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the green highway

Crews looked at the underside of the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto last summer, after another chunk of concrete fell onto the roadway below.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

We might as well start building the toll booths now. They're inevitable. With the one and only expressway providing access from the west to the centre of Canada's largest city crumbling before our eyes, expect government to stick its hand deeper in your pocket if you care to drive a car.

Don't expect the provincial and federal taxes on gasoline to provide your roads much longer. Politicians everywhere have fallen in love with toll roads and congestion charges. The Gardiner Expressway "crisis" is the irresistible "opportunity" to further soak motorists. Yes, this time I believe it's curtains for the rusting, crumbling elevated road.

But, of course, it would be nonsense to simply tear it down and replace it with a four- or six-lane road, traffic lights and all. We have that already under the Gardiner and it's jammed with traffic and it's a big, ugly waste of space, just like the roadway above it. As we're going to have to pay anyway, folks, it's time to tunnel.

Everyone laughs at Boston's Big Dig as a mismanaged overpriced political boondoggle. Does Montreal come to mind? One hopes that Boston's corrupt practices could be avoided here but make no mistake, the replacement of an elevated expressway through the heart of the city with an invisible tunnel has transformed the whole stretch of Boston along its attractive harbour. It's a gigantic improvement.

Then there's Seattle, which is now tearing down a horrible two-decked concrete expressway that, just like the Gardiner, cuts off the city from its waterfront. In its place will be a tunnel, a toll tunnel. It's a $2-billion (U.S.), 1.7-mile, 56-foot-wide, deep-bore highway tunnel that will run below downtown Seattle and behind a sea wall holding back Puget Sound. When it's completed in 2015, it will open up nine acres of newly accessible downtown waterfront, which is presently occupied by the decaying expressway.

I know, cars are horrible and we're all supposed to ride bicycles. Well, I ride a bicycle where it is safe to so and that's not on busy downtown streets. And it's not when the weather is bad and not generally when the distance is more than a kilometre or two. Cars are here to stay and why not? They're getting cleaner and safer every year and, with anticipated breakthroughs in electricity storage and in renewable liquid fuels, they'll be virtually emission-free.

Using clean cars in an efficient way is a transportation system – in fact, it's the one most people use. Our one and only unencumbered vehicle access to downtown Toronto has to be preserved, but there is no point in tolling motorists to patch up the old elevated expressway of the 1960s that everyone hates.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is on record opposing toll roads. I agree it would be political suicide to impose tolls on existing roads taxpayers use today. However, paying something reasonable to drive under the lakefront while greatly improving that part of the city could be sold politically.

Let's face the inevitable. Tolls are coming; city governments want your money. Look at London, England. Motorists pay a heavy toll – a daily charge of £10 ($16) – to drive into the central city. It's called a congestion charge, it hasn't improved congestion much, but it has turned into a gigantic cash cow delivering about £169-million ($271-million) a year. We're going to be hit with something similar and voters should insist the proceeds go to significant new highway improvements, not patching up old mistakes.

Seattle is bringing in a monster tunnel-boring machine from Japan (the largest one built), which will grind through 36 feet of earth a day while laying the concrete as it goes. Drilling will take 16 months. The new tunnel, like the elevated expressway it replaces, will be a double-decker, but this one will be out of sight and out of sound. It is also designed to withstand a magnitude 9 earthquake.

The Seattle tunnel, called the SR 99, is scheduled to be completed in 2015. Then ship that tunnel borer to Toronto and let's start tunnelling.

Editor's note: Removing the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, Washington will open up nine acres of new public open space on the city's waterfront. It will be replaced by the SR 99 tunnel. An earlier version of this article incorrectly called the new tunnel the Alaskan Way and misstated the number of acres that would be gained. This online version has been corrected.