What the Gardiner Expressway could have been by now—and where the money went instead.
The first pieces of concrete to fall from the elevated Gardiner Expressway came down on January 8, 1978, and they were huge—as heavy as 200 pounds, according to a Toronto Star article published the next day. The problem was the same then as it is now: salt. More than 1,000 tonnes of the stuff is dumped onto the elevated stretch of the expressway every winter and, along with melting snow and ice, seeps into the structure, corroding the steel beams inside, which then expand, causing the concrete that envelops them to crack.
Though, somehow, the Star reported that “there were no injuries or damage” below the expressway that day, the incident was enough to spook Metro Toronto Roads and Traffic Commissioner Sam Cass, who told the press that it would take a “vitally needed” $5 million sum (about $16 million in today’s dollars), and fast, to prevent things from getting any worse. While Metro Toronto—the municipality that would see its parts amalgamated into the City of Toronto in 1998—had allocated small amounts of money to maintaing the Gardiner in previous years, it began significant “rehabilitation” of the entire roadway the next year, in 1979. By 1983, Sam Cass was promising that, within a few years, the rehabilitation program would be complete, after which it’d be 20 to 25 years before further repairs would be needed. The money to be spent, he said, “works out to peanuts.”
It hasn’t turned out that way.
Research by The Grid has revealed that the cumulative cost of maintaining the Gardiner, from 1979 until now, is in the hundreds of millions of dollars—and that’s excluding the $505 million more it’s expected to cost over the next 10 years. Most of the details of annual spending are buried in years of old Metro Toronto capital budget documents (for most of the pre-amalgamation years), or were assembled by City of Toronto finance staff and released at The Grid’s request (for most of the post-amalgamation years), but some were harder to track down—details of 1997 spending seem to exist only in a preliminary draft budget dated January 1998 hidden in the files of former city councillor Case Ootes, kept at the Toronto Archives.
While millions were being spent to prevent the Gardiner from crumbling apart all by itself, municipal departments and government-formed task forces were considering what the money could help build instead, and over the last 30 years, they’ve proposed everything from burying the elevated stretch of the highway deep in an underwater tunnel below the Toronto Harbour to turning it into a stately, University Avenue–style road at ground-level. The studies live in the hands of the consulting firms that prepared them, deep in the closed stacks of the Toronto Reference Library, in oversized boxes at the Toronto Archives, or, in recent years, mercifully, online. We got our hands on as many of the serious ones with big plans as we could.
Here’s what those studies have proposed and what they’ve rejected, how much those proposals would have cost—and how the total cost of doing nothing with the Gardiner Expressway has kept growing year after year after year.
The first serious proposals for what to do with the Gardiner Expressway after it was completed in 1966 are preliminary ones, with preliminary costs, determined by city staffers in the planning and development department. But, as outlined by the commissioner of the department at the time, Stephen G. McLaughlin, in a December 16, 1983 letter to alderman Richard Gilbert, they’ll likely sound familiar: burying it in a tunnel underneath Lake Shore Boulevard, which, using estimates gleaned from Boston’s “Big Dig,” would cost $2 billion, and widening Lake Shore and building a smaller tunnel for the Gardiner below it, which would cost closer to $750 million. The smaller tunnel in the latter plan is intended for those driving through and past Toronto, not to or from it, and so there would only be a few on- and off-ramps needed as it passed under the city. (Earlier on in the year, McLaughlin also publicly offered up what seems to be another preliminary proposal for a $1-billion tunnel built in the Toronto Harbour, but research turned up no further details.)
Also considered, but rejected, was a plan to bring the elevated Gardiner down into an open, uncovered trench and run Lake Shore Boulevard alongside both sides of it at street level, at a cost of $750 million. At 14 lanes, and 100 metres, wide, McLaughlin wisely dismisses the option as offering “no appreciable advantage over leaving the expressway as it is.”
By the time a discussion paper by Metro Toronto’s Transportation Department titled “The Future of the F.G. Gardiner Expressway” arrives in January 1990, the roadway is showing its age.
Annual costs of maintaining it leaped from around $2 million a year in the early ’80s ($5 million in today’s dollars) to nearly $9 million ($14 million today) by the end of the decade. Doug Floyd, Metro Toronto’s commissioner of transportation from 1989 to 1998, explained why in a phone call with The Grid. “In the earlier years, we were spending money underneath—in other words there was some deterioration on the columns, that kind of thing—but as we moved forward, we had to open up the decks and rebuild the decks. That’s when it became very expensive.” Still, Floyd says, the plan was “incrementally improving the situation,” though that doesn’t stop him from laughing when asked if he’s glad the expressway isn’t his department anymore. “If anything kept me awake at night,” he says, “it was certainly issues to do with the Gardiner.”
