Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Gardiner East: Toronto only has one shot at getting this right

Published on Fri Feb 28 2014

The debate over the future of the eastern section of the Gardiner expressway continued this week with the release of a very long city report. Staff are, as expected, recommending that council endorse removing the part of the highway between Jarvis Street and the Don Valley Parkway. It’s a recommendation backed up by Waterfront Toronto.

Cue the drama.

A lot of councillors are very concerned about the recommendation. Despite a peer-reviewed traffic study released by Waterfront Toronto suggesting that removing this short section of elevated expressway would impact only one per cent of commuters — or 7,000 cars — it’s hard for them to get around their gut feeling such a move will create traffic chaos. And gut feelings go a long way in politics, especially these days.

This has prompted some ridiculous ideas, like doubling down and building a gargantuan two-storey highway, or tearing down the highway only to build yet another one, or once again looking at building an incredibly expensive tunnel.

Among those ideas is this very common objection: We shouldn’t consider removing any part of the Gardiner until transit improvements are in place. That notion was advanced by Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly this week, and at a glance it sounds reasonable enough. Why not keep this part of the Gardiner for now, then reassess once transit projects like the downtown relief line actually materialize?

But here's the problem with that approach: It would be a colossal waste of money.

It’s important to understand the scope of the Gardiner East debate. Maintaining the highway does not just mean applying a bit of spackle. It’s a massive and incredibly expensive project, one that will cost about $394-million and require at least six years of rolling lane closures. The work would include replacing the entire highway deck, which essentially means we’d have a whole new roadway by the time construction ends.

It would make zero sense to go through that lengthy process — projected to wrap up around 2025 — and then look at finally tearing it down. It’d be an infrastructure equivalent of setting a stack of public money on fire. Money that could have gone to a project like the East Bayfront LRT. After spending almost $400 million maintaining the elevated highway, it’d be hard to find anyone who would endorse spending another $40 million to tear it down.

If council votes to keep this part of the Gardiner now, they’re very likely voting to keep it for another 50 years — at least. It’ll exist for another lifetime, probably outlasting every member of council.

And with that comes serious impacts. We’ve already heard from one developer whose plans to build on the waterfront are contingent on the Gardiner East’s removal. And we know from reports that the budget impacts resulting from the remove and maintain options are dramatically different. If the city removes, it realizes millions from land sales. If the city maintains, it faces continued high maintenance expenses that are impossible to avoid with an elevated highway.

And for what benefit? That’s the question councillors should be coming back to. If these politicians want to fashion themselves as fiscal conservatives then they’ve got to stop talking about hypothetical traffic chaos and start looking at real figures and real costs. What’s the economic benefit to ensuring one per cent of commuters don’t potentially see a 10-minute delay in their commute? How does that benefit stack up against a more-developed waterfront which will result in land sale revenue, property tax assessment growth and more Toronto-based jobs?

The Gardiner debate must be rooted in those questions. The alternative is just mindless fear-mongering. And that’s no way to make a decision that will last a lifetime.

This post was originally published at on 2014-02-28T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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