The Gardiner Debate: Will Transit Be the Loser?
In the ongoing debate about the future of the Gardiner, we must look at how council's decision affects future transit investment.
On June 10, Toronto city council faces a decision about the future of the Gardiner Expressway between Jarvis Street and the Don River. The two options before council offer competing visions of the road and waterfront, and by extension, two visions of what Toronto may become.
- The “Hybrid” option (so called because it is a blend of two earlier schemes) would rebuild the elevated expressway in its present location, but would shift the location of ramps to Lake Shore Boulevard to the west side of the Don River.
- The “Remove” option (also dubbed the “Boulevard” option) would bring the expressway to grade east of Jarvis in a boulevard similar to University Avenue and shift its alignment north away from the edge of the Keating Channel.
Debates of years past addressed the larger question of taking down the entire expressway, but that option is not on the table. The elevated structure west from Jarvis to Dufferin will remain in place and major repairs to it are already underway on a timeline that was accelerated in the most recent budget.
Only the 1.7-kilometer stretch east of Jarvis is at issue. This section is unique because massive redevelopment will transform the eastern waterfront over coming decades from an underused relic of Toronto’s port-based industry to a new neighbourhood of residences, offices, and schools. How this evolves will depend, in part, on the form of the expressway.
Council must decide soon one way or another because the existing structure that was completed in the mid-1960s is nearing the end of its useful lifespan. However, this significant decision should not be made in the fog of incomplete and conflicting information.
Advocates of the Hybrid plan, including Mayor John Tory, cite economic factors as vital to their position. They argue that removal of the existing Lake Shore Boulevard ramp structure is essential to develop the former Unilever site by First Gulf on the east side of the river, and that a fast road connection into downtown is essential for goods movement, particularly from businesses located in the Port Lands.
Those who favour the Boulevard plan, like chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat, counter that both plans, not just the Hybrid, remove the Lake Shore ramps and the new boulevard, unlike an elevated road, can be the centre of a new neighbourhood. In this view, economic development has a broader scope—one that treats waterfront lands as worthy of more than an expressway.
Rival transportation models compete for attention in the debate, each presenting future changes in travel times to the best advantage of their advocates. Will travel to downtown become so difficult that this will choke the business district, or will the changes be small enough to be acceptable in the larger context of city building in the new waterfront?
Roads, speed, capacity, and congestion are hot issues for many politicians and voters, especially for those who frame the argument as part of an endless “war on the car.” Taking down an elevated road makes a huge symbolic statement about priorities, one that echoes decades-old battles over a city-wide expressway network. Those Lake Shore ramps are a vestige of the unbuilt Scarborough Expressway, a lesser-known victim of the supposed shift to priority for transit construction when premier Bill Davis cancelled the Spadina Expressway project. The Gardiner debate picks up with all the resentment of that decades-old battle.
For all that the Spadina decision was nominally about transit, the real issue then as now was the preservation of the city’s form. Should road structures dominate the landscape, or should they be part of the fabric of the city? Should Toronto devote acres of prime land to structures for moving vehicles, or should land serve for buildings, neighbourhoods, and transportation?
The eastern Gardiner is not a heavily used road by comparison with other parts of the expressway network. Only 3 per cent of all travel into the core area (bounded by Bathurst, the rail corridor at Dupont, and the Don Valley) arrives over this road. By contrast, the Don Valley Parkway is notorious for its congestion, but this lies further north, before it joins the Gardiner. Traffic funnels off at exits all the way from Eglinton south to Richmond Street, and the Gardiner gets what remains. The other approach, from the east along Lake Shore, is limited by the capacity of that street.
- Construction of the Gardiner
- Premier Davis cancels the Spadina Expressway
- Crombie Commission recommends full removal of the Gardiner
- Planning for removal of section east of the Don River
- Removal of section east of the Don complete
- March 2009
- Environmental Assessment process starts for Jarvis-to-Don segment
- September 2009
- Design competition for various Gardiner options launched
- Summer 2010
- Design competition completed
- Fall 2010
- Municipal election; work on EA stopped
- May 2013
- Council approves resuming work on the Environmental Assessment
- February 2014
- Waterfront Toronto recommends removal
- March 2014
- Unilever site developer First Gulf puts forward “Hybrid” proposal, council defers decision until staff can study the plan
- April 2015
- The new environmental assessment comes without recommendation. The “Hybrid” proposal cannot be done as originally envisioned, and costs half a billion more
- May 2015
- The mayor comes out in favour of the “Hybrid” option
- June 10, 2015
- Council debates Gardiner proposals
In a broader context, the Gardiner is part of a road network that has delivered roughly the same number of people into downtown for decades because the capacity of its feeder system is fully used. All of the growth of downtown jobs has been handled by increased transit, notably GO’s regional network of rail lines, and more recently by the growing near-downtown population. This pattern will continue because there is no realistic alternative.
