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Toronto mayor John Tory campaigned as a champion of drivers and has spoken favourably about keeping the Gardiner up.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Mayor John Tory has thrown his support behind a nearly $1-billion proposal to rebuild the eastern Gardiner Expressway largely as it is now, arguing for the need to keep traffic moving and insisting the space underneath could be made welcoming.

The mayor campaigned as a champion of drivers and has spoken favourably about keeping the highway up. But he waited until Tuesday to make formal his position on the question of what to do with the Gardiner east of Jarvis.

"No matter how much transit we get built, and I intend to try and get a lot built during my time as mayor, we are still going to have people driving around in cars and trucks, it's a reality," he said.

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As Toronto politicians move toward a decision on what to do with the eastern Gardiner, they are being left to make the decision based on their own preferences after city staff said the issue had become too polarized for them to offer a recommendation.

The future of that part of the aging elevated highway is the focus of a special meeting Wednesday by a key city hall committee. The issue then goes to the full city council, where local politicians will decide the most expensive question so far of Mr. Tory's mayoralty.

One choice on the table is the so-called remove option: taking down 1.7 kilometres of the elevated eastern portion and replacing it with a boulevard, at a long-term cost of $461-million.

The other choice – dubbed the hybrid, based on a route proposal later dropped – involves rebuilding that stretch of the Gardiner in its current location, while tweaking the ramps at its eastern end. This would cost $919-million over the life of the roadway but would reduce driver delays.

The choice will have decades-long impacts on the city, affecting development potential, livability and local traffic.

One year ago, city staff urged that the stretch of roadway be torn down. In a report last week, they said the road could be left up or taken down, depending on what criteria politicians viewed as most important.

"We didn't actually try and do a weighting [of the criteria]. We couldn't contemplate how we'd ever get anybody to agree what the weighting would be," deputy city manager John Livey said Monday.

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"Each of the councillors are going to come out of it with their own weighting, their own values," he added. "Whether they value transportation, congestion, car impacts, over the possible … [area revitalization]. I'm saying to council, 'You now have to make a decision on this.' "

The remove option allows for more development potential but slows traffic for a few thousand drivers by a few minutes, according to the city's environmental assessment.

On Tuesday, Mr. Tory cited a different report, commissioned by a keep-the-Gardiner coalition, that said the delays could be as high as 10 minutes for some people, though that assumed a roadway scenario different than the one being considered. The mayor later suggested delays could be even longer, in the range of 15 minutes.

Keeping the highway up blocks development of 12 acres of city land but has less impact on drivers.

Both options allow construction at the Unilever site near the base of the Don Valley Parkway, a project upon which Mr. Tory is counting to fund the transit proposal that was at the heart of his election campaign.

Matti Siemiatycki, assistant professor in the geography and planning department at the University of Toronto, said you could have a worthwhile classroom debate about the responsibility of city staff to take a position on such a major issue. But he understands why they didn't.

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"It is interesting that they're taking this new tack of not taking a position. But ultimately this decision rests with council," he said.

"I think staff in a planning capacity, it's really a challenge. I mean, their role is to provide the best evidence and try to remain politically neutral but, you know, everyone's being pushed and pulled in all sorts of directions."

The so-called hybrid option emerged during the election campaign. It was presented by First Gulf, the developers behind the Unilever proposal, and had the effect of lowering the temperature by pushing the Gardiner debate until after the municipal vote.

The new proposal seemed a compromise, calling for a replacement highway running close to the rail corridor, north of its current route, and keeping the high-speed link to the DVP. This idea proved impossible after being studied, though, and its route shifted to where the current Gardiner stands. But the name stuck.

"That hybrid wouldn't work but it was very popular in the minds of some politicians, including the mayor," said Cynthia Wilkey, co-chair of the West Don Lands Committee and advocate of removing the elevated roadway. "What we're doing is we're rebranding the maintain option as the hybrid."

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