The discussion paper begins by explaining that “the Gardiner Expressway is considered by some to typify a number of the negatives of urban life,” proof that little has changed since:
“It is perceived to represent:
- a barrier to waterfront accessibility, together with the railway corridor nearby,
- a visual “eyesore”,
- a concentration of air and noise pollution,
- a detriment to pedestrianisation of the waterfront, together with Lakeshore Boulevard and the railway corridor,
- a consumer of property considered to be of public value,
- a deterrent to development of adjacent land parcels in the most desirable way,
- an aggravation to motorists because of annual disruptions caused by expressway maintenance programs, and
- a reminder of traffic congestion.”
The solutions aren’t cheap.
First is a $2–$3 billion proposal to bury the elevated Gardiner in a tunnel in the Toronto Harbour—and then fill that section of the harbour in. Toronto would get a new strip of land about 150 acres large (40 percent the size of the High Park), stretching from somewhere around the CNE to the Don River, with the expressway underneath and new development on top, “presumed…to be park/recreational uses.”
Second is a $1–$2 billion plan to bury it in an shallower tunnel in the harbour instead, with no new land on top of it. While cheaper and easier to build, one downside is that it would also render much of the harbour above it useless: it would have to be built shallow enough that “water access could not be maintained to the present shoreline even for small boats.” And forget about big ones.
The report considers two more options, neither of which pass muster. The first, burying the elevated expressway underground, along the path of Lake Shore Boulevard, is deemed too disruptive and too costly (at $1.5–$2 billion) for a project that would take too long to build (10 to 12 years). The second, dismantling the Gardiner’s elevated section and not replacing it with anything, would be ruinous for traffic, the paper argues. Downtown arterial streets that ran parallel to the expressway from Lake Shore to Queen Street “could not possibly cope with the sorts of traffic volumes now carried by the expressway, and ‘gridlock’ would result—with traffic reduced to a crawl for all road users over extensive periods in the day.”
If previous plans had ambition in abundance, November 1991’s “Toronto Central Waterfront Transportation Corridor Study” has comprehensiveness going for it. Commissioned by the Royal Commission on the Future of the Toronto Waterfront, a task force led by former mayor and member of parliament David Crombie, it considers a total of nine options for the Gardiner across three categories—burying the elevated expressway, tearing down the elevated portion east of Bathurst without burying it, and keeping it all in place— evaluating each potential configuration on dozens of criterion, from the view each offered for drivers to the effects of each on soil quality.
The two options that emerge as the strongest, though, are modest, and modestly priced. The first suggests putting the Gardiner Expressway at ground level along its current path, and moving Lake Shore Boulevard closer to the lake at a cost of between $385 million and $654 million, as well as turning Bremner Boulevard into a major arterial road, running all the way from Dufferin to Yonge streets. The second plan is similar, and would put the Gardiner at ground level along its current path, and extend or widen a number of other surface roads that would run near it downtown, including Simcoe Street, at a cost of $159–$482 million.
The latest group charged with figuring out what to do with the Gardiner Expressway is the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Task Force, created in November 1999 by the municipal, provincial, and federal governments. That year, there’s also something resembling progress, as demolition starts on the easternmost section of the elevated expressway, from the Don River to Leslie Street. “We did an analysis and we determined that it was actually going to be more expensive to keep it up than take it down,” says Doug Floyd, who was transportation commissioner when the tear-down was being considered in the mid-’90s.
With a close eye on a booming city running out of space to build on top of, the task force’s March 2000 report, “Our Toronto Waterfront,” is considerably more urgent than the others that preceded it. The Gardiner, it says, “should be dismantled now, while there is the space and latitude to do it economically and when surrounding lands can be enhanced in value.” This time, there’s just one plan: tear the elevated expressway down from near Strachan Avenue all the way east, replacing it with a tunnel that extends to Spadina, then rises to surface level downtown and stays that way as it extends the rest of the way east, at a cost of $1.2 billion. But the plan needs to happen soon if it will happen at all; soon, the report reads, “incremental development” will leave “no room” for it.
Come 2004, the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Task Force has morphed into the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation—it would later become Waterfront Toronto—and finishes a “comprehensive review of the Gardiner/Lake Shore Corridor,” resulting in a fleet of reports and studies (collected here), and a half-dozen potential plans.
These include a $1.395 to $1.476 billion plan to bury the elevated Gardiner in a tunnel between Strachan and Spadina, continue it mostly at street level through downtown on two separate one-way streets, then merge into one surface-level street east of Jarvis, done in such a way that “retains and if possible enhances trafic performance.” There’s also a $415 million plan to leave the Gardiner in place and move Lake Shore farther south, and a $465 million one to move Lake Shore directly beside the Gardiner, getting rid of a number of on- and off-ramps in either one.