As for downtown congestion strangling goods movement, there is much more to this problem than the Gardiner East link. Roads are clogged with parking (legal and otherwise), and construction sites routinely take over capacity on major arterials. Toronto must face two questions: what are roads for, and can the city even tolerate commercial deliveries during busy weekday periods. Other cities have relegated this activity to off hours, and Toronto may have no choice but to follow their lead. That’s part of the cost of being a big city with limited road space.
Better transit into downtown was needed decades ago, but two major factors intervened. The mid-1990s recession and the financial crash of 2008 both killed off major transit plans because hoped-for funding evaporated. When times were good, planners and politicians could offer something for both downtown and in the suburbs. When dollars are scarce, they go where the votes are. The Scarborough subway decision is the most obvious example, but even GO’s expansion plans and John Tory’s SmartTrack are pitched as benefits for the suburbs. The real irony is that their primary function is to improve access to downtown Toronto.
With political focus on the Gardiner issue, the attitude to transit growth is “don’t worry, we’ve got things under control” with planned improvements to the GO network. But SmartTrack is really a variant on GO service, and plans for both must wrestle with the capacity limitations of the rail corridors. The problem is that the GO network misses huge parts of Toronto and is very downtown-oriented, thanks to a history of serving the industrial areas of the old city. In seven or eight years, we may have GO Regional Express Rail (possibly with a few SmartTrack logos to preserve John Tory’s dignity), but these will not serve Toronto as a whole, nor the existing and increasing demands along the waterfront.
The subway is full. This is no secret to anyone who tries to use it to come downtown in the morning peak, or jam onto a home-bound train in the afternoon. Some relief is coming with riders shifting to the Spadina-Vaughan line in 2018, and a new signal system allowing for more trains in 2020. But every passing year adds more riders, especially those attempting to commute in from suburban Toronto and the regions beyond. New subway capacity will quickly fill with the existing demand backlog and continued population growth.
Within Toronto, there is little talk of improvement beyond modest increases in bus and streetcar services on which most commuters depend for travel. New rapid transit lines will open on Eglinton (2020), Finch West (2021), and in Scarborough (2023, maybe), but these will not eliminate the need for more and better transit overall. After fighting in an election in which local transit improvements were not on his radar, John Tory made an about-face to improve service in his 2015 budget, albeit on a small scale. The TTC has a small order for buses pending that will enter service late in 2015 or early 2016, but then nothing further until 2019. A new streetcar fleet will arrive eventually, but real increase in fleet capacity is still years away.
A relief subway line providing more capacity into the core will not be cheap. The TTC agrees that Toronto needs this route. The mayor says that SmartTrack does not preclude it. But planning, not to mention funding, is a leisurely process suffering from a sense that “we don’t need it today,” and a long, complex construction process becomes an excuse for treating a relief line as a project for decades to come.
On the eastern waterfront, plans for new streetcar lines with their own rights-of-way (like Spadina or St. Clair) languish for want of funding. Over coming decades, 50,000 new residents will move into developments stretching from Yonge east to the Don and south to the Ship Channel in the Port Lands. They will be joined by up to 20,000 new workers and students, all commuting to the waterfront. This cannot be served by only one or two stations on the northern edge of development along the rail corridor. To put the future demand in context, the total population of Liberty Village, including sites north to Queen Street, plus the Bathurst-Niagara neighbourhood—areas that tax service on the King streetcar—will be barely 20,000. Quite simply, waterfront development cannot occur without investment in much better transit.
The price tag on many transit projects is huge—hundreds of millions for smaller ones like a new bus garage or full subway accessibility, and billions for rapid transit schemes. Nobody knows where the money will come from.
The Gardiner debate turns on capital cost options in the $400- to $550-million range (for Boulevard and Hybrid options respectively), plus a $5-million annual premium for the cost of maintaining the Hybrid plan’s new structure. Spending more money on the Hybrid to allay fears of motorists may be the easy choice politically, but in common with other decisions of Toronto council, it buys that political favour at the expense of crowding out future spending. That $5 million may not sound like much, but it is half of what the TTC has been asked to cut from its 2016 operating budget just at a time when increases, not cuts, are what Toronto needs.
Council will easily spend hours or days debating what to do with the expressway, but if that is the only issue on the table, they will miss the bigger picture. Toronto is beyond the point where travel into the core will grow or even be sustained by the existing road network, and the focus must be on better transit. These needs reach far beyond a small stretch of the eastern waterfront to the entire city, and from the simplest of bus routes to the most grandiose of rapid transit schemes.