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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.

  • maash

    People in Toronto pay less property tax (percentage) and that is okay. Our houses cost way more, but we get less property. It’s cheaper for the city (hydro, water, etc.) to service an average dwelling here, then an average one in Oshawa. So in the end, Toronto residents are the ones getting ripped off.

  • ah123

    My family, and now I, have lived by the lake front for many years. We liked the location because it was downtown, close to Union Station, by the water, but a bit off the beaten track from the core.

    But, as we all see now, that is gone and the city has rushed over to this area. The traffic I witness around here, coming and going on the Gardiner, during rush hour, etc has exponentially exploded.

    It used to be driving from downtown to Mississauga or uptown is going against traffic. But now, it doesn’t seem to matter where you go you will experience pockets of congestion and delays in commute.

    Thanks to developers who stick densely packed condos in any sliver of land, and City Council that has failed in their job of urban planning, we now have more residents downtown enjoying their urban life while driving to work in the suburbs. Add to this the increased rate of people driving from the suburbs to the city and you have a nightmare scenario. Look at City Place and the gridlock on Spadina? In two decades that place will turn into a St. Jamestown type of ghetto (I saw it when it first opened and the finish was already peeling).

    Personally, I wouldn’t lament if the Gardiner is torn down or turned into something like the NYC High Line, if only to discourage people from driving on it as the only artery to the city’s entrance and exit. If the city won’t properly plan and limit development based on a vision of the future, and won’t impose a fee on developers to create a fund to maintain and repair the Gardiner, then why should we taxpayers foot the bill for this unbridled greed in development.

  • Kevin

    Great article…Toronto as political hot potato in any sphere – taxes, infrastructure.
    Also, Cityplace as St. Jamestown? Get real! Too many rich, retired asians.

  • Christina Archer

    We’ll need to get realistic and admit that taxes are not all bad. If Ford could stop milking the anti-tax cow this city would be better off. Why have toll roads as a means of funding?

  • Mark

    Any public LINK to the “Novae Res Urbis” Property Tax Comparison mentioned in this article…?

    The comments from “maash” that “Toronto residents are the ones getting ripped off” are very common because of percpetions about Toronto’s Unit-Sizes and CVA-values.

    Would love to see an ACTUAL 2012 Property-Tax comparision of Substantially Similar properties (eg. “Condo or Townhouse near a GO station”) in Scarborough / Etobicoke compared to SAME in other GTA Cities/Regions *(Inclusive of City/Region and Waste Fees).

    I think “maash” would find that even then Toronto under-pays for what it gets compared to our neighbours.

  • VR

    Great article! I have seen the increase in traffice on the Expressway (parking lot) over the last 20 years. It’s astounding that nothing concrete has been done to fix the situation. I now live in the burbs and still contribute to the downtown economy through work and spending my money at local businesses during and after work…and on special events, etc.

    I’m all for planning ahead! As you say, get the money moving now or the thing will just fall on someone!!!!!!

  • mark_dowling

    “The best comparison is probably with Mississauga, whose tax rate is also relatively low by GTA standards, and whose average property value is close to Toronto’s.” Oh god, this again. How many square feet of land and square feet of house do you get for the “average price” in each city? Torontonians crammed into 14 foot wide semi-ds and shoebox condos must pay at the same rate as 2-car garage burbites? We pay less because there is more of us per square km to pay.