Putting the $1B Gardiner East project in reverse may not save money: city staff

Toronto city staff are warning if council changes course on the Gardiner East Project it may not save the city money and could add time to the work.  (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Toronto city staff are warning if council changes course on the Gardiner East Project it may not save the city money and could add time to the work. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Changing course on the Gardiner East project may not save money and could inflate costs to rehabilitate the elevated expressway, a new briefing note from Toronto city staff says.

The note in response to questions from Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie was provided less than a week after council pushed the issue onto a key committee agenda. It will effectively re-open debate on the controversial project, which is aimed at re-routing the easternmost section of the aging elevated expressway farther north.

In the note, Barbara Gray, the city's general manager of transportation, outlines the possible impacts of changing course on the $1-billion project given the go-ahead by council more than six years ago.

"Any deviation from the currently approved … option would require new design work," she said in the document.

"Given this, we are not able to say if any funds would be saved by reverting to the "Remove" option, or if any funds would be available for reallocating that would not impact the delivery of the necessary state-of-good repair work."

Gray says that nearly $500 million has been spent, or committed in contracts, on the project. She warns that a number of factors, including the need for an amended environmental assessment (EA), could add costs and delays if the plans were altered.

"If an EA amendment is required, based on the original Gardiner East EA experience, we could expect … [it to] take up to three years."

In 2016, councillors decided to spend just over $1 billion on the "hybrid" option, which retains the eastern portion of the expressway, moving it farther north while tearing down a ramp over Logan Avenue. The choice was made instead of tearing down a 1.7-kilometre section of the Gardiner east of Jarvis Street and replacing it with a surface-level boulevard for less than half the cost.

Gardiner East project remains controversial

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

For that reason, some city councillors would like to see the plan re-examined. Coun. Josh Matlow says the briefing note hasn't changed his view that the project needs another deeper look. Council made a mistake when it chose not to tear down the aging expressway and create the boulevard, he said.

At the city's budget meeting last week, Matlow attempted to persuade councillors to spend $600,000 on a full-examination and updating of costs on the project, including a re-examination of the boulevard option. That was voted down.

"No matter where you are, your road where you live … is going to be falling into disrepair, is going to crumble because of this budget-sucker ... which is going against what cities around the world are doing these days," he said.

Michael Wilson/CBC
Michael Wilson/CBC

A week before, Matlow successfully moved a motion to have the project put under the microscope, something that could happen as soon as the next Infrastructure Committee meeting in March. He said he's still focused on getting answers at that meeting, he said.

"Toronto has a chronic budget shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars that needs to be addressed," he said.

"The outcome of the at-grade boulevard option would clearly produce hundreds of millions of dollars of cost savings to taxpayers, create space on public land for thousands of new homes, and contribute to far better urban planning."

City 'cannot throw good money after bad': Fletcher

Coun. Paula Fletcher, whose ward is home to part of the project, said she is looking forward to the committee meeting to get answers from staff but could not support Matlow's motion.

"This is a very big, complex billion dollar project," she said.

"And if you're going to make changes, you have to respect that. You have to take it step-by-step, not throwing a motion on or beating your chest that this is a stupid idea," Fletcher added.

"It may have been a stupid idea when it was agreed to, but this is now a very big plan that if we're going to walk it back, we need to be careful, we cannot throw good money after bad."

The briefing note from staff comes after Toronto's city manager warned last week that the cost of work on Lake Shore Boulevard needs to be updated and added to the Gardiner East estimates.

That includes "public realm" construction, utility relocations, and electrical work. Staff could provide updated projections for that as soon as next month.

Eva Lam/CBC
Eva Lam/CBC

"The estimate did not account for the significant inflation that's being experienced on construction projects," City Manager Paul Johnson warned in a report to council.

This comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has driven up the city's budget gap to $1.5 billion for combined costs in 2022 and 2023.

A spokesperson for Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie said the Gardiner East project is well underway and the 60-year-old structure needs renewal.

"Changing course now is expected to save no money, possibly cost more money and result in throwaway costs of $340 million," Taylor Deasley said in a statement.

"Deputy Mayor McKelvie supports moving forward with the project."

But former city councillor Joe Mihevc said a re-examination of the entire Gardiner East project is overdue.

"John Tory's departure allows for a fresh debate on that topic," he said.

"And indeed, you'll see a variety of candidates having a variety of positions on that. That is all to the good."