Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Four things to remember as Toronto (again) debates the Gardiner's future

By: Metro Canada Published on Wed Apr 15 2015

Toronto has endured some long and heated debates about the future of the Gardiner Expressway as people concerned about their already dismal commutes getting worse tend to freak out.

But it’s not a topic we can ignore. The entirety of the highway started to crumble years ago. The city has already committed to fixing the expressway west of Jarvis St. The remainder — a 2.4 kilometre section between Jarvis and the Don Valley Parkway — needs to be modified or removed to open up land for development at the Unilever site, which is a prerequisite for Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack plan.

So for the next couple of months, we’ll again debate the Gardiner.

Details started to emerge Tuesday about a so-called “hybrid option” that would rebuild the link between the DVP and eastern Gardiner. We’ll learn more about the specifics later today. Whatever they are, I’m pretty sure they’re going to lead to some histrionics.

In an attempt to minimize such histrionics, here are some key things things to remember about this decision:

1. No one is talking about tearing down the whole Gardiner

Every time I write anything about the Gardiner East I get the same bunch of responses. We can’t get rid of the Gardiner, people say. It’s too important. Given the woeful state of the city’s transit system, they reason, how could anyone even think about getting rid of the expressway?

Good news! No one is talking about getting rid of the expressway. In fact, city hall just committed an extra $443 million to fixing it on an accelerated schedule. Sunk cost fallacy aside, that largely guarantees the Gardiner isn’t going away for at least another generation.

So repeat after me: There is no debate about whether to take down the entire expressway. It's not part of the current conversation.

2. Burying the Gardiner is a pipe dream and you need to stop bringing it up

The other response I always get when I write about Gardiner comes in the form of repeated calls to just bury the damn thing.

It’s not an unreasonable thought: putting the Gardiner underground through a tunnel seems like the perfect compromise. Cars would still enjoy a stoplight-free drive through downtown while the land atop could be reclaimed for proper waterfront development.

All that falls apart, however, when you start to add up the cost. It turns out tunnelled highways are expensive. Like, really really expensive. And complicated.

And besides: We’re not even debating the entire expressway, remember? We’re just talking about a small part of it. And there’s no good argument for burying just that part. A 2013 study put the cost for a kilometre-long tunnel — with long ramps at both ends — at $2.5 billion.

At that cost, it ain’t happening.

3. The fiscally conservative case is against rebuilding the Gardiner

Odds are pretty good that opinions about the future of the eastern Gardiner will break down along council’s unofficial party lines. Left-wing councillors will support removing it, while the self-described conservative councillors will support the hybrid option to maintain an uninterrupted link between the Gardiner and DVP. A handful of councillors may even support the still-expensive “maintain” option, which doesn’t allow for any new development.

There’s nothing inherently conservative about the hybrid option. It’s a massive public infrastructure project, with a reported life-cycle cost of nearly $1 billion. For its huge price tag, all indications are that it will serve a rather small number of people. In the morning peak rush hour, only three per cent of all commuters use this section of the expressway.

How much should the government spend to save that minority of people five minutes each day? That’s the fundamental question for this debate.

Removing the Gardiner, on the other hand, has all the hallmarks of an old school conservative play. It’s the cheapest option, requiring the shortest period of construction. It also opens up some ten acres of developable land that will earn the city some nice revenue from land sales before making developers rich.

4. The city can’t look at this in isolation and needs to think about all capital priorities

Even if you're convinced the hybrid option is the best choice on the table, there’s still a question of whether Toronto can afford it.

It’s the most expensive path forward. Finding the extra money needed will not be easy. And even if the beancounters are able to do it, councillors will need to grapple with this question: Is this really the best use of scarce resources?

There’s a real need to examine that question in the context of the city’s capital priorities: housing, infrastructure related to flood protection, transit expansion, accessibility, and a dozen others. David Hains at Torontoist did a good job covering this angle yesterday.

To add to that, here are some numbers to consider.

About 120,000 people use the eastern section of the Gardiner every day. The cost to save them all between three and five minutes each day? A reported $920 million. Meanwhile, 164,000 people are tenants of Toronto Community Housing. The current repair backlog to fix their increasingly uninhabitable homes? It’s $914-million.

The same amount of money for far different outcomes. That will be the choice. We can hope that will be the debate.

This post was originally published at on 2015-04-15T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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