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‘The worst type of political opportunism’: How the Gardiner has become a key mayoral race issue

Six years ago the $1.2-billion future of the eastern Gardiner Expressway was decided, but in true Toronto fashion, nothing is ever really set in stone.

A likely mayoral hopeful and a coalition of community groups are demanding an updated accounting of the cost to rebuild the elevated eastern section of the highway — the last chance to prevent what Coun. Josh Matlow calls a “historic mistake.”

But with the project construction underway and a gridlock nightmare on Lake Shore Boulevard, other councillors say the case is closed, even with a new mayor in just a few months.

This is just not what city residents want, said Coun. Brad Bradford (Beaches—East York), another likely mayoral candidate, noting that trucks use that route in addition to commuters.

“Torontonians want to see decisions made and projects moving forward,” Bradford said. “This is the worst type of political opportunism that we see time and time again from some individuals that hold the city back.”

With Matlow’s questions heading to the Infrastructure and Environment Committee on Monday, squeaking by to get there by just one vote, it could awaken a bitter fight over the future of the crumbling highway and the plan for it that was championed by former mayor John Tory.

Rejecting the cheaper teardown option was the wrong decision in 2015 and is worse now, not just due to the likely increased costs of construction and the $1.5-billion COVID bailout funds the city needs but because an elevated expressway is not what a climate-conscious city will use in the future, said Matlow, who represents Ward 12, Toronto-St. Paul’s and is expected to run for mayor.

“I believe that it is responsible to ask the questions that we’re asking and frankly reckless not to,” he said, adding that opposition is coming from those who just want to “protect and defend the decisions they’ve made, even if they are the wrong ones.”

Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie, who is acting as mayor in the interim before the June election, is also in favour of pushing ahead on the “hybrid” rebuild that passed council by a narrow vote in 2015.

“We cannot keep having the same conversations about decisions that have been made seven years ago,” she said in a statement. “Changing course now is expected to save no money (and) possibly cost more money.”

In answer to questions from McKelvie last month, city staff reported that, in total, about $500 million has been spent or committed for construction and design work on the project, including building about a kilometre of elevated road from Jarvis Street to Cherry Street.

That new section of road would have to be demolished if the plan were changed to tear down the Gardiner and build a ground-level road — throwing away about $340 million, staff said. And if a new environmental assessment is needed that could add years of delay and millions more in cost.

About $650 million more has been allocated to finish the project, including building new on and off-ramps east of Cherry Street and connecting the elevated expressway to the DVP starting in 2026, per the staff answers.

This is the perfect time to make sure we aren’t “throwing good money after bad”— something the proponents of the project should also want, said Albert Koehl, a long-time environmental lawyer who is the spokesperson for a coalition of 38 organizations demanding transparency around the current costs of the project.

He wants a pause on signing new contracts until this can happen, noting some big-ticket tasks like ramp construction have not yet started.

“The investment of effort is both timely and small given the massive financial commitment involved and the limits it places on spending for other urgent priorities facing our city,” said a letter from the Gardiner East Transparency coalition to city council this week.

Koehl would like to know if valuable land could be more profitably used for housing and is skeptical of the need for a new environmental assessment given the amount of information already available about the site.

The total Gardiner project represents about a third of the Transportation service’s ten-year capital budget and about 14 per cent of the city’s overall capital budget.

Koehl hopes this discussion will be part of the mayoral race.

Other likely contenders have also weighed in including runner-up in 2022 Gil Penalosa, who supports the re-evaluation.

“Let the mayoral debates take place and let the new mayor see whether there is a way to change that plan so that it could better benefit the city in the long run,” said Lyn Adamson of ClimateFast, one of the groups that form the coalition.

Alyshah Hasham is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Reach her via email: or follow her on Twitter: @alysanmati


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