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Rush hour traffic heading west on the Gardiner Expressway Nov 10, 2010.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Putting a toll on two Toronto expressways could make it noticeably faster to drive on them, according to a preliminary city report that moves the contentious idea onto the political agenda.

The staff report found that charging $3 to drive on the Gardiner and Don Valley expressways – about the same as the cost to ride the transit – would push drivers onto other roads and to other ways to travel, cutting times on the highways by more than 10 per cent.

This projection echoes behavioural change seen elsewhere when tolls are brought in, and was to have been expected. But the extent of the difference for commuters may resonate among drivers in Toronto, where traffic congestion is often seen as the top political issue.

"I think this is as good a moment as any to initiate that conversation," Councillor Joe Mihevc said.

"I think our public is ahead of many a politician. The public knows that to fund good efficient public transit and good efficient automotive transit, you need money. And this is a fair way, because it's basically a user-pay kind of system."

But Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong said tolling the DVP would be an onerous added cost for many users, arguing that they had paid for the highway already through their taxes.

And he said it could hurt Toronto's economy. "It does put the city at an uncompetitive disadvantage because … it doesn't apply to any other highways in the GTA," he said. "And so that means it's a disincentive for business to come and set up in the city; it's much more expensive."

The report on tolls – which does not recommend bringing in charges for drivers but seeks approval to study the possibility further – was one of three related to the Gardiner to be released on Monday.

All these reports stemmed from city council's debate earlier this year on the Gardiner East. Although council voted 24-21 to keep the highway elevated east of Jarvis, getting enough votes required a series of sweeteners. A pledge to study tolling was one of them, as were promises to look at alternative financing and burying the road.

Another Gardiner report – the hotly anticipated one offering revisions to the highway route approved in principle by council – is expected on Tuesday.

Sources say there are three options presented in the report. One of them involves only tinkering with off-ramps while the other two move the Gardiner farther north to the east of Cherry Street. Doing so would free up city land for sale, effectively allowing the development of the area between the lakeshore and the new Gardiner.

This change promises to add substantially to the $919-million life-cycle costs of the highway, though some of the increase could be offset by the development of those city-owned lands. It would also require a tighter curve radius where the Gardiner and DVP come together, which would mean a slower speed through the area. After a debate earlier this year that hinged largely on travel times, this could prove to be a sticking point.

Another idea to put the roadway right on top of the berm has been set aside, at least for now. It still has supporters, but it is sufficiently different from the original proposal that it could hijack the environmental assessment process.

The other reports on Monday looked at rebuilding the lakeside highway as a public-private partnership and considered the possibility of burying it, with staff doing their best to squelch the latter idea.

"Notwithstanding the allure of Gardiner tunnelling proposals over the years, this report concludes that the opportunity to undertake a tunnel for all or portions of the Gardiner Expressway has passed," concluded the report from the city's transportation services department and the Waterfront Secretariat.

Staff noted it could cost more than $10-billion to bury the highway and that the idea would require years of approvals and political process, time the city does not have because of the deteriorating state of the Gardiner's eastern end.