Looming over the City of Toronto’s proposed capital spending plan, like an infrastructure Godzilla hungry for cash, sits the Gardiner Expressway.
There is no organized push, at the moment, to revisit the bruising political debates of 2015 and 2016 that saw city council vote to rebuild the crumbling crosstown artery and leave elevated sections aloft, including a relocated curve from Cherry St. to the Don Valley Parkway.
But questions and tempers rise every budget season as briefing notes and charts lay bare the enormous cost of fixing the crumbling freeway and building the new “hybrid” DVP connection. Gardiner costs constrain all other project spending.
The roadway will gobble $2.2 billion of the transportation department’s 10-year capital spend. That’s 44 per cent of the total, although the highway carries only about seven per cent of commuters in and out of downtown, according to city figures. The east Gardiner carries only 5,000 cars per hour at peak times.
Eleven kilometres of freeway, seven of them elevated, will cost taxpayers more than Toronto’s other 5,386 kilometres of roadway — including the ground-hugging DVP — combined.
“The city had to choose between rebuilding the Gardiner and doing everything else, and council chose the Gardiner,” Coun. Gord Perks, a frequent budget critic of Mayor John Tory, said of a 2016 vote to proceed with the rebuild and “hybrid” connection to the DVP.
“If your car hits a pothole, or you wait too long for a bus, or there’s a leaky roof in your local community centre, that’s so we could save two minutes (in commuting time) for people travelling from Scarborough, by rebuilding the Gardiner,” he said.
“And if you look at the rest of the road budget, right now we’re about a billion dollars behind on repairs. Within 10 years we’ll be $4 billion behind on repairs. The Gardiner sucks everything up.”
Tory in 2015 rallied public support to keep aloft the 2.4-kilometre stretch east of Jarvis St., and reject a city staff recommendation to bring that least-used section down to ground as an eight-lane boulevard with a ramp to the DVP.
Touting a University of Toronto study suggesting the $461-million boulevard option could prolong commutes by 10 minutes at peak times — not the two to three minutes forecasted by city staff — Tory eked out a 24-21 council win.
He then sought compromise with the primarily downtown councillors he had fought. That resulted in a 2016 vote of 36-5 to move the elevated DVP link closer to the railway corridor and bring down the easternmost ramp to Logan Ave.
The “hybrid” link that freed up developable land without significantly slowing traffic came with a cost, however. In “100-year lifecycle costs” — the long-term cost including a future rebuild, is $919 million. Framed as short-term, upfront capital costs, it’s $718 million.
But those projections were in 2013 dollars, and city staff say they can’t yet offer an update. A significant rise could trigger another council debate. But a change in plan, such as reverting to the city staff’s proposed boulevard option, would see more money spent on the Jarvis to Cherry section and design work done on the hybrid, lost.
Asked recently if he has any second thoughts about the Gardiner, given the huge competing needs for precious capital dollars, including Toronto Community Housing repairs, Tory said no.
“People are going to drive trucks and cars in the city — we hope that fewer of them will do so,” and that’s why the city is heavily investing in public transit, the mayor said. “But let’s be real — there are going to be people driving cars and trucks and commerce that has to be done around the city, so we’re making some investment in road transportation.
“I think the Gardiner Expressway, while it’s a big investment, will prove to be a worthwhile investment when all’s said and done.”
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Councillor Joe Cressy, whose post-council-cut Ward 10 Spadina-Fort York now includes the east Gardiner, called the highway 1950s infrastructure in 21st-century Toronto, where the downtown population is swelling and fewer and fewer people move by vehicle.
More than 60 per cent of rush-hour commuter trips into downtown were people using TTC, regional transit, foot or bike, compared to 36 per cent in vehicles, according to city 2016 figures.
“In a growing city, the only solution is to reduce our dependence on cars and to incentivize active public transportation,” Cressy said. “Rebuilding elevated expressways does the opposite.”
Cressy thinks council will revisit the Gardiner at some point, but money already invested in the Gardiner redo will likely deter councillors from considering a radical change of course. Perks says those costs are good money after bad, so council should revisit it as soon as possible.
Ward 2 Etobicoke Centre Coun. Stephen Holyday said Torontonians should see the highway as an asset, not a money pit. Investment over a decade will yield decades more of benefits, he said.
“There are a large number of commuters, businesses and visitors who rely on it, and any changes at the east end will have ripple effects down the line,” he said. “This is money well spent.”
Matti Siemiatycki, a U of T associate professor and expert on urban infrastructure, says similar debates rage in cities around the world as 1950s expressways hit the end of their lifecycle.
Predictions of traffic chaos when cities remove expressways, as Seoul did to create a park through the heart of the Korean capital, are often unfounded, he says. But so too were predictions nobody would want to live or work near expressways, as evidenced by growth around the Gardiner.
Since the Gardiner plans seem concrete, Siemiatycki said, perhaps the debate should be over who pays. That leads to a possible revival of Tory’s 2016 plan to toll the Gardiner and DVP, initially accepted by then-premier Kathleen Wynne, then rejected amid 905-belt opposition.
An estimated 35 per cent of Gardiner users don’t live in Toronto and pay nothing for its upkeep.
“We’re making a 100-year decision today about a piece of infrastructure that may be becoming increasingly obsolete, so there’s a debate if it should be the users paying that cost,” Siemiatycki said.
“If the people who use the Gardiner consider it very beneficial in terms of saved commuting time, there is a fairness argument about paying for that convenience and benefit, both for private users and for freight” deliveries.
While Premier Doug Ford, who has accused some councillors of waging a “war on the car” and who has suburban political support, might be expected to reject tolls, he has supported them in the past. In 2012, Ford, then an Etobicoke councillor who used the freeway daily, proposed helping cover Gardiner repair costs by partnering with the private sector to build a toll lane on the Gardiner alongside busier free lanes.
“I’d pay the $5 to get downtown every day,” Ford told the Globe and Mail in 2012. “I’d put a (Gardiner) toll road separate. You either get a freebie or a toll.”