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Toronto City Council has finally decided what to do with east end of the Gardiner Expressway – cue the world's faintest trumpet blast – but what an unsatisfying decision it is. No one can have come away from this drawn-out, sometimes ridiculous debate feeling happy about the outcome.

After hours of talk spread over two days, council rejected tearing down the crumbling expressway and then voted 24-21 for a plan to keep it more or less intact. But council voted so narrowly, so reluctantly that it is hard to believe this is the end of it and that the decision (or the expressway) will stand the test of time. Given city hall's penchant for changing its mind, Toronto could easily find itself having the great Gardiner debate all over again.

Hanging over the proceeding was a sense of civic failure. Some councillors said they were tempted by the option of replacing the costly old relic with a grand urban boulevard and clearing the waterfront edge for something nicer than concrete pillars, but they just could not face the prospect of imposing even slightly longer travelling times on long-suffering motorists. Congestion, after all, was one of the biggest issues in last year's campaign.

If Toronto had done more to build out its transit network – if it hadn't wasted years in endless debate over what to build instead of simply building it – things might have been different. But Toronto didn't. So councillors found themselves taking what many felt in their hearts was a retrograde step: retaining a kind of infrastructure, the elevated expressway, that many cities are getting rid of and spending heaps of money on a rotting sixties-era edifice.

If the vote was disappointing for those – including city planners, developers and urbanists – who wanted to see the old relic replaced with the boulevard, it was hardly a triumph for the council-floor winners either. There were no cheers or fist pumps when the vote was announced. By scoring such a narrow win on his first big council vote, Mayor John Tory emerged looking as much vulnerable as victorious.

At a news conference after council voted, he tried to persuade the media that narrow victories at council aren't unusual. He even read from a list of other close votes over the years. But to have such a squeaker on such an important issue – a vote on the future, as some councillors put it – was not a good thing, for the mayor or for the city.

Far better to build a consensus, or at least a solid majority, for the favoured position, then put it to a vote. Mr. Tory failed to do that, despite earnest study, vigorous lobbying and passionate speeches. So the decision came right down to the wire.

To get the votes to secure a win, his side had to offer a bunch of silly concessions to wavering councillors. One wanted a study into putting the expressway in a tunnel, an old and ruinously expensive idea that city staff has said is impractical, at least for the short stretch of the eastern Gardiner.

Another wanted the city to look into selling it and using the proceeds to build transit. Another wanted to examine putting tolls on it, at least for out-of-towners. Still another wanted some study of changing the expressway's route to allow for more waterfront development. One even wanted to ask the provincial government to take responsibility for the concrete monster, an offer sure to tempt the strapped occupants of Queen's Park.

Mr. Tory got his win. But the price was to water down the decision and make it more provisional than even the close vote would suggest. Mr. Tory told the media he would work to make the "decision in principle" better, whatever that means.

After all the argument and debate, the Gardiner seems very much up in the air. So, in a sense, is the future shape of the city.

Everyone knows that we are moving away from the automobile-dependent past that has the Gardiner as its monument. But much of the city, especially in its suburban reaches, is built around the car. You don't hear streetcar bells in Rexdale. Moving to a future that puts the car in its place is a devil of a problem. As the Gardiner debate demonstrated so starkly, Toronto is not quite there yet.