I’ve always appreciated many aspects of the Gardiner Expressway. It offers one of the most breathtaking views of Toronto’s skyline. The experience of travelling through the city’s core suspended amidst a canyon of shimmering glass towers never fails to excite me. It is a truly awe-inspiring vantage point from which to view our remarkable progress. And, of course, there’s the undeniable convenience of being able to drive down the DVP and have a continuous connection to the Gardiner, QEW and beyond. As a car driver, I like it.
When the Gardiner East debate began again this term, I was leaning toward the “hybrid” option. I agree with hybrid proponents that this is not the same fight as the Spadina Expressway battle led by my friend and mentor, former Mayor Crombie. No existing neighbourhoods will be bulldozed. No stable communities will be severed. The options being presented to Council are either keeping the status quo with some ramps moved (the hybrid option), or removing an existing piece of infrastructure. Choosing the latter felt wrong.
But then I began to read the City Staff reports and the facts got in the way of how I felt. I have always believed, and have strongly advocated, that politicians must make evidence-based decisions- even if those choices conflict with what the politician “feels or wants”. I chose to hold myself to the same standard and challenged my own initial assumptions.
Number of Users/Trip Times
Over the past couple of weeks I have had the pleasure of seeing many of you at school fairs, local shops or in our community’s neighbourhoods. I have spoken with as many people as I possibly could to seek feedback as representing and reflecting our community well is deeply important to me. I asked for your feedback in my previous e-newsletter. Some even told me they thought that Council will be debating taking down the entirety of the Gardiner. To be clear, the issue before us is only whether to remove the section east of Jarvis. And based on the facts, that section is not particularly well used.
During the morning rush (or, AM Peak) hour, only 5,200 drivers use this section of the Gardiner. As a point of comparison, this usage rate is similar to peak hour ridership on a busy TTC bus route such as the Eglinton West 32, Don Mills 25, or Dufferin 29.
The City is not proposing to tear down the eastern Gardiner and replacing it with a park, as some other cities have done. The “Boulevard” option entails replacing the section east of Jarvis by connecting the DVP to the Gardiner with an eight-lane boulevard with the same traffic capacity as the existing Gardiner East section. There will, however, be a few traffic lights and lower speed limits.
The other option before Council has been termed the “Hybrid” option, so-called because months ago there was originally a compromise between the current Gardiner and removal, also called the “Hybrid”, that would have shifted the expressway north from the waterfront. However, City engineers did not approve that option as the turning radius of the ramps were too sharp. The current option, called the “Hybrid”, moves some ramps to allow for development of the Unilever Lands owned by First Gulf, but leaves the rest of the expressway pretty much as it currently is.
The big question to me then became; how much of a delay will the Boulevard option cause over the Hybrid?
The Staff report featured a large map (see below) that projected delays by 2031 for a number of hypothetical trips caused by the Boulevard option as compared to the Hybrid. The Boulevard showed delays of 2-3 minutes over the Hybrid from the various trips exhibited.
For the most part, these have been the numbers that the media has used. But buried within the text was the figure that really stood out to me: the Boulevard will cause an average delay of only 52 seconds per trip over the Hybrid for downtown commuters.
*Previously this section used an average trip time of 52 seconds to calculate a publicly-funded subsidy for delay times. As noted above, this number is the average delay expected for drivers in the downtown area as a result of choosing the Boulevard option over Hybrid. Upon further review, I believe this to be a bit of an apples to oranges figure for the purposes of making this calculation. There is no average given in the staff report for delays on the Gardiner itself, so, to be fair to Hybrid proponents, I have now used the highest staff proposed number of 3 minutes (for the difference in delay times between the two options), and specifically for the Gardiner itself rather than including the surrounding corridor, reflecting the trips in the map above for this calculation.
To provide the 5,200 AM Peak Hour Gardiner drivers with a time savings of 2-3 minutes Toronto residents are being asked to pay $458 million in 2013 dollars- that is the difference between the Hybrid ($919 million) and the Remove ($461 million) options. These figures include the capital costs as well as operations and maintenance for the next 100 years.
