Mayoral candidate Jennifer Keesmaat is vowing to tear down the eastern portion of the Gardiner Expressway, replacing it with a ground-level boulevard, after council ignored her advice as chief planner.
The “grand boulevard” option, as Keesmaat and other city builders, planners and advocates for the option have long called it, would replace the council-approved plan under Mayor John Tory to rebuild the 1950s-era elevated expressway and maintain the decked connection to the Don Valley Parkway.
“This kind of a structure is really a relic of the past,” Keesmaat said, standing in front of the Gardiner on Sunday morning. “Forward-looking cities are tearing down their elevated expressways and instead creating new communities and new places.”
Tearing down the structure would unlock valuable land underneath through a shorter construction period and better connect the rest of the city to the waterfront, Keesmaat said. It is the first major campaign promise that sets her firmly apart from Tory ahead of the Oct. 22 election.
But it’s unclear what it will cost to renege on existing contracts and what the cost difference is between the two options.
The option to rebuild the Gardiner approved by the city would unlock about 7.5 acres of developable land, primarily city-owned, according to an earlier city staff report, valued at $72 million to $83 million.
Removing that portion of the Gardiner as Keesmaat proposes would create 12 acres of developable land.
Besides being the better city-building option, Keesmaat said, the boulevard remains significantly less expensive to build and maintain. She says the boulevard option will save upwards of $500 million.
Council ultimately selected what was called the “hybrid” option, which still involves a deck east of Jarvis St., but creates a tighter turn to allow some land to be made available in the east Harbourfront area.
When the original debate happened in 2015, an earlier hybrid option, including 100-year maintenance costs, was estimated at $919 million, while the boulevard was costed at $461 million: a $458-million difference.
The cost of the altered hybrid option increased to $1.053 billion in 2016 after design changes.
After the hybrid cost ballooned, staff put forward a new financing approach that brought costs to $2.3 billion for construction over only 10 years.
While the boulevard cost would have increased over time due to inflation, that cost has not been updated publicly by city staff since 2015.
The city has already signed contracts for the rebuild, including $3 million in design work that would likely be considered lost if the city switched to a boulevard option.
And, in June, a contract for construction of the project totalling $313 million was awarded to Aecon, with construction expected to begin this fall.
“In any scenario, it costs significantly less to build infrastructure on the ground then to rebuild it in the sky,” Keesmaat said.
She also noted the difficulty and cost of maintaining elevated infrastructure, as the city is now experiencing with concrete chunks crumbling off the Gardiner, requiring extensive repair.
The time savings for a small number of commuters would be insignificant, while the savings that could be achieved from the boulevard option are huge, she said.
During the 2015 debate, Tory repeatedly and misleadingly claimed drivers could save up to 10 minutes using an unrealistic study. The city, working to minimize delays, put forward a removal option that would have increased travel time, on average, by just 52 seconds. The number of drivers travelling west on the eastern section of the Gardiner during the morning rush hour, staff reported, totalled just 5,200 — a small percentage of all morning commuters.
Keesmaat was criticized by the mayor and those close to him for voicing her support of the boulevard option as chief planner during the original debate. Nick Kouvalis, again a key strategist on Tory’s campaign, tweeted in 2015 that she was “insubordinate” and suggested she resign to voice her opinion as a private citizen.
Now that she is, Tory’s campaign accused her of wanting to “make traffic worse for everyone — whether you take transit, drive or cycle — in one of the fastest growing parts of the city.”
“Ms. Keesmaat also failed to mention that the City of Toronto awarded a $313-million contract back in June to rehabilitate the Gardiner and its connection to the Don Valley Parkway. What will it cost to tear up that contract? How much is Ms. Keesmaat willing to pay to make traffic worse?” Tory said in a statement.
Keesmaat said the city can’t throw up its hands and feel like nothing can be done about a bad decision despite signed contracts.
“This is about ensuring we’re not throwing good money after bad,” Keesmaat told the Star after Tory’s remarks. “It would cost an astronomical amount not to reverse course on this, and we have a responsibility to the taxpayers in the city as well as to our children and future generations to solve this mess once and for all.”
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags