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Close Queen St. for five years to build a subway station? Think again – Toronto Star

Construction of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT route looking east to Kennedy station and the tunnel to the new station.

By Star Editorial Board

Sun., Aug. 22, 20213 min. read

It might be timely to recall Hofstadter’s Law, the proposition that any complex task we set out to complete always takes longer than expected.

This maxim — supported by what’s known as the “Planning Fallacy” – is based on our inherent optimism bias, which causes us to consistently underestimate the time, cost and risks of future actions while overestimating the benefits.

Any home renovation project could serve as a case in point.

A more spectacular illustration of these phenomena at work occurred during construction of the Sydney Opera House, which was supposed to take four years to build but took 14 and came in at more than 14 times the original budget.

That was not, we acknowledge, some one-off form of Aussie exceptionalism.

Other famously over-ambitious timelines and budget forecasts included the International Space Station, the Channel Tunnel connecting England and France, Boston’s Big Dig to bury its expressways and, closer to home, Montreal’s Big O and Mirabel Airport.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the eye-popping news this week from the Star’s transportation reporter, Ben Spurr, that a section of Queen Street might be closed for almost half a decade to allow for construction of a new subway stop in downtown Toronto on the proposed Ontario Line.

Metrolinx, the provincial agency that oversees transit in the GTA, said the proposed closure between Bay and Victoria streets would last roughly from May 2023 to November 2027.

The 15.6-kilometre Ontario line is expected to handle up to 388,000 trips a day by 2041. The closure would be necessary for the complex work of running it beneath the existing Queen Street station, Metrolinx said.

Long road closures require city council approval and Metrolinx hopes to take its plan to councillors in November.

Before signing off on this monumental disruption, city council should ask Metrolinx to have another crack at its plan, in hopes of devising a more expedient timeline and to make sure – as much as is humanly possible – that the humbling realities of Hofstadter’s Law have been accounted for.

Not to say, of course, that any of this is easy.

Neuroscientists say the ability to contemplate the future is what distinguishes humanity from other species. But our mastery over it is another matter.

Predictions and forecasts – as those who operate gambling emporia happily know and those in the polling business frequently demonstrate — remain a risky business.

When it comes to Hofstadter’s Law, Oliver Burkeman says in his new book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals that there’s further bad news.

Projects tend to over-run completion estimates even when the law is taken into account and a schedule is adjusted accordingly to build in some slack.

“It suggests something very strange,” Burkeman said. “That the activities we try to plan for somehow actively resist our efforts to make them conform to our plans. It’s as if our efforts to be good planners don’t merely fail but cause things to take longer still.”

If the renovation of Union Station or construction of the Eglinton Crosstown light rail line is any indication, the five-year estimate is likely a pipedream.

And even if the Ontario Line project at Queen St. hits its target, five years – a period long enough to have waged world wars – is a depressingly long time for the kind of chaos that would descend on the downtown core.

In an era when China is able to build skyscrapers in days and, in the transition from agrarian to urban economy, add to its landscape the equivalent of a new London every year, surely a quicker, less disruptive way can be found to get this done.

Metrolinx: please think again.