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Work being done on the eastbound section of the Gardiner Expressway near Jarvis Street on Jan. 9 2013.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

If it was just about cost, the fate of Toronto's eastern Gardiner would be an easy decision. But with economic considerations and the effect on drivers thrown into the mix, it promises to be a divisive debate at council.

On Wednesday, the city and Waterfront Toronto released an environmental assessment comparing options for what to do with the elevated expressway east of Jarvis Street, which is showing its age. There are two choices: removing it or rebuilding it in slightly modified form. No longer on the table is keeping the existing highway, an expensive option that hampers development.

Removing it and shifting the traffic capacity to a boulevard would cost $461-million for capital, operating and maintenance costs over the 100-year life of the asset. Rebuilding it but removing some off-ramps – the crux of the "hybrid" option that emerged last year – would cost $919-million over the long term.

With a city staff recommendation coming forward within weeks, and a council decision expected this summer, here is a look at the key issues.

What it means for drivers

Two or three minutes. That's how much worse the delays are projected to be with the removal option, compared with the hybrid, on a selection of routes into the core during the morning rush hour. That's far less than what was initially feared, but the improvement doesn't satisfy everyone on council.

"Simply put, I did not get elected to increase congestion," said Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, a deputy mayor and board member of Waterfront Toronto who used Wednesday's news conference to offer a full-throated pitch for the hybrid option.

But Councillor Gord Perks later responded that, with nearly 70 per cent of the people coming into the core doing so on transit, this project was a very expensive way to focus on a minority.

"If Councillor Minnan-Wong wants to balance the travel times of people coming into the downtown against cost, he should be investing in public transit," he said. "That's the best way to cut travel times for the least money."

With traffic projected to 2031, the removal would mean an extra three minutes of delay over the hybrid option to Union Station from Victoria Park and Finch Avenues, from Don Mills Road and Eglinton Avenue or from Kipling Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard. The removal would mean two more minutes of delay, compared with the hybrid, for people driving to Union Station from Victoria Park and Kingston Road.

This stretch of road was designed with a capacity that assumed the Scarborough expressway would be built. That did not happen and the Gardiner East is lightly used, carrying about 5,200 vehicles per hour into the downtown in the morning peak period. About 5,900 people per hour walk or bicycle into the downtown in the morning peak period.

The economic effects

The environmental assessment warned that removing the eastern Gardiner "may impact" the city's regional competitiveness. But it added that the removal of expressways in "some other downtowns appears not to have harmed their economic performance."

Both the removal and hybrid options open up access to the former Unilever property, near where the Gardiner and Don Valley Parkway come together. This site is earmarked by First Gulf for a major office development that Mayor John Tory needs to fund his transit plans. Although both options are suitable for the First Gulf project on the east side of the Don, the picture is different on the other side of the river.

At issue is the future of a 12-acre parcel of city land now enclosed by the Gardiner and the rail corridor. The hybrid option, which mimics the highway's current route in that area, would keep the land enclosed. But removing the elevated expressway here would open up this land to development.

"There's a lot more information that needs to be put into the mix," said area Councillor Pam McConnell, also a deputy mayor. "One is the economic lens that needs to look at the lands that we are trying to unlock."

According to city officials, the sale price of those 12 acres is projected to be between $100-million and $150-million, in 2013 dollars.

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