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Philip Preville: How the crumbling Gardiner became a symbol for all that ails Toronto

While city hall spent a decade debating what to do with the Gardiner—Demolish it? Bury it? Raise it?—the expressway fell into ruin. The perils of chronic indecision

Philip Preville: Highway of Broken DreamsTorontonians spent most of the last decade studying, researching and letting their imaginations run wild with plans and proposals to boldly transform the Frederick G. Gardiner Expressway corridor. There was never any money to devote to the project, but never mind. Everyone weighed in. Let’s bury it! No, let’s turn it into a grand avenue! Design guru and public optimist Bruce Mau, in a fit of contrarian exuberance, proposed raising it even higher. Others suggested a cable-stayed double-decker version. Well, here endeth the lesson: while we were rapt in our salon-style discussion of the Gardiner’s bold future, it fell into ruin. So did our civic dreams. From now on, decisions will be made on the basis of affordability, expediency and convenience, not great design or
urban transformation.

A report from the engineering firm IBI Group, commissioned by the city and made public in late October, called the Gardiner “a significant hazard to public safety.” It found that the regularly scheduled visual inspections conducted by city staff—in essence, little more than standing beneath the Gardiner and looking up—had greatly underestimated the extent of its deterioration. In areas where the spot checks turned up nothing, the report found hundreds of metres of cracks as well as signs of delamination—the process by which the steel rebar embedded in the concrete begins to rust, causing it to expand and break the roadbed apart from the inside.

Soberingly, the IBI report also notes that McCormick Rankin, the engineering firm handling the Gardiner’s maintenance, alerted the city to the problems almost a year and a half earlier, in June 2011. Yet atop the Gardiner it’s business as usual, with roughly 160,000 vehicles traversing the 18-kilometre expressway every day, and 50,000 more beneath it on Lake Shore Boulevard. Last summer, following a number of incidents of falling concrete, the mayor and his public works chief, Denzil Minnan-Wong, assured drivers that the Gardiner was safe. These days, they duck the question.

Since there’s no way to predict exactly when or where the concrete chunks will fall next, the IBI Group recommends installing some form of protective mesh underneath the structure to catch them. Meanwhile, city staff have already requested a tripling of the Gardiner’s annual maintenance budget to $35 million, so they can begin replacing the expressway’s entire deck in order to extend its lifespan.

The Gardiner Expressway lesson matters at the moment because our civic discussion has moved on to a new topic that may yet suffer a similar fate: transit expansion. At its October meeting, the TTC established the Downtown Relief Line—a new subway tunnelling from Pape station down to Leslie­ville, across downtown beneath King Street and back up through Roncesvalles to Dundas West station—as its next high-priority project.

Or, more precisely, the next major project for which there is no money. The Eglinton, Sheppard and Finch LRT lines and the Scarborough RT upgrade are all fully funded, but even those lines, once built, still leave the transit system wanting. The Yonge subway line is running at capacity, and Bloor-Yonge station is overcrowded—two pressing problems that the DRL would fix by allowing commuters from the east and west ends to bypass the Yonge-University line on their way downtown.

City hall is holding public consultations this winter on how to raise money for transit expansion. The initial list of proposed revenue tools included road tolls, a sales tax increase, fuel surcharges, parking levies and a new payroll tax. Mayor Ford’s executive committee expanded the list to include public-private partnerships, utility bill surcharges, HST revenues from Ottawa, downtown congestion charges and more.