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The Gardiner Expressway is seen in this file photo.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

With the future of the eastern Gardiner Expressway being cast as a once-in-a-century decision, battle lines are emerging over whether the choice should be primarily about cost, traffic congestion or economic development.

The long-running debate about the stretch of elevated highway between Jarvis Street and the Don Valley Parkway is to be reinvigorated Wednesday by the release of an environmental assessment into the options for the aging roadway. These findings will form the basis for a city staff recommendation that will go to council this summer.

There are three options on the table: remove the elevated portion and replace it with a boulevard; rebuild it in its current form; and a newer "hybrid option" that will look a lot like the current highway but allow for more development. The options offer different advantages and drawbacks and will force the city to decide where its priorities lie.

The hybrid option would be priced at $920-million over the long term for capital, operating and maintenance costs. This is about twice the long-term cost of removing the 1.7-kilometre stretch of road.

Weighed against the cost is that the environmental assessment will also show the hybrid option to be faster for drivers. Removing the expressway in that area would mean an extra few minutes of delay for some motorists. This delay assumes that various transit plans come to fruition and that projected population growth, some of it predicated on that transit, materializes.

Also in the mix is the development potential of the different options. The hybrid option opens up the Unilever site, at the base of the DVP, the development of which Mayor John Tory needs to help fund his transit plan. Removing the expressway will allow Unilever development as well and will also free up a parcel of city land now ringed by the highway and a rail corridor.

Replacing the highway as it is now is unlikely to gain support at council. It is nearly as expensive as the hybrid option and would hamper development at the Unilever site, throwing a wrench into Mr. Tory's transit plans.

Councillor Jaye Robinson, chair of the city's public works and infrastructure committee, said that any Gardiner East solution must be "financially feasible." But she made clear that drivers were paramount to her thinking.

"Making sure that … the city's flowing, and what the impacts [are] of that on these options before us is critical to this discourse," she said Tuesday. "Congestion, from my perspective, is the number one issue. We have to keep the city moving. And as I said, this is a lifetime decision. We need to get it right."

She was echoed by Beaches Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon, who called the cost of the hybrid "a heck of a price tag" but added that the elevated eastern portion of the Gardiner is a "lifeline" to her ward.

Councillor Paula Fletcher, whose ward lies immediately to the east of the stretch of highway in question, countered that the city needs to take a broader view.

"I'm more convinced than ever that, starting at the far east end of the Gardiner, we have to figure out how to get that down," she said. "If we're going to spend a billion dollars on the mouth of the Don, we certainly can't have the ramp right over top of it," she said. "That would not be wise spending on the waterfront."

The hybrid option emerged during the mayoral campaign and was originally proposed as a way to remove the southern curve the highway makes just east of Cherry Street. The environmental assessment coming Wednesday is expected to show that the hybrid has been modified to look more like the current eastern Gardiner, with some infrastructure removed around the connection with the DVP to allow for Unilever development.

There will be a full technical briefing for the media Wednesday afternoon, followed a few hours later by the first meeting of a new round of public consultations on the Gardiner East options.

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