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New revelations of serious problems with Toronto's Gardiner Expressway add urgency to the debate over what should be done with this structure. The ongoing chipping and patching of concrete can only be justified as a temporary stopgap until a long-term strategy for its future has been developed and implemented. Unfortunately, there has been very little progress. Given that the deficiencies now bring into question the ability of the structure to carry its specified loads, it would appear that the time to make tough decisions is indeed upon us. We need to make sure that, in our haste to formulate a plan, we can still find a way to make the right decisions.

A current estimate places the cost to repair the Gardiner at $505-million. This work is expected to halt deterioration and restore the expressway to an acceptable state of structural integrity. Although this price tag is high by any measure, the total cost of this course of action will be much higher. Once the repairs are complete, it will be necessary for the City of Toronto to commit to a program of regular preventive maintenance to ensure that future generations of taxpayers do not have to suffer through another round of costly and disruptive major repairs. The operating costs take on particular significance, given that much of the mess we're facing can be directly attributed to a lack of adequate maintenance over the Gardiner's 50-year life.

Given that the Gardiner was built with materials and structural details that make it prone to deterioration and difficult to maintain, operating costs after repair are expected to be high. The total cost of repairing the Gardiner and establishing an adequate program of long-term maintenance is likely to be comparable with the cost of demolishing and rebuilding the Gardiner as well as long-term maintenance over the same period.

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Although the cost to rebuild is likely to be higher than the cost of repair, the annual cost to operate a new structure probably will be much lower than a repaired structure, provided the new expressway is properly designed and built. The option of rebuilding the Gardiner thus warrants serious consideration. This will undoubtedly entail a broader discussion over the function of this structure within Toronto's transportation system.

Torontonians are certainly entitled to this debate, but they must also accept that every year spent discussing whether to bury the Gardiner, turn it into a transit corridor or keep it as an elevated highway will be another year of throwing good money after bad in our attempts to deal with falling concrete and possibly incidents of greater severity.

The Gardiner is tightly stitched into Toronto's urban fabric. Regardless of whether it's repaired or rebuilt, its future represents one of the most significant engineering challenges ever to be faced in Canada.

Although projects such as this are expensive, size and complexity always present rich opportunities for designers to create value through innovative ideas. Taxpayers are best served when public administrators make it possible for designers to take advantage of these opportunities. On a project such as the Gardiner, the potential savings will be significant.

Unfortunately, public agencies in Canada have had a disproportionate focus on minimizing risk. All other things being equal, the easiest way to accomplish this goal is to do the same thing over and over. When engineers are repeatedly requested to implement yesterday's solutions – that is, not to innovate – engineering becomes a mere commodity that can be bought and sold at the lowest price.

This attitude is reflected in the current practice of selecting engineers for public works projects solely on the basis of lowest engineering fee. This approach may be sustainable when the task at hand is to chip and patch an aging structure. On complex endeavours such as a major renewal of the Gardiner, however, it deprives the public of economic value to which they're entitled.

It's crucial, therefore, that the debate over whether to repair or rebuild the Gardiner Expressway, and the subsequent implementation of the outcome of this debate, be based on innovative ideas rather than a mere repackaging of yesterday's tried and true solutions. This will require retaining the services of engineers on the basis of their capacity to innovate, giving them the latitude to do what they do best, and compensating them in proportion to the value they create.

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Paul Gauvreau is an associate professor of civil engineering (specializing in bridges) at the University of Toronto.

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