Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Let’s look at the future of the Gardiner expressway as an economic issue

By: Matt Elliott Metro, Metro Published on Fri Feb 07 2014

The thing I hate most about the debate over the future of a short 2.4-kilometre section of the elevated Gardiner expressway — back in the spotlight this week after the release of a new report — is how dismissive some people get about the topic. It’s like we shouldn’t even consider changing the status quo.

It’s a lousy attitude, because let’s be honest: the status quo sucks. The section of the Gardiner under study, between Jarvis and the Don Valley Parkway, is one of the widest and highest sections of the highway, though it also carries the fewest cars. Below it there’s a tangled mess of roadways and ramps. While other parts of the Gardiner have started to successfully integrate with downtown — with condos built up right to the very edge of the highway — that isn’t really possible with this section, thanks to the winding path it takes right up to the water’s edge. To not even consider ways we might be able to improve this part of our waterfront is shortsighted.

But this shouldn't be a debate purely about aesthetics and utopian arguments made by big-dreaming urbanists. While this debate will inevitably descend into the standard left-versus-right screaming match, with progressive city builders on one side and “war on car” accusers on the other, there's another way to consider the Gardiner issue. We should do our best to think of the Gardiner as an economic issue — and let economics determine its future.

It’s a logical approach. Lots of politicians like to talk about how they want to “run government like a business.” But if you’re going to run government like a business that means approaching every issue just like a business would — in terms of dollars and cents.

So let’s consider this section of the Gardiner in that context, using numbers from the new report.

We know that repairing the roadway will cost $345 million. The report also estimates a further $525 million in maintenance costs — using 2013 dollars — over the next 100 years. So keeping it has a 100-year cost of about $870 million.

But we can’t stop there. Because of the highway configuration, its presence through this part of the city is dramatically limiting the ability to sell and develop what could be prime real estate. The report pegs the amount that could be realized at somewhere between $220 million and $240 million. — again, 2013 dollars.

The upshot? Between the money the city will have to spend maintaining it and the money the city will be giving up by maintaining it, this part of the Gardiner is a $1.1-billion problem.

That’s a lot of money, but the city has no shortage of billion-dollar problems. Sometimes it makes sense to spend a billion dollars fixing a problem, especially if the problem impacts lots of people. But do lots of people actually use this part of the highway?

The Gardiner has been described as one of the city’s most important traffic corridors, but actual usage numbers indicate a tendency to overstate its importance. Of the 157,200 people who commute into downtown Toronto every morning, only about seven per cent use the Gardiner. In morning rush hour, 1,200 cars use the section of the Gardiner being studied going east. Another 4,500 are heading west.

Removing or narrowing the Gardiner will impact these drivers. There’s no way to avoid that. But so will the march of time. The report, whose published models all optimistically assume the city builds a downtown relief subway line in addition to other downtown transit improvements, forecasts five-minute one-way increases to commute times on the Gardiner even if the highway is maintained exactly as-is. If we knock this part of the Gardiner down, the report forecasts a further one-way increase of about 10 minutes.

Nobody likes longer commute times, but if we’re going to run government like a business and deal with our problems through an economic lens, than we can’t go spending a billion dollars just to avoid making some drivers angry. Instead, we have to look at all these numbers objectively and consider questions like these.

  • What’s the economic impact of commute times increasing by 10 minutes for about 5,700 drivers at peak every morning?
  • Is it worth more than a billion dollars in hard costs and foregone revenue opportunities to avoid this increase in commute times?
  • Are there other ways the city could spend a billion dollars that could help some of the people driving those cars get where they need to be more efficiently?
  • I don’t yet know all the answers to these questions. I’d like to see more traffic data that models other trip patterns and looks at traffic over different times of day. But I do know that these questions are the way we should be framing the debate. This Gardiner issue isn’t about a war-on-cars, nor is it about urbanism, really. It’s about money and how the city should best spend it to move people.

    This post was originally published at on 2014-02-07T00:00:00.000Z

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    Matt Elliott

    City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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