Gardiner Debate Sheds Troubling Light on Infrastructure Investment Priorities
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Gardiner Debate Sheds Troubling Light on Infrastructure Investment Priorities

Council's decision over the crumbling eastern Gardiner might prove a canary in the coal mine of the city's political leadership.

With a looming decision about what to do with the eastern portion of the Gardiner, City Council will again show its priorities and convictions when it comes to major infrastructure projects.

If it’s anything like previous cases, Torontonians may be disappointed.

Last night, the Globe broke the story that, according to the forthcoming environmental assessment on the eastern portion of the Gardiner, the so-called “hybrid option” of maintenance favoured by John Tory and other candidates in the mayoral race will cost more than $900 million to bring to fruition. That’s about twice the cost as another proposed solution, to remove the section and turn the area into a boulevard.

One of these two solutions is required to unlock the lucrative Unilever development nearby, which, as Metro‘s Matt Elliott explains, is in turn necessary to make SmartTrack a reality, fuzzy math notwithstanding.

We don’t yet have the details of the environmental assessment, which is scheduled to be released alongside a community consultation that is slated for tomorrow. That said, assuming the Globe‘s reporting is accurate, we have some details to go on.

The hybrid option would follow much of the same route of the existing Gardiner, and would feature some added off-ramps that would allow access to the Unilever site. The route can’t change much because, according to the Globe, the curve of the altered road wouldn’t allow for the kind of speed needed to make the urban freeway work.

The less expensive boulevard option (that is, Gardiner removal) would unlock many more development opportunities. But the downside is that it would delay the 10,000 drivers who use the section in rush-hour traffic by about 10 minutes, according to a staff report from last year.

That 10-minute figure is also dependent on the assumption that the City will eventually build a Downtown Relief Line and East Bayfront LRT, both of which would affect transportation patterns in the area. The objection to this, by the likes of Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East), is that these projects won’t be completed for quite some time, and so the 10-minute estimate would, in reality, turn out much longer. Of course, if the City chose the boulevard option over the hybrid option, then the difference in funding would be the equivalent of half the cost of the full Waterfront LRT, a long-neglected transit proposal that has support from senior City staff.

What to do with the Gardiner will come down to council’s priorities. As the City pushes up against its debt ceiling while facing a growing number of projects that demand attention, City Hall will have to make some tough choices. If council’s recent track record is any indication, Torontonians have cause for concern.

Those looking for troubling indicators of council’s current leanings don’t have to look further than the TTC budget. The City is all too willing to find $910 million for the Scarborough subway extension while maintaining a massive state of good repair backlog, all while falling short of the $240 million to make the transit agency accessible by the legislated date.

In the most recent budget, council was willing to speed up repairs on the Gardiner to the tune of $443 million while other needs, like Lower Don flood protection and the ongoing crisis in social housing, continue to receive more lip service than action.

What doesn’t get represented in the City budget is the squandered opportunity cost, year after year, as difficult but good decisions get deferred in favour of easy sells that may not be the best use of funds.

Forum Research polled the infrastructure funding priorities of Torontonians, and TCHC and TTC state of good repair led the way, although not by large margins.

This might be a case where residents lead politicians, and it’s needed. After all, what kind of priorities do we have as a city have when our representatives would sooner preserve an underused highway section that has seen its planning principles discredited long ago, rather than, say, transit accessibility?

And what are the principles that make political leaders so eager to back an egregiously expensive project despite limited evidence that it is, in fact, better?

Maybe what needs realignment is not the Gardiner, but the priorities from Toronto’s political leadership, and what we should be able to expect from them.

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