — like aging water mains, sewers and bridges — don’t have the kind of bang that gets politicians votes.

“We’re maintaining the existing pipes” doesn’t sell as well as sidewalk repairs or street upgrading.

There are only so many dollars to go around — and there clearly aren’t enough dollars. Federal and provincial administrations haven’t kept up with their share of the costs, and municipal expenses in other areas are growing, so push has to come to shove.

Just stop and think about the number of major water main breaks there have been in St. John’s this year alone — several of them along the same aged water lines from Windsor Lake. And consider the number of times that the city has pointed out that the mains that have broken were over 100 years old. How many things are there in your home that are 100 years old that you’d trust to keep working, without ever being upgraded or repaired? Exactly.

Maybe it’s because Toronto is such a huge, complicated and aging city that the problems are so plainly obvious — they practically fall on your head sometimes.

But as we keep building the necessary new, and crossing our fingers about the fading condition of the old, you can’t help but expect that we are going to be in for some nasty surprises.

A stitch in time saves nine. But you have to be able to afford that stitch before it’s too late.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Geographic location: Toronto, Yonge Street, Regina Front Street Canada Vancouver Montreal Corner Brook Mount Pearl

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Recent comments

  • Winston Adams
    October 27, 2012 - 12:36

    Here in Bishop's Cove there are a hundred sewer lines going to the sea. Next door in Upper Island Cove , the sewers connect and discharge in 3 places, 50 feet off the beach. In the other direction, in Spaniard's Bay, they once had a treatment plant . It was too expensive to operate, so for the past decade , it too empties it's raw sewage into beach areas. They are the bubble sones , where the birds hang out. Not a nice tourist attraction. Not good for fish or kids. In Island Cove , noted for thier houmour, they tell how Geoff Stirling on a visit to the GaleCliff B&B, decided to take a swim in the sea. It is said he liked attention. No one else swam in the sea there,, for obvious reasons- the sewer outfall was only a hundred feet away. But Geoff didn't know that, and being Geoff, was out of reach before anyone knew. In Island Cove they tell, with a laugh " we had to shot rocks at 'en , to get ,en to come in" Imagine any Nflder going to the USA and having an experience like that. And yet we are indifferent to it here. In Alaska, was it, they built a road to nowhere. good politics up there then. With no demand for power here we plan to build a power system for unneeded power from Labrador. The federal government is mandating we stop raw sewage being dumped into the sea- but where will the money come from? Are priorities screwed up/

  • W McLean
    October 27, 2012 - 10:54

    Just wait until the repair bills start coming due on the low-density, low-population, single-use post-war suburban mess that North America has been building for the past 65 years, and continues to build without any regard for future costs.

  • Derrick
    October 27, 2012 - 10:08

    CBS just started a 23 million ice rink and they have the nerve to ask the fed's for money to repair roads and water. What do they expect from the taxpayer ?

    • PETER L
      October 29, 2012 - 06:37

      DERRICK, You have obviously no idea how all this gets funded. The ice rink is a joint venture by all levels of government, as is road repairs and other projects. All levels of government budget for various aspects of municipal assistance such as recreation, water and sewer, roads and other items. This money, as I said, is budgeted yearly, you should really study how these things work before making such uneducated comments.

  • Cyril Rogers
    October 27, 2012 - 09:08

    Mr. Wangersky, I can't help but compare the state of our highways to those of the U.S. Over the past few years I have driven on their Interstate Highways and their secondary roads and have been very impressed with the condition of their sysytems. I realize we face more obstacles, such as worse winters and rougher terrain but what I found there was that even their secondary roads are often twinned. In lots of cases, one can take a comfortable, relaxed drive over four-lane highways, where traffic volumes are very light, and posted speeds are 65-70 MPH. The condition of highways is a problem here, both provincially and nationally. Some of our national systems are good but many are crumbling and poorly designed. Highway 17 through much of northern Ontario comes to mind! When you combine highway and municipal infrastructure needs in this country, you find a huge need for investment and I fear governments are not up to the task. If we, in this province, are forced to have the Muskrat Falls project rammed down our throats, you will see an already weak infrastructure system get even worse and become more dangerous and ever more expensive to replace. Simply put, Muskrat Falls will drain us of the necessary funds to upgrade our infrastructure, or even maintain it at the current inadequate levels.