Philip Preville: How the crumbling Gardiner became a symbol for all that ails Toronto

Philip Preville: How the crumbling Gardiner became a symbol for all that ails Toronto

While city hall spent a decade debating what to do with the Gardiner—Demolish it? Bury it? Raise it?—the expressway fell into ruin. The perils of chronic indecision

Torontonians spent most of the last decade studying, researching and letting their imaginations run wild with plans and proposals to boldly transform the Frederick G. Gardiner Expressway corridor. There was never any money to devote to the project, but never mind. Everyone weighed in. Let’s bury it! No, let’s turn it into a grand avenue! Design guru and public optimist Bruce Mau, in a fit of contrarian exuberance, proposed raising it even higher. Others suggested a cable-stayed double-decker version. Well, here endeth the lesson: while we were rapt in our salon-style discussion of the Gardiner’s bold future, it fell into ruin. So did our civic dreams. From now on, decisions will be made on the basis of affordability, expediency and convenience, not great design or urban transformation.

A report from the engineering firm IBI Group, commissioned by the city and made public in late October, called the Gardiner “a significant hazard to public safety.” It found that the regularly scheduled visual inspections conducted by city staff—in essence, little more than standing beneath the Gardiner and looking up—had greatly underestimated the extent of its deterioration. In areas where the spot checks turned up nothing, the report found hundreds of metres of cracks as well as signs of delamination—the process by which the steel rebar embedded in the concrete begins to rust, causing it to expand and break the roadbed apart from the inside.

Soberingly, the IBI report also notes that McCormick Rankin, the engineering firm handling the Gardiner’s maintenance, alerted the city to the problems almost a year and a half earlier, in June 2011. Yet atop the Gardiner it’s business as usual, with roughly 160,000 vehicles traversing the 18-kilometre expressway every day, and 50,000 more beneath it on Lake Shore Boulevard. Last summer, following a number of incidents of falling concrete, the mayor and his public works chief, Denzil Minnan-Wong, assured drivers that the Gardiner was safe. These days, they duck the question.

Since there’s no way to predict exactly when or where the concrete chunks will fall next, the IBI Group recommends installing some form of protective mesh underneath the structure to catch them. Meanwhile, city staff have already requested a tripling of the Gardiner’s annual maintenance budget to $35 million, so they can begin replacing the expressway’s entire deck in order to extend its lifespan.

The Gardiner Expressway lesson matters at the moment because our civic discussion has moved on to a new topic that may yet suffer a similar fate: transit expansion. At its October meeting, the TTC established the Downtown Relief Line—a new subway tunnelling from Pape station down to Leslie­ville, across downtown beneath King Street and back up through Roncesvalles to Dundas West station—as its next high-priority project.

Or, more precisely, the next major project for which there is no money. The Eglinton, Sheppard and Finch LRT lines and the Scarborough RT upgrade are all fully funded, but even those lines, once built, still leave the transit system wanting. The Yonge subway line is running at capacity, and Bloor-Yonge station is overcrowded—two pressing problems that the DRL would fix by allowing commuters from the east and west ends to bypass the Yonge-University line on their way downtown.

City hall is holding public consultations this winter on how to raise money for transit expansion. The initial list of proposed revenue tools included road tolls, a sales tax increase, fuel surcharges, parking levies and a new payroll tax. Mayor Ford’s executive committee expