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Tory's Toronto

Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.

How a looming decision on the crumbling Gardiner affects Tory's SmartTrack plan

Pieces of concrete fell from the Gardiner Expressway this week, which isn’t altogether surprising or notable. It seems to happen all the damn time.

But it does make for a ripe opportunity to talk about the Gardiner's future — specifically the section between Jarvis and the Don Valley Parkway.

It’s a future worth thinking about. It’s complicated, rife with uncertainty and — though no one is really talking about it — directly tied to the success of Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack transit plan.

But first, a quick recap!

The section of the Gardiner east of Jarvis was originally designed in anticipation of the Scarborough expressway. That expressway never materialized, largely because it would have destroyed several neighbourhoods, which residents opposed for some reason.

Maintaining this elevated section of the Gardiner has gotten very expensive, while also restricting potential waterfront development. It’s also the least-used section, with traffic volumes rarely approaching its design capacity.

So in 2009, the City of Toronto and Waterfront Toronto kicked off an environmental assessment process that examined four options for this part of the Gardiner: maintaining, replacing, improving or removing.

Things got weird after that.

Just before Rob Ford was elected in 2010, all work on the EA stopped, despite no council motion directing staff to, you know, stop their work. Go figure.

Work finally resumed with a series of public consultations in 2013, followed by a report to council last March that, based largely on traffic volumes, cost of maintenance and potential for development, recommended removing the section and replacing it with an at-grade boulevard.

But just before councillors were going to decide whether to accept that recommendation, developer First Gulf — with big plans for the old Unilever site at Lake Shore and the DVP — threw a wrench into the process with a so-called “hybrid proposal” that would see a realigned connection between the Gardiner and the DVP.

It would look like this:

The cynical take is this was thrown into the mix to stall for time. Going into last year’s election, no one seemed eager to turn the Gardiner into a hot button issue. Embracing the hybrid option meant staff had to go back and do more analysis.

But the election is over, and a report on the hybrid option is due in May.

The best case scenario would be a report that finds the hybrid option affordable. If, somehow, the cost is only pegged at a few hundred million dollars on a construction timeline of only a few years, Tory and council should jump on board without hesitation.

But that's unlikely.

What's more likely is city staff find the hybrid option comes with a big price tag, perhaps approaching a billion dollars. Council will then be forced into a tough situation where they have to carefully consider the city’s priorities.

It could lead to some tough questions. For instance, is maintaining the connection between the Gardiner and the DVP — saving drivers who use the section about five to 10 minutes on their morning commute — more important than, say, repairing Toronto’s affordable housing stock? Or making the TTC accessible? Or building a relief line subway?

Because, as we all know by now, there’s only so much money to go around.

For Tory, the issue gets even more complicated. His SmartTrack has always been closely associated with First Gulf’s plan for the Unilever lands. The plan to fund Toronto’s share of the $8-billion project through tax increment financing hinges on the realization of massive commercial development in the area.

But that development is unlikely to happen if the Gardiner remains as-is. First Gulf, who supported removing the highway before putting the hybrid plan on the table, has reiterated recently that improving road and rail access to the site is critical. The current Gardiner configuration is a significant barrier.

In summary, if this part of the Gardiner isn’t either torn down or re-routed, large-scale Unilever land development can’t happen. And if large-scale Unilever land development doesn’t happen, the funding plan for SmartTrack — already pretty shaky — goes entirely off the rails.

This all adds up to a huge political challenge for the mayor. So far he’s positioned himself as a defender of car culture, talking up the need to keep traffic moving. During the campaign, his standard line was that he would support nothing that would lengthen driver commute times.

But, assuming the report on the hybrid option comes back with a prohibitive price tag, the mayor may soon find himself having to support something contrary to those car culture talking points — removing a chunk of highway.

Expect it to be a pivotal moment, the kind of decision that defines a mayor’s legacy. Either Tory will embrace a bold new change for the city, even if it costs him some popular support, or he’ll back down and retreat to the safety of the status quo.

Either way, with concrete continuing to fall, there won’t be any more excuse for delay.

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