(Originally published Dec. 8, 2018)
WHAT is it with construction delays in Thunder Bay? Does every city in Canada experience this much trouble getting stuff built? Whether it’s big jobs like roads and buildings or household renovations, the concept of completing work on time seems to have gone by the wayside.
Oftentimes the onset of winter weather is blamed. But winter has been winter since the dawn of time and everyone involved should know when to begin a job in order to get it done before freeze-up.
Sometimes contractors take on too many jobs at once, which is just asking for trouble. Everyone who’s ever torn apart a floor, wall or ceiling to make improvements knows there are always surprises.
On big jobs, delays are almost expected as routine. That’s particularly true on public projects where the theory seems to be that an infinite source of funds means payment is pretty much guaranteed no matter what happens.
Penalties for failure to complete jobs on time don’t seem to have worked. And taxpayers always wonder if they pay, or the contractor, when things go awry.
Here’s just a partial rundown of construction projects in Thunder Bay that haven’t gone as planned.
First and surely foremost must be a new elementary school on Churchill Drive. After taking seemingly forever to decide how to proceed with its schools consolidation process the Lakehead public board decided to close and replace two schools with a new one beside Sir Winston Churchill High School which itself has been closed and scheduled for demolition.
It seems that someone forgot to test the ground where the foundation would go — a process that should go without saying. After estimating the school would cost $20 million, the project was approved by the province and a contractor hired. Then it was discovered that the ground is on the edge of the Williams bog — a swamp, really, that is well known in construction circles. Significant extra piling is required to hold up the new school which adds $10 million to the price tag. Completion is now scheduled for September 2019, which sounds awfully ambitious.
The board is also dealing with delay in the addition of a new cafeteria/auditorium at Westgate High School because structural steel didn’t show up on time. This is forcing students, including an influx from Churchill, to eat lunch in shifts or in hallways.
The Nipigon bridge fiasco is famous for all the wrong reasons. The gorgeous cable-stayed structure was built with defective bolts which snapped in winter cold in 2016 causing the bridge deck to heave upwards, severing the Trans-Canada Highway for several hours. Giant concrete barriers were piled on to weigh down the deck while a permanent fix was contemplated. It took until this fall to get all four lanes open but the province has yet to reveal who did what wrong, who will pay the cost or how much it will be. The initial cost estimate of $116 million is a distant memory.
Speaking of bridges, CN Rail has yet to signal its intention to follow court orders to re-open its James Street bridge to vehicles after a 2013 fire. CN quickly resumed its train traffic but claimed the road portion was unsafe before challenging a century-old agreement that was signed with the municipality to provide a road bridge “in perpetuity.”
A detour along busy Highway 61 takes Fort William First Nation traffic to an intersection that was never designed for this volume of automobiles. There have been many accidents, plenty of frustration for motorists, and significant court costs for city taxpayers.
That traffic congestion has been magnified for months now as construction proceeded on rail over- and under-passes — a job that was supposed to be completed by the end of November and now won’t be done until next year.
It is reminiscent of another bridge job further north on Highway 61 over the Neebing River. Begun in 2016 it was supposed to be done by that fall but was delayed until the following spring.
Estimated completion dates on condos and a hotel in Marina Park have been changed many times, snarled by a series of legal disputes between the developer and trades companies. The condos are occupied but the Delta-Marriott hotel’s opening is two years behind schedule.
Elsewhere in the park, the boater’s launch and parking lot were closed at the end of September for construction delays just as the many boat owners who pay a good buck for dock space were preparing to haul their vessels out for winter.
Rebuilding busy Balmoral Street has been delayed by three years. As part of the work an odd decision was made to skip repaving the Harbour Expressway approaches to Balmoral when work on the intersection itself was done. Those approaches are among Thunder Bay’s worst roadways as is the very busy part of Balmoral north of the intersection, between the Harbour Expressway and Central Avenue.
Work on and under Arthur Street west of Leland went much better this summer than the section east of there which dragged on for over a year with lane closures on the city’s main south-side east-west artery.
St. Joseph’s Care Group wound up suing the contractor building its big new hospital expansion on Algoma Street which was delayed for a year.
Condos at the Thunder Bay Country Club will open a year or two late after the club was forced to hire a new contractor. The one that did the basement wasn’t qualified to build the rest.
On a positive note, construction is proceeding on Thunder Bay’s provincial cannabis store in a strip mall just off the Harbour Expressway. In this case, planners seem to have been on the ball. The store is two doors down from an A&W — convenient for construction workers as well as cannabis customers with the munchies when the place opens in April.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.