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The Globe and Mail

By-election would jeopardize Toronto city agenda, manager says

Joe Pennachetti, city manager for Toronto is photographed on Jan 24, 2012 as the city discusses whether or not to make paramedics an essential service.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Toronto is facing major decisions on the future of the Gardiner Expressway, transit funding and a downtown casino that cannot wait and would be jeopardized by a by-election for mayor, the city's top official is warning.

City Manager Joe Pennachetti said the clock is ticking on a handful of issues that will come before council in the new year. All of them require quick action, either to meet provincial deadlines, or in the case of the aging Gardiner, because its deteriorating condition will make it unsafe for motorists within six years.

A decision by council to hold a by-election would put this spring's heavy policy agenda in peril. Mr. Pennachetti said he and staff would try to "plough ahead," but conceded a by-election campaign would have an impact on those efforts.

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"I would say council cannot ignore these projects – and I would hope that they are cognizant of this when they are considering their options," he told The Globe and Mail Thursday.

In the case of the Gardiner, Mr. Pennachetti said any foot-dragging will leave the city no choice but to do costly repairs.

"There is a lot that can happen, but it's going to have to happen fast," he said. City officials now estimate it will take more than half a billion dollars over the next decade to rebuild the crumbling expressway – an eye-popping figure that was included in the capital plan approved by the budget committee earlier this week.

Mr. Pennachetti said he emphasized the escalating repair bill as part of budget discussions to "raise the red flag" for councillors. Now that he has their attention, the city hall veteran said he hopes councillors and Toronto residents will consider a range of options beyond repairs, including taking down all or part of the raised portions of the roadway, and the costly alternative of a tunnel, which he calls "the elephant in the room."

"If that conversation is delayed, the choice will be made for them," he said. "If they procrastinate, then it will be the $500-million solution."

Even if repairs are made, he said, the city needs to plan for the eventual dismantling of the expressway's raised sections in 25 years. " I assume even the ones that want it are not going to say it stays for ever," he said.

Asked if he had a part in the pausing of an environmental assessment led by Waterfront Toronto to take down the Gardiner east of Jarvis, Mr. Pennachetti responded: "There was no direction from me, that's for sure."

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The preliminary work from that study should be part of the current discussions, he said. If given the chance, he believes council would favour ripping out the eastern section.

"The real shame is with the east side, there probably would be a majority of council who would say, 'Let's take it down.' The problem is we have to move fast."

The public will have a chance to weigh in on the Gardiner question during consultations on transit priorities and funding at the end of January and early February, he said. Those discussions will be part of a broad study of possible revenue tools such as road tolls, parking and gas taxes that must go to the province's transit agency, Metrolinx, by the end of May.

In January, Toronto residents also will be asked whether they favour two possible casinos in Toronto, including one in the downtown.

Mr. Pennachetti said at the moment he "does not know which way to go," on the issue, but added that if gaming can generate $100-million or more for the city, it is an option that has to be taken seriously.

His advice to councillors: "When you make a decision, you may in principle not like casinos, is that more important than $100-million?" he said. "That's all I'm saying. It's a tough choice."

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Council is expected to vote on the casino question in April.

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