The plan that the task force likes best, though, and the one recommended as the subject of an as-soon-as-possible environmental assessment (a detailed, multi-part study of a proposed project before it’s built), is to build what it calls a “Great Street”: a $437 million plan to keep the Gardiner elevated as far east as Spadina, coupled with a wide, University Avenue–style surface street from Spadina to Cherry that splits into two five-lane-wide one-way surface streets from Simcoe to Jarvis. Less-liked configurations of the “Great Street” involve building the University Avenue–style surface street all the way west to Dufferin at a cost of $457 million, and burying the elevated Gardiner in a tunnel west of Spadina and building the University Avenue–style surface street east of there, which would run between $1.07 billion and $1.15 billion.
What was somewhat urgent in 2000 has become profoundly so by 2004. If the Gardiner remains untouched, a July technical briefing warns [PDF], “the expressway will be ‘sealed in place’ by development, and the street environment around it will be harsh and inhospitable.” It’s already too late for some options, the study team writes:
“…continuing development was closing out alignment options and construction staging flexibility, and placemaking opportunities were being compromised even as the studies progressed. Alignments once possible in the Fort York neighbourhood were closed, as was one between Bay and Yonge Streets. The area of greatest opportunity is east of Simcoe, but plans will soon be finalized for almost all of that area, including the corporation’s own plan for East Bayfront. At present, there are reasonable economic phasing strategies possible, but these will soon be lost when development starts on the west section of the railway lands, the East Bayfront, and sites in the central area.”
“Urgent action is needed,” the briefing continues, which means launching an environmental assessment, and, right away, protecting land that would end up being required for construction.
Three years later, it’s too late. As detailed in a June 16, 2008 City of Toronto staff report [PDF], the estimated total cost of the “Great Street” proposal increases by more than 50% between 2005 and 2007. (When you include the cost of the Front Street Extension, a separate project that would itself be put on hold in 2008, it goes from $780 million to $1.2 billion.) That’s in part because of “recent residential development along the Gardiner corridor in the central area of the City,” precisely the thing that earlier studies had warned about.
So City of Toronto and Waterfront Toronto staff put together a new plan in 2007, a more modest one that would leave the elevated section of the Gardiner Expressway up all the way east to Jarvis, and build the University Ave–style road only from Jarvis to the Don Valley Parkway, at a cost of $200–$300 million. It’s that plan, for only that final eastern stretch of the elevated expressway, that’s put forward to be the subject of an $11-million environmental assessment.
You probably know some of what happens next.
The environmental assessment looking into removing the elevated Gardiner Expressway east of Jarvis, and east of Jarvis only, gets approved by Toronto City Council and the provincial Ministry of the Environment in 2009. But in September 2010, a few weeks before the municipal election sees Rob Ford elected mayor, it’s quietly stopped by Waterfront Toronto, with only $3 million spent. Michelle Noble, a Waterfront Toronto spokesperson, told The Grid in a phone call in fall of last year that the organization was “waiting for direction from the city as to whether to proceed.”
From 2011 to 2012, concrete falls from the elevated Gardiner at least eight times, more incidents than reported in all of the previous two decades. No pieces fall east of Jarvis. Internal documents obtained by the Toronto Star and Global News reveal that the expressway is somehow in even worse shape than anyone thought.
Then, at the end of last year, one final jolt: the money needed for continued repairs to the Gardiner between 2013 and 2022, expected to be closer to $170 million, turns out to be $335 million more than that, a total of $505 million [PDF], more in 10 years than has been spent to date on rehabilitating the Gardiner, even when adjusted for inflation.
This week, though, Waterfront Toronto finally got the direction they said they’d been waiting for, as the budget committee voted to pick up the environmental assessment from where it left off. It’ll likely be no sooner than 5 years from now before demolition on the section of the elevated expressway east of Jarvis begins, according to city staff [PDF]—and that’s provided demolition begins at all.
The rest of the Gardiner? In all likelihood, for a while longer, it’ll stay standing. More or less.
NOTES ON THE DATA: Costs of proposals are not adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars. Rehabilitation costs for the Gardiner used throughout this article are as comprehensive and accurate as possible, but still err on the side of being conservative. They exclude: any costs for repairs prior to 1979, the first year that rehabilitation became its own line item in the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto’s capital budget; costs for building or demolishing new or old on- or off-ramps or bridges, including those over the Humber River; costs for demolishing the section of the elevated Gardiner east of the Don River between 1999 and 2003, which totalled $38 million; costs for current or past studies and environmental assessments; as well as any costs that were part of other projects (for instance, lighting, a line item in the capital budget that included, but was not limited to, the Gardiner for a number of years).