What should we do with the Gardiner Expressway? The question’s been asked practically ever since the highway was completed in 1966. But now we actually need to answer it. The section east of Jarvis Street is at the end of its useful life, and within the next year or two, we will begin spending hundreds of millions of dollars to repair it, rebuild it, or remove it.
Recently, plenty of movers and shakers have weighed in. Mayor Rob Ford, heading into a tough re-election campaign, has said he wants to spend the cash to repair it for another generation.
Meanwhile, Waterfront Toronto, the agency responsible for building a new neighbourhood in the former industrial portlands area around the Gardiner, has recommended tearing it down. This week, city staff echoed Waterfront Toronto’s opinion that removing that part of the road is the least expensive option, as well as the best one for the environment, urban design, and the balance of local and regional transportation priorities. A study conducted by city staff and Waterfront Toronto concludes that only one per cent of the Gardiner’s daily users would experience a significant increase in their commute time (up to about 10 minutes longer) if that section were gone.
For those who’ve long seen the highway as an ugly barrier, cutting the city off from the water and encouraging car travel, the arguments from the studies are a godsend of extra ammunition: Tearing down the eastern Gardiner would free up land for development and wind up costing tens of million of dollars less than repairing it. The resulting streetscape would be a wide boulevard lined with shops and offices and residences. (For many, never again having to hear people constantly whining about the Gardiner would be a plus all on its own.)
But not so fast. Reading the reports raises some concerns. The projections take for granted that the Waterfront East LRT and the Downtown Relief Subway line will be built—an assumption that is premature. Most informed observers would agree those transit lines should be—and need to be—built no matter what we do with the Gardiner, but there’s no funding or timeline or plan in place. What’s frustrating is that those transit improvements are not being made in conjunction with this road decision, which means that the cost of the removal option changes somewhat if you include new transit building as part of the same project.
Reading the reports, I wondered about what happens to traffic on alternate routes if the eastern Gardiner disappears—will cars flooding onto Jarvis and Parliament, and Richmond, Front, and Queen’s Quay further snarl downtown? The assessments don’t really discuss this. But speaking of traffic, perhaps the most questionable detail in the proposals is the eight-lane roadway slated to replace the Gardiner. Would it really be less of a barrier than the elevated expressway? Fed by the Don Valley Parkway and the Western Gardiner, it’s not hard to imagine it would still essentially act as a highway, except now it would be one that you have to encounter on foot rather than walk beneath.
In a recent conversation, councillor Adam Vaughan cited this concern as the reason he doesn’t favour tearing the Gardiner down. He proposes a different solution: Sell the entire expressway. He suggests that a private operator could buy the road, charge tolls, and take responsibility for repairing and maintaining it. It’s an interesting idea. Vaughan estimates the city could get $4 billion from the sale, and use that money to build transit—that cash could easily cover the cost of the Waterfront LRT and the city’s share of the Downtown Relief Line. It would mean a significant improvement in travel for transit commuters citywide. Meanwhile, those who insist on the Gardiner’s value—including those commuters from places outside the city—would get to keep driving on it. They would just pay for it directly.
“Sell it” wasn’t an option considered by staff investigating the road’s future. But as we prepare to make a final decision on the eastern Gardiner’s fate, maybe we ought to include the idea in the mix.