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Excitement for Pan Am Games mingled with concerns over traffic, spending

07/09/2015 12:09 EDT | Updated 07/09/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Toronto highways are clogged, tickets sales have only just passed the halfway mark and hotels are reporting fewer bookings than expected.

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 eclipse even the 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.

Saad Rafi, CEO of the TO2015 organizing committee, said he believes Canadians will come out feeling "very proud of what's been done here."

"Sometimes it's hard to get a real sense of what (the Games) have to offer because there is so much available in this region," he said.

"But I think when people start seeing Canadian athletes on the top of the podium, when they start seeing Nathan Phillips Square fireworks every night with fantastic artists, Pan Am Park, and so on and so on, just as we saw in the Vancouver Olympics, they're going to flood back and flood into the city and the region."

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

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 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" on 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, though the new soccer stadium in Hamilton offers reserved parking for ticket holders.

Transit service is ramping up to accommodate the crowds, organizers say, with travel to and from events included in the ticket price.

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.

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.

Since financial reporting for the Games follows the fiscal year, the bulk of the operating expenses will be paid after the event. Organizers said in May they had spent about 45 per cent of their $770-million operations budget.

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

But earlier this week, with just days to go before the Games, only about 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 business will pick up once the Games are underway.

"We're really pleased with where we're at and tickets continue to sell strongly," Rafi said.

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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