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Vehicles travelling west on Lakeshore Blvd. are photographed on June 28, 2018 after passing under the elevated eastern section of the Gardiner Expressway.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Start your engines. The Toronto mayoral campaign is now a real debate, and what’s at stake is how far the city should bend – and what it should spend – to speed up people in cars.

On Sunday, mayoral candidate and former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat committed to bringing down the eastern stretch of the Gardiner Expressway if elected, rather than rebuild it as an elevated highway. For the first time in this campaign, Ms. Keesmaat has drawn a stark contrast between herself and Mayor John Tory. The question now is how far Mr. Tory will go to defend the indefensible.

Because almost any way you view it – the money, the environmental effects, the impact on an important new neighbourhood, the symbolism – Mr. Tory has this issue utterly, badly wrong.

The area in question is the eastern edge of downtown Toronto, site of the important Waterfront Toronto redevelopments and the Sidewalk Toronto proposal. What’s at stake is whether 1.7 kilometres of the Gardiner from Jarvis Street to east of the Don River will move down to the ground, merging with the multilane Lake Shore Boulevard.

By following that route, Ms. Keesmaat’s choice, the city would gain more than $1-billion in cost savings and new revenue.

It’s not her idea; this was the approach favoured by city staff, with Ms. Keesmaat as chief planner, after extensive study and consultation. Now she’s pushing for it again, as “building a future-oriented city.”

Mr. Tory is doubling down on his position from 2015, when in his first big vote as mayor he lobbied hard for another option, the so-called “Hybrid.” He overruled Ms. Keesmaat, creating a public rift, and he won the vote, barely. The winning plan was to rebuild this section of the Gardiner in a slightly different configuration than before, but remaining above ground.

His choice will cost truckloads of money. In 2016, city staff estimated the Hybrid to cost $1.4-billion. A year earlier, the so-called “Remove” option was priced at $461-million. Even allowing for inflation, this is a huge difference – call it $800-million.

Another point, which has not been well reported: The Hybrid eats a lot more land east of Yonge Street, in what will become an important new downtown neighbourhood. The Remove plan allows for 12 more acres in the area, most all of it city-owned, to be developed.

How much is that worth in today’s market? Roughly half a billion dollars. Local publication The Logic, citing real estate sources, reports the nearby 12-acre Quayside site could be worth $675-million.

You can dig deeper on this, but the math is clear enough. It’s a billion-dollar difference.

Which is why Mr. Tory’s spin this week was so incredibly disappointing. In a statement, his campaign said – with no basis – that Ms. Keesmaat’s proposal would be expensive. They claimed she wants to a shred $313-million contract for work on the Gardiner. But that project hasn’t started yet and any changes to the contract sure won’t cost $1-billion.

The cost doesn’t matter, anyway. This isn’t really about numbers, nor is it about the social and economic impacts on Toronto’s resurgent waterfront. It’s about cars, and making drivers feel that they’re being catered to. The debate around the Gardiner has been proof of that.

Moving the Gardiner down to ground level would slow down some people in cars. Not many of them: The drivers on the Gardiner East in rush hour form roughly 3 per cent of the commuters to Toronto’s downtown core. And not for long: A traffic study for the city estimated delays, in rush hour, at three minutes as of 2031. But why do we, as a city, value those people’s time so highly? Hundreds of millions of dollars would go a very long way to speeding up, let’s say, the Dufferin bus.

So, tear down the highway: This is the kind of move that a forward-looking civic leader would push for. A leader like the John Tory of 2013, for instance. That year, Mr. Tory said of the Gardiner, “We should take an honest look at tearing it down or burying it or whatever, even if the cost is huge.”

But what if the payoffs are huge?

That’s where we are in Toronto. The city just needs some political leadership to drive in the right direction.

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