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Council must decide within 12 months whether to pull down the eastern section of the crumbling Gardiner Expressway, a deadline that will put the controversial debate front and centre in an election year.

A decision on the future of the raised expressway east of Jarvis Street is needed by next spring, one of the city's top officials warned Tuesday. That's when a staff report on options – including dismantling 2.4 kilometres of the highway or spending hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild it – is expected to go to council. Any delay would force the city to spend even more on shoring up the aging structure, deputy city manager John Livey told reporters, and could prolong rehabilitation work that is already set to snarl expressway traffic for more than a decade.

"We need a decision from council by this time next year," Mr. Livey said. "It is a major public policy issue that has to be addressed."

It's also an issue that has the potential to divide council and give Mayor Rob Ford – who came to office with a promise to end the "war on the car" – fresh ammunition for his re-election effort.

At City Hall on Tuesday, Mr. Ford wasn't waiting for a staff report to say what he thinks should be done. "We have to keep the Gardiner alive," he said. "It would paralyze the city if we took it down right now."

Opinion runs just as strong on the other side of the debate, with Councillor Gord Perks saying tearing down the highway is a "no brainer" that would allow the city to reclaim land.

City council voted in January to restart an environmental assessment that looks at the future of the eastern section of the Gardiner, work that was quietly put on hold during the last municipal election. The decision to restart the assessment was prompted by news that the raised portion of the expressway needed roughly half a billion dollars in repairs over the next decade to keep it safe. Engineers predict the highway will no longer be safe in about six years without major reconstruction work.

A staff report released Tuesday states the decision to restart the assessment has delayed by one year that reconstruction work between Exhibition Place and the Don Valley and increased the cost by $20-million.

Work was to start this summer east of Jarvis, but with the future of that section in question, staff have shifted plans and will begin work in the west end next year, moving east in sections.

Even if council makes a decision next spring on a preferred option for the Gardiner, it could take up to five more years for the province to give its blessing to the environmental assessment. Under the revised construction schedule, crews would reach the eastern section of the highway about the same time as approval is expected in 2020.

In the interim, the city plans to spend about $9-million this summer to keep the section east of Jarvis safe. Work will include repairs to the walls on the south side of the highway that are too weak to hold streetlights, bracing and replacing sections of the main surface or decking, staff said.

Mr. Livey insisted the one-year delay will not affect safety. Crews will continue to test the highway to identify trouble spots, he said.

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the public works committee, said repairing the eastern section of the expressway makes the most sense. "Tearing it down in my view would be regrettable. It is an important piece of infrastructure," he said.

Based on discussions with staff, he predicted repairing the highway will be the most economical option for the city. Fixing the section east of Jarvis is pegged at $200-million.

John Campbell, head of Waterfront Toronto, a partner with the city in the assessment, underlined the need for a timely decision on the Gardiner's fate. "We've said that we can revitalize the waterfront with the Gardiner up or the Gardiner down, just make a decision," Mr. Campbell said.

The staff report on the Gardiner revitalization plans will go to the city's public works committee next week and the mayor's executive on April 23. Work on the assessment will include public meetings and the release of conceptual drawings on options for the Gardiner some time this spring.

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