Because of the long time line for the costs, the report also expresses the dollar amounts in Net Present Value (NPV), taking into account the future value of a dollar. The “discounted” value for the capital and operating costs associated with the Hybrid is $336 million, while the Boulevard option is estimated at $240 million. There is some question as to whether NPV with a uniform discount rate is appropriate when assessing a project that could reasonably be expected to have significant costs in later years, such as an elevated expressway. I have further questions as to whether NPV is a relevant tool if the operating and maintenance costs are not included in the initial capital allocation. Specifically, if the City is going to pay operating and maintenance out of budgets in future years will we benefit from the discounted dollars the report suggests?
However, despite these questions, I assumed the discounted cost differential between the Hybrid and the Boulevard of $116 million for the purpose of my analysis.
Another major cost consideration is the lost development opportunity associated with the Hybrid option. An additional 12 acres of land will be opened up for office, retail and residential construction with the Boulevard option. This would bring in $137 million dollars to the City plus ongoing property tax revenue.
In total, using the most conservative “discounted” figures, the Hybrid option will cost an additional $252 Million over the boulevard option to save 5,200 rush hour drivers 3 minutes (high end estimate). Residents will be paying each of these drivers $2.14 for each minute they are delayed for the next 30 years ($252,000,000/5,200 drivers/251 commuting days/30 years, the Treasury Board of Canada’s recommended average amortization period for an infrastructure asset/ 3 years). If multiplied by 60 minutes, we are paying these drivers a wage rate of $128.40/hr for their time. This rate is 6 times the recommended wage rate of $20/hr used by City staff to calculate productivity losses due to time.
Urban Planning Considerations
The debate over the how the future Boulevard will function has been filled with unhelpful rhetoric on both sides (as I find most city hall debates end up having), developed to spin their message and convince the public of their respective positions. Those favouring removing the east Gardiner are putting forth a utopian vision of the Champs D’Elysse, while the Hybrid proponents are painting a picture of a brutalist, at-grade speedway that will be inhospitable to pedestrians. There are certainly some constraints inherent with an 8-lane street with a relatively high speed limit. However, there are relatively simple urban planning solutions, including setting the buildings back from the road and planting a wall of street trees at the edge of the sidewalk, the City could implement to improve the pedestrian realm. The truth is, we can make this Boulevard a relatively walkable street or a wasteland. It depends what we choose to do. But the option for the former is available to us.
Toronto is already scraping the top of its debt ceiling and has very limited room to invest in much-needed capital infrastructure. It recently replaced a planned 7-stop LRT that was fully funded by the provincial government by approving a 3-stop subway extension (while unnecessarily increasing our debt load and property taxes) that will require massive subsidies due to low ridership while our affordable housing stock literally crumbles under the weight of a $2 billion dollar capital backlog. No other successful world city is making these kind of decisions.
In addition to our Community Housing crisis, we need to build the Relief Subway line to ease critical overcrowding on the existing Yonge line and get moving on SmartTrack while providing new childcare spaces and community hubs, among other priorities.
Spending a minimum of $252 million to save a relatively small number of people one minute on their morning commute is not something I can reasonably support when there are so many pressing, real and underfunded (or unfunded) priorities waiting for investment.
I have heard from many of you already that you support the Boulevard option. I’ve read all of your emails. I’ve also appreciated former Mayor David Crombie’s advice along with many others. For those of you who don’t, I hope that I’ve at least explained my thought process to you about how I arrived at this decision and can assure you it was a difficult, honest and thoughtful choice.
As your representative, I will be supporting the Boulevard option for the Gardiner East at Council next week. While it’s admittedly imperfect, I believe this option is by far the most fiscally responsible choice, it supports our city’s infrastructure priorities and will greatly benefit our Toronto’s waterfront in the long run.