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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.

Gardiner East FAQ: Making sense of another frustrating city hall debate

The ongoing debate over the future of the East Gardiner Expressway has become pretty complicated. The reports are dense. The terminology is technical. The arguments — both for and against — are varied.

So like most complicated debates, there’s a real danger this boils down populism and gut feelings... and there’s nothing I hate more than municipal decisions based on populism and gut feelings.

So I’ve put together a Gardiner East FAQ based on the most common questions I’ve received on the subject over the last few weeks. I hope it helps.

Except where otherwise noted, all images and charts are sourced from the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee’s most recent report on the East Gardiner.

Q: I heard they’re going to tear down the Gardiner. What’s up with that?

There is no plan or intention to remove the entire Gardiner Expressway. In fact, council just approved a plan to spend nearly a billion dollars fixing it up over the next decade. Like it or not, Toronto’s lakeside highway is here to stay.

There is, however, a chance council may decide to remove some of the 2.2-kilometre section between Jarvis and the Don Valley Parkway. So the debate is about a very specific stretch of road.

Q: But isn’t traffic in Toronto terrible? Why would anyone ever consider tearing down even a little bit of infrastructure?

In a word: money.

In two other words: falling concrete.

Things would be different if the Gardiner were in good condition and we were talking about tearing it down only as a way to make the waterfront more attractive. But the reality is the Gardiner is in terrible condition and needs very expensive repairs in the very near future.

So the question is a simple one. It's not about whether the East Gardiner is useful. It's about whether that usefulness justifies the expense.

Q: What makes the East Gardiner so special? If the rest of the Gardiner is worth preserving, why not the link with the DVP?

Mostly, the difference is usage. The East Gardiner is the least-used part of the corridor, carrying 128,000 vehicles per day -- a mere three per cent of inbound traffic at peak times. Approximately 200,000 use the western end.

Here’s a Waterfront Toronto pie chart illustrating those numbers.

Q: Got it. So what are the options?

There are two options, both of which have been put forward as recommendations by staff in the city’s transportation department: remove and hybrid.

Here’s a side-by-side look, complete with a superfluously rendered flock of birds:

Remove would see about 1.7 kilometres of elevated expressway demolished and replaced with an eight-lane boulevard. New on- and off-ramps would be built at Jarvis St., along with a new connection to the DVP. Ramps on the east side of the Don River (which connect with Lake Shore Blvd. at Logan) would be removed entirely.

Hybrid involves fixing the existing structure as-is, except the east-side ramps would be replaced with new ones at Cherry Street.

Q: And what do they cost?

Here’s a table from the staff report, laying out the costs in 2013 dollars.

It’s important to separate capital costs from life-cycle maintenance costs. In terms of immediate spending, the difference between hybrid and remove is $88 million. Over the expected 100-year life of both options, the hybrid has much higher maintenance costs — about $370 million more.

Q: Hybrid sounds fancy. What does it mean?

It’s a nonsensical name. The hybrid option entered the debate last year when developer First Gulf proposed that council not make an immediate decision and instead consider a new option that would realign the expressway connection to the DVP, keeping things closer to the rail corridor.

It was supposed to look like this:

But whoops! It turns out that building a true hybrid Gardiner was deemed problematic, at least according to the expertise of so-called “engineers.” They found that the hybrid as envisioned would require a ramp design speed of just 50 km/h, so drivers would need to slow down substantially to safely make the curve.

They also found that building closer to the rail corridor doesn’t fit with Metrolinx’s transit plans for the area, nor a plan to build a water treatment plant nearby.

Q: So the hybrid is really just keeping things as-is?

For the most part, yes. The only major difference is rebuilding the east side ramps at Cherry Street.

Q: Why bother moving the ramps at all? Why not just maintain the whole thing?

There’s no clear answer to that question, really. The only real reason the ramps need to be moved to the west side of the river is because First Gulf — the developer that holds the rights to land that was once a Unilever factory — wants them out of their way.

Q: First Gulf, Unilever — how do they connect with this Gardiner debate?

First Gulf owns the old Unilever factory land at 21 Don Roadway. They’ve proposed a $6-billion project to redevelop the land with 12 million square feet of office space for more than 50,000 employees.

It’s a big deal.

Here’s a map showing the location of the land:

But to make their plans work, First Gulf must improve road and rail access to the site while also ensuring the land isn’t susceptible to flooding. The ramps east of the Don River interfere with those plans, so First Gulf has always been a vocal opponent of simply maintaining the East Gardiner in its current form. Their plans will work just fine with either the hybrid or remove option.

Q: Does Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack figure into this, too?

It does, yes. I wrote about the connection a while back. Tory’s transit plan has always imagined a new rail station serving First Gulf’s development. Not to mention that SmartTrack is supposed to be entirely funded with tax increment financing — in other words, future money generated by the new development.

