Daniel Miller’s three-year-old son loves to play in the playground next to his daycare. He slides down the bright blue slide, climbs on the play structure and digs in the sandpit.
So in March, when Miller saw construction workers digging with a large machine just a few metres from that same bright blue slide, making noise and blowing dust toward the kids playing there, he was “upset and concerned.”
The construction workers had been contracted by Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency. They were conducting early works for the Ontario Line, the 15.6-kilometre subway line that’s set to run from Exhibition Place to the Science Centre, right past Pape Children’s House, where Miller’s son is enrolled, and Pape Avenue Junior Public School, where his daughter is in Grade 3.
The classroom where Miller’s daughter, who wants to be a writer when she grows up, studies English, and the playground where Miller’s son likes to slide, climb and dig, will be next to a decade-long construction project.
But Miller and other Pape parents say despite requesting one for months, they have yet to see a detailed safety plan from Metrolinx.
“I get that you need to break a few eggs to make an omelette, but this is crazy,” Miller said. “I don’t think they really have a plan for how to protect our kids.”
The Pape parents’ complaint is only the latest example of how the provincial transit agency, which is responsible for building a subway line through Canada’s densest city, has come under fire from residents.
As Metrolinx’s Ontario Line plans have rapidly moved forward, people across the city have called attention to the trees, homes, businesses and cultural landmarks being written off as collateral damage in the transit expansion. In most cases, Metrolinx has bulldozed ahead, without a level of consultation or transparency that communities feel they’re due.
Last month, community members were outraged when Metrolinx said it planned to chop down trees in a historic grove at Osgoode Hall, after saying it would wait for the results of an independent review. Though in a rare win for Metrolinx’s opponents, the transit agency reversed course.
Some communities have pushed back against Metrolinx’s apparent heavy-handed approach by asking for changes to the planned route. Residents of Thorncliffe Park were “gutted” when Metrolinx announced last year it planned to build a massive maintenance and storage facility in the neighbourhood, displacing a mosque and dozens local businesses. In Riverside, the group Save Jimmie Simpson has been fighting to bury the subway to preserve the area’s parks and keep neighbourhoods quiet.
The Ontario Line will be transformative for Toronto, a city that’s long needed a more robust transit system but has seen expansion plan after expansion plan scrapped. The $19-billion project, which is set to be finished in 2031, will offer much-needed relief to Toronto’s overburdened subway system, ferrying 388,000 people across the city each day, and putting 227,500 more Torontonians within walking distance to transit, Metrolinx estimates.
Pape Avenue Junior Public School and Pape Children’s House are located on Pape between Langley and Riverdale Avenues, just up the street from the Gerrard portal — the point at which the Ontario Line will dive back underground, following a 2-kilometre elevated stretch along the joint rail corridor shared with GO Transit. The school, which goes up to Grade 6, has 337 students. Roughly 120 kids attend the daycare.
To make room for the new subway tunnel along Pape, Metrolinx says it must relocate a storm sewer from Pape Avenue to beneath the school, according to a presentation the transit agency made to parents last month. This will involve micro-tunnelling beneath school property. Before that, Metrolinx will have to relocate several utilities in the area, perform an archeological investigation and an environmental site assessment — and that’s all before construction on the actual subway line begins.
“Metrolinx takes the safety of its projects very seriously, ensuring its contractors develop and adhere to a robust health and safety plan in all instances,” spokesperson Suniya Kukaswadia wrote in a statement.
But Miller says the transit agency’s safety approach so far has felt “scattershot.”
In March, when Miller saw workers digging in the ground north of the sidewalk on Langley Avenue — about one metre from the fence that separates the playground and the street — he shared his concerns with Metrolinx in an email. In response, Metrolinx said it “tried really hard” to have the construction done over the March break, but the contractor was not able to make that work.
Later in the spring, Miller says he saw construction materials and barrels filled with what he describes as “unknown chemicals” left behind on school property. Metrolinx says the barrels were filled with water, soil and clay, and did not contain harmful substances. In October, Miller captured a crew drilling into Pape Avenue, directly across the street from where his son and other kids were playing. In the video, which he shared with the Star, a small child can be seen covering their ears with their hands while construction happens around them.
“They’re building next to babies,” Miller said.
That day Miller clocked the noise level at 92 decibels, according to a screenshot he took at the time. Exposure to a noise level over 85 decibels for extended periods can cause permanent hearing loss, according to the American Academy of Audiology.
After Miller emailed Metrolinx about the noise levels, the transit agency says it told the contractor to stop working immediately.
There is a natural give-and-take that comes with a transit project of this scale, which can often mean upheaving the lives of a few people in the short term to benefit the broader public in the long term. But among communities affected by the Ontario Line, there is a growing sense of mistrust towards Metrolinx.
The Pape parents say Metrolinx’s interactions with them have felt more like a PR exercise than a genuine effort to hear them out, with the transit agency frequently dismissing safety concerns and downplaying what the parents say will be inevitable disruptions to their kids’ education.
“If we let Metrolinx control (the) message, it’s a pretty rosy picture,” said Amrita Takhar, another parent with a three-year-old at the daycare and an eight-year-old at the school. “But if you look at the actual construction that’s happening that’s not the case.”
Alexandra McLellan, whose six- and eight-year-old sons go to Pape, said Metrolinx’s approach to parents has felt like “one-way communication.”
“We should be asked questions and asked for our feedback before they move ahead with plans, especially when it comes to health and safety.”
Metrolinx says it is “actively working” with the Toronto District School Board, the school’s principal and the parent council to “create a construction safety management plan and has been conducting regular site visits and safety reviews.”
But a recent presentation Metrolinx gave to the parent council did nothing to assuage fears.
“Real safety and construction plans aren’t vague assurances, they come in the form of signed commitments and contracts,” Miller said.
A spokesperson for the Toronto school board said it “shares the concerns of the parents and we are also waiting on a detailed traffic plan and construction plan from Metrolinx.” The school board said it is not currently considering relocating the kids at Pape school.
Paula Fletcher, city councillor for Toronto-Danforth, says the opacity with which Metrolinx is operating is typical of the provincial transit agency. “If this was a city project, we wouldn’t be having this issue at this point of people feeling in the dark,” she said.
Fletcher agrees with parents that plans aren’t as well thought out as they need to be.
“The school will become an entire part of a construction site and I don’t think it’s being approached like that,” she said.
At city council this week, Fletcher is introducing a motion about safety issues at the Pape site. If the motion is approved, council will ask Metrolinx to join a weekly committee of school representatives, local residents and city staff about traffic and construction concerns.
Moving forward, Metrolinx said it plans to install a sound barrier around the site and will only do work outside of school hours, unless agreed upon by the school.
But according to the transit agency’s presentation to parents, the city has requested the sewer relocation work — set to run from November 2023 through April 2025 — take place from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday, so it can get done as quickly as possible.
Kids have had a tough few years, enduring school shutdown after school shutdown due to the pandemic. The parents say they just want to feel confident their kids will be safe and happy at school.
By the time the Ontario Line trains start running, Miller’s son will have graduated elementary school, his days of sliding down the blue slide a distant memory.
“We understand that transit needs to be built and that construction isn’t always easy on communities,” Miller said. “But it shouldn’t be a whack-a-mole safety plan.”
Clarification — Dec. 12, 2022: Parents Amrita Takhar and Daniel Miller are part of an Ontario Line subcommittee, an initiative of the Pape Avenue Junior Public School’s parent council. A previous version of this article said Takhar and Miller are members of the council.