When it comes to building major transit and highway projects in Toronto, the planning, design and construction phases are often blamed for the length of time it takes to make the infrastructure a reality.
However, a new study suggests the informal gestation period, the time from when the project is first announced to when the formal planning process actually begins, is the main reason for the majority of delays.
Those gestation periods, when politicians and authorities try to hammer out in more detail what they really want to build, can span years, sometimes even decades, significantly delaying the progress of a project.
“The gap in-between when that announcement is made and when the project enters the really formal process of hiring people to do the designs, getting construction permits done, doing the environmental assessment, is really, really long. We found that it’s sometimes measured in generations,” says University of Toronto engineering professor Shoshanna Saxe, one of the lead authors of the study. “By the time we start construction, for many projects the perception is that they are already late.”
The study, called Timelines of Transportation Infrastructure Delivery 2000 to 2018 in Toronto, Canada and London, U.K., explored the timelines of 16 large infrastructure projects in Toronto and 10 in London. It was done with researchers from University College London who have a shared interest in infrastructure.
The goal was to identify how long it takes projects to go from idea to opening, how that time is spent and whether projects with long timelines see any benefit. All of the projects examined were worth more than $500 million.
The work contributes to two ongoing discussions around the speed of infrastructure delivery: one that argues infrastructure moves too slowly and major efforts are needed to speed delivery; and another that good infrastructure thinking requires time to breathe and care should be taken in rushing the delivery process.
The research found in many instances the informal gestation period dwarfs the time projects spend in formal planning.
“What we found is where we’re spending way more time, measured in decades, not in months, is before we even start the project,” explains Saxe. “Someone announces that we’re going to build this train line or we’re going to build this new piece of infrastructure and it’s announced, it gets covered in the press. But there’s a difference between a project being announced and it being a technical reality.
“The day that a politician makes an announcement or the day that it shows up in a planning report is not the day that an engineer is commissioned and it’s certainly not the day that a contractor is commissioned to start building it.”
The study reported that long informal gestational periods are common for many projects, particularly for linear projects, and long time-periods are common between initial project proposals and the start of the technical processes of actual delivery of a project.
“While much attention has been placed on project delays during the technical project processes (planning review, permitting, construction) these delays are often short in comparison to the years-to-decades-long political process of advancing a project proposal.”
According to the study findings, 16 of the 26 projects had gestation periods longer than 10 years. In nearly all cases the gestation period was longer than many technical assessment periods. Similarly, for the majority of the cases the gestation period was also significantly longer than construction.
A key insight from the study is that the gestation period is not filled with time spent radically innovating to invest new technologies or ideas that make a project viable, nor finding ingenious technical fixes to complex delivery of operation requirements.
Rather, lengthy and often unpredictable planning processes are actually a result of the ways in which political power is mobilized, wielded and legitimized, and long project planning periods and delays in the delivery of major projects are indicative of the fragmented and often fractious ways that communities made decisions and allocate scarce resources.
Saxe says planning, environmental assessments, red tape and construction often get the blame for delays of infrastructure projects but the research showed otherwise.
“What’s going on and causing most of the delay is the time it takes from, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this thing,’ to making it technically real, allocating money for it and going through some of the technical processes that are required to make it real. That time is disproportionately long. That was the main finding of our paper.”
For example, Saxe notes the Waterfront East LRT extension in Toronto was proposed a decade or so ago and just a couple of years ago there was an article in a newspaper noting it was delayed again.
“From a technical perspective, that project doesn’t exist,” she says. “It doesn’t have dedicated funding, it hasn’t been designed and there’s no contractor getting ready to build it. But we’ve been talking about it for a really long time and so there’s the perception that it’s already late. It hasn’t even started.”