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The Gardiner Expressway in March, 2011. Construction on the final section of the Gardiner East won’t begin until 2026.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

John Tory does not want you to remember 2015. In that year, his first as Toronto mayor, he pushed a decision to reconstruct one piece of the Gardiner Expressway at a cost of a billion dollars. There were persuasive arguments to replace it with a regular road; but rebuilding the elevated highway won the day.

Or did it? During two mayoral debates this month – the first to which Mr. Tory deigned to show up – challenger Gil Penalosa suggested the file should be reopened.

He is right. Construction on the final section of the Gardiner East won’t begin until 2026. And the mayor’s decision of seven years ago looks worse than ever. It’s time to discuss it again.

This is not a dead issue. The easternmost section of the expressway, from Cherry Street to the Don Valley Parkway, is “going through detailed design,” a city spokesperson said this week, and no construction contracts have gone to market yet. Mr. Tory suggested in one debate that it’s too late to alter the plans. It is not.

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Back in 2015, the debate recalled Rob Ford’s bluster about a “war on the car.” This particular section of the Gardiner carried just 3 per cent of daily commuters into downtown Toronto. The city’s “boulevard” plan would have brought this section down to earth, adding a few stoplights and a few minutes’ delay for those few drivers.

Instead, Mr. Tory and council’s right wing voted to address that small issue by spending truckloads of money. The cost was huge and has grown. In 2016, city staff estimated the approved plan would cost $1.492-billion. A year earlier, the “Remove” option was priced at $461-million.

The highway defenders’ arguments were never good. Why should one particular group of commuters, about 15,000 in each rush hour, receive such a disproportionate expenditure of public funds? In 2022, that position is harder to defend. The city has an ambitious climate-change action plan; building a carbon-intensive elevated highway is climate arson. It is expensive; yet after a decade of austerity, Toronto’s public realm and public services are crumbling. The city is in serious financial trouble.

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Mr. Tory would prefer not to discuss it. “It’s a decision that was made about seven years ago and had been considered and reconsidered,” he said in an editorial board meeting with The Globe and Mail on Monday.

He suggested that changing course would be complicated and the savings to the city would be “minimal.” Not zero.

Very well. Why not study the issue, thoroughly and publicly, and find out if that’s true?

According to a city spokesperson, revisiting the Gardiner decision would require a council vote, and then a new “environmental assessment” process. More design work would need to be done. There would be a cost involved. How much?

On the other side, the benefits have likely been understated. The elevated highway consumes public land that is increasingly valuable. In 2021, a city spokesperson confirmed that the current plan wipes out 5.4 acres more land than the teardown option. When I wrote about this issue last year, the planning and architecture firm Smart Density determined that this leftover area could house 15,000 people and a mix of other uses. Broker Jeremiah Shamess valued that land at $450-million. And if it is built on, that land will spin millions of dollars of property taxes each year, forever.

The symbolism is also terrible for the city. No other city in North America is constructing an elevated highway. Meanwhile, the area near the eastern Gardiner is becoming a centre of gravity for Toronto. The “Quayside” site, which Google sister company Sidewalk Labs wanted to develop, is being rebuilt right next door. Nearby, the massive Port Lands Flood Protection project will finish in a few years, creating 200 acres of parks and enabling a neighbourhood of at least 8,000 people. Finally, the East Harbour district is starting to emerge right next to the Gardiner. It’s flawed, but it will be huge, providing a planned 50,000 jobs and lots of housing.

This is downtown waterfront land in the country’s fastest-growing city. In that context, Mr. Tory’s handwaving just won’t do. Every bit of public space that can be saved is worth saving. Every home that can be built is worth building.

Mr. Tory’s legacy is closely tied to the expressway. If he’s going to continue with the reconstruction, he must make the case for why it is necessary and worthwhile. It may be easier to pretend that the issue doesn’t exist, but mayors don’t get to do that. They answer questions, and sometimes they admit that they’re wrong.

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