Q: If Toronto were to take down this part of the Gardiner, that equals cause traffic chaos, right?

That’s not what the city’s traffic models say. They say the difference between hybrid and remove would be just two or three minutes by 2031.

Q: OK, smart guy. But don't the city’s traffic models include some aggressive assumptions about transit projects?

They do. In this case, the model assumes Toronto will have a relief line subway, a Waterfront East LRT, a Cherry Street LRT and a southern transit extension on Broadview Avenue.

Q: So if those transit projects aren’t built, won’t that mean longer delays than what’s been projected?

No. This has been suggested in many places, but the report addresses some of these concerns.

City staff did run a traffic model with most of the transit improvements removed. They found, “all alternatives would place additional constraints on the TTC and GO Transit services beyond their capacities in some circumstances. The analysis also indicated that additional constraints would be experienced on the road network, particularly for auto trips on the DVP.”

In other words, without any major transit improvements, virtually all existing transit routes and roads in the downtown will be at or over capacity by 2031. That would be the much-feared traffic chaos.

In such a scenario, the configuration of a small section of the Gardiner wouldn’t really be relevant to the city’s overall level of congestion. In fact, according to transportation staff, the difference between remove and hybrid would still probably be two or three minutes for most trips. It’s just that the baseline travel times for all trips would be much much longer.

Q: Isn’t there some other traffic study that says delays would be worse than the city says?

Sort of. The University of Toronto Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering Transportation Research Institute, or, I guess, UofTFoAS&ETRI, presented an assessment of the remove option last week. Their work was commissioned by the Gardiner Coalition, which is an alliance made up of organizations like CAA South Central Ontario and the Toronto Financial District BIA.

Their report examined two remove scenarios.

The first, which is more similar to the city’s scenario, envisioned the new boulevard replacing the Gardiner as having two-stage pedestrian crossings, similar to many intersections on University Avenue. People cross half the road, wait in the middle, and then cross the rest.

Under that scenario, the U of T study found delays of between zero to 4.5 minutes versus maintaining the Gardiner as-is — they didn’t compare to the hybrid. Those numbers are virtually identical to the city’s findings.

But they also ran another traffic model, that saw pedestrians given more time to cross the at-grade boulevard. In that scenario, the delays were measured at between 2.5 minutes and a whopping 10 minutes — but that assumes a more generous pedestrian signal scenario than we’re likely to see.

Q: What are the drawbacks of removal?

The big one is construction time. Because the hybrid has essentially become the maintenance option, it doesn’t require much new construction.

As a result, though both options will mean a total of six years of construction time — plus delays, if history is a precedent — the hybrid would see just one-and-a-half years of major road detours, while removal will mean three-to-four years of detours. That’s not insignificant, especially if you need to drive for your commute and can’t find an alternative route.

Also, yes, two-to-three minute delays for the drivers who use this part of the Gardiner. That includes both automobile commuters and companies that use the East Gardiner to ship goods. That’s a drawback, though it needs to be placed in proper context.

Q: What are the benefits?

Money, money, money. Elevated highways are expensive to build and even more expensive to maintain. Getting rid of even a little bit of an elevated highway means big savings.

It’s in that context that we need to consider delays for motorists. Yes, two or three minutes a day can add up in terms of time lost to congestion, but it’s likely that the money saved can be put into transit projects that represent a more significant time savings for more people.

Money is finite and the East Gardiner rehab project can't be looked at in a vacuum. Its benefits need to be compared to the probable benefits of projects like the relief line subway, the Scarborough-Malvern LRT, Waterfront transit projects and even SmartTrack.

There are also challenges related to the hybrid design. The current Gardiner already closes off potential development near the Keating Channel. The hybrid makes developing that land even more challenging by introducing new ramps near Cherry Street, which has always been envisioned as the major link to port lands development further south.

All told, remove creates an additional 12 acres of developable waterfront land... and significant revenues for the city.

Q: Metro columnist and infrastructure nerd Matt Elliott, what do you think Toronto should do?

I’m flattered you thought to ask.

When I consider infrastructure like this, I like to imagine a reverse scenario: in a world where there was no elevated roadway link between the Gardiner at Jarvis and the DVP, would it make sense to incur all the upfront and ongoing maintenance costs to build one?

Given the traffic volumes, I just don’t see enough benefit.

And if it’s not something we’d build today, why spend the money to maintain it?

So I say tear it down. Build the cheaper option and direct all the savings and development revenue toward badly-needed transit. If we’re going to invest in transportation infrastructure, let’s get our priorities right.

Toronto's Public Works & Infrastructure Committee will debate the East Gardiner on Wednesday. The final decision is expected to be made by Toronto City Council in June.