Advocates vow to make Gardiner Expressway East rebuild a key issue in mayoral campaign

·5 min read
Advocates pushing for city council to dig into the costs of the Gardiner East project say they will push mayoral byelection candidates an issue in the upcoming race. The elevated highway is seen here from Martin Goodman Trail on March 22, 2023.  (Michael Wilson/CBC - image credit)
Advocates pushing for city council to dig into the costs of the Gardiner East project say they will push mayoral byelection candidates an issue in the upcoming race. The elevated highway is seen here from Martin Goodman Trail on March 22, 2023. (Michael Wilson/CBC - image credit)

Advocates pressing to change course on the Gardiner Expressway East rebuild say they will try to make the project an issue in the mayoral campaign after a key city committee sidelined their call for a deeper dive into its costs.

Albert Koehl, a spokesperson for Gardiner East Transparency, a coalition of some 40 community groups, said they still hope to push candidates to demand answers from the city on the controversial billion-dollar project.

The coalition had released a letter ahead of last week's Executive Committee debate calling on councillors to authorize a report that investigated costs of the project and forgone revenues by continuing the rebuild.

But the committee voted to receive, and effectively shelve, the report after hearing from dozens of deputants, most of whom called for them to change direction on the project.

"It's not the end of the story, but it is a lost opportunity," Koehl said.

Project remains controversial years after approval

In 2016, councillors decided to spend just over a billion dollars to retain the eastern portion of the expressway, moving it farther north while tearing down a ramp over Logan Avenue.

The so-called "hybrid option" was chosen instead of a proposal to tear down a 1.7-kilometre section of the Gardiner east of Jarvis Street and replace it with a surface-level boulevard for less than half the cost.

But the project was, and remains, controversial. It represents approximately 14 per cent of the city's overall 10-year capital plan, according to staff.

Koehl said the coalition will press mayoral candidates who register to run in the June 26 election for their position on the expressway.

"The election is an obvious next step," he said. "We're certainly looking for candidates to say, we're going to give the residents of Toronto a full report on what this decision means in terms of the budget, our climate policies, and in terms of how we move forward in the city."

Lyn Adamson of ClimateFast, which is part of the coalition, said it's not too late for councillors and mayoral candidates to dig deeper into the project costs. There are alternatives that could help the city meet its climate change targets, she said.

"It's just the wrong direction," she said of the rebuild. "We're working to move to net zero by 2040. And that requires that we shift people out of cars and on to transit."

Adamson is hopeful that the city's mayoral debates will help the groups spotlight the need for change on the Gardiner East project.

Michael Wilson/CBC
Michael Wilson/CBC

"People have a chance to look at the vision of the future of the city because that's what you do when you're electing a mayor," she said. "You say, what kind of city do we want this to be?"

Staff say hundreds of millions already spent on project

City staff told the executive committee this week that 45 per cent of the project's budget has already been spent — $403 million completed construction and $148 million in committed contracts. An additional $650 million remains to be spent on the project.

Last month, Barbara Gray, the city's general manager of transportation, outlined the possible impacts of changing course on the project. Any deviation from the currently approved project would require a new environmental assessment and design work, she confirmed again this week.

Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie said the city shouldn't revisit issues it decided years ago.

"I think council is tired of re-opening debates and moving back and forth," she said. "And we've seen that there's a very large amount of money that's already been spent."

Angelina King/CBC
Angelina King/CBC

Coun. Josh Matlow, who has launched a mayoral campaign, spearheaded the efforts to review the Gardiner project with an administrative inquiry at executive committee. He said he will continue to ask questions about the project on the campaign trail and look for possible off-ramps for the "historical mistake."

At a time when the city has a $1.5-billion budget gap because of the COVID-19 pandemic, every expense needs to be re-evaluated, he said.

"We have priorities that are underfunded today," he said, adding that the Gardiner East project is "eating" Toronto's capital budget.

"I believe that we need to ask questions about whether or not the path that the city is going on now is the right one," Matlow said.

Councillors, mayoral candidates advocate for Gardiner upload

Coun. Paula Fletcher, whose ward is home to part of the project, said while she had hoped there would be more information at executive committee about the on-going maintenance costs for the Gardiner. But she thinks the project may be too far along to change course.

"So rather than fighting over (whether) we're taking it down or putting it up, we really need to be looking at how come we're paying for all of these maintenance costs on a highway that wasn't even ours 20 years ago," she said.

Former premier Mike Harris' government downloaded the cost to operate and maintain both the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway to Toronto taxpayers in the 1990s.

Late last year, former mayor John Tory floated the idea of Ontario uploading the highways from the city, but it was quickly dismissed by Premier Doug Ford's government. But mayoral candidate Ana Bailão has said she plans to make the uploads an election issue and believes that if city residents give her a mandate, the province will have to listen.

"I think there is a difference between musing about it and running on it," she said of the former mayor's pitch. "And I am running on it."