Toronto

Pan Am Games storm Toronto with hurricane of headlines

The athletes are here, the venues are built and the HOV lanes are in effect, which only means one thing: Let the Games begin!

Traffic congestion, increasing costs, sluggish ticket sales provide plenty to complain about

Emily Miller takes a selfie at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto where people can attend a free live party and catch some fireworks. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

Ready or not, the Pan Am Games are here.

Six years after Toronto made its winning bid to host the Games, the city is rolling out the welcome mat for 10,000 athletes and officials from 41 countries in the largest international multi-sport event ever held in Canada. With 36 sports and hordes of participants, the Games even eclipse previous Olympic Games the country has hosted.

Canadian athletes have raved about the thrill of competing on home soil and government officials have applauded what they consider a chance to show off what the country has to offer, as well as what they deem an important legacy in infrastructure.

But the road to the Games hasn't been entirely smooth, and even now, with the opening ceremony set for Friday, excitement for the event is mingled with concerns over traffic and expenses.

Congestion is top of mind for many residents — including the city's former mayor, Rob Ford, who has complained publicly about special road measures in place for the Games.

Toronto's traffic nightmare

Organizers are counting on a 20-per-cent drop in traffic to keep gridlock at bay. For months, they've implored residents and visitors to walk, bike or carpool for the duration of the Games — a tough sell in a city where road closures for marathons and street festivals have become political hot potatoes.

Transportation officials say drivers are adjusting to temporary high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on highways linking the Games' 16 host municipalities, but admitted earlier this week that the typical commute into Toronto is now 10 to 12 minutes longer, when they were aiming for seven.

Ford, now a city councillor, called the lanes "a pain in the rear end" Wednesday and boasted that he broke the rules by driving in them alone, adding he has seen others do the same.

Meanwhile, at least one person has tried to fool police by driving with two mannequins in order to meet the three-person requirement for the restricted lanes.

Those who brave the roads will find many Pan Am venues lack parking and transit services are ramping up to accommodate the crowds, organizers say, with travel to and from events included in the ticket price.

Taxpayers footing the bill

Spending for the Games has also come under scrutiny after complaints over executive expenses and the discovery of a second budget for the event.

The province said in 2013 that the original $1.44-billion budget didn't include the $700-million cost of building the athletes' village or $10 million for the provincial Pan Am secretariat.

Estimated security costs have also more than doubled to $247.4 million from the initial $121.9 million in Toronto's bid for the Games.

Two years ago, the province ordered TO2015 to tighten its expense rules after some of its well-paid executives, including the committee's former president and CEO Ian Troop, billed taxpayers for items such as a 91-cent parking fee and $1.89 cup of tea.

Troop got a $534,000 severance package when he left amid the complaints. Since then, the bonus pool for executives on the TO2015 Games' organizing committee has been reduced from $7 million to $5.7 million, but it's being split among fewer executives.

Organizers said in May they had spent about 45 per cent of their $770-million operations budget.

Building infrastructure projects

Capital infrastructure spending has come in about $53.5 million under budget, largely because bidding for major venues was done four to five years ago, organizers said in their most recent quarterly report.

Some venues, such as the Milton velodrome, have already become an integral part of their community. Others have been plagued with delays, such as the Hamilton stadium, which opened nearly a year behind schedule.

Most of the Games' $2.5-billion budget comes from the federal, provincial and municipal governments, with ticket sales expected to cover $40 million.

But earlier this week, with just days to go before the Games, only 800,000 of the 1.4 million tickets had been sold.

And though officials predicted the Games would draw roughly 250,000 visitors to the region, the Greater Toronto Hotel Association says that's not reflected in hotel bookings. Some Toronto hotels have reported lower occupancy than normal in July.

Both Pan Am organizers and the hotel industry have said they are optimistic bookings will pick up once the Games are underway.

The Pan Am Games officially begin Friday, though some events began Tuesday. They continue until July 26, with the Parapan Am Games to follow in August.

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