Waterfront Toronto has thrown its support behind removing the Gardiner East, saying that taking down the elevated expressway would cause "significant" delays on barely 1 per cent of trips in the city.
The board of the government agency, which oversees waterfront projects, said in a statement on Friday that removing the aging expressway "best supports and enhances the revitalization of the Toronto waterfront." The city is proposing to replace the stretch with an expanded surface route.
Although all options for the Gardiner would be pricey, the $240-million estimated cost of removing it is the cheapest. The other possibilities are rebuilding it (the most expensive, at $700-million), improving it and maintaining it.
"The capacity … of that Lake Shore/Gardiner twin that we've got right now in that eastern section is more than is needed," Mark Wilson, chairman of the agency, said on Friday. "Something has to be done. It's going to be significantly disruptive, regardless. It's going to cost several hundred million dollars. What's the best return to the city?"
A city report this month showed that the eastern Gardiner is relatively lightly used. About 4,500 vehicles per hour head west during the peak morning rush, with another 1,200 heading east. According to Waterfront Toronto, switching to a widened road at street level would mean delays of more than seven minutes, which it termed "significant," for 17,500 trips per day. For comparison, they noted that about 1.6 million trips are made daily in Toronto, using all transportation types.
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who is mulling a run for mayor, has spoken against removing the Gardiner East. On Friday, he questioned Waterfront Toronto's assumptions, noting that the economic costs of congestion are not included in the debate and that the Gardiner is not the only barrier between the city and the lake.
"I've always seen their position as biased," he said. "They've always wanted it removed."
The Waterfront Toronto board is made up of business people, current and former politicians, academic leaders and environmentalists. Its position is not terribly surprising – the agency had a hand in a city report earlier this month leaning toward removal – but it does raise the pressure on the issue.
With an election coming, the Gardiner debate is already a political football. It dovetails with the "war on the car" rhetoric that helped Rob Ford get elected as mayor, and he has spoken strongly against removing any part of the highway. Mr. Wilson acknowledged that the fate of the highway is being decided at an awkward time. But he said there is little option.
"The Gardiner's going to fall down if we don't do something," he said. "… Although it may have been politically safer to wait, public safety is really at risk if we don't move. And we need to get moving and I think another year's delay is really not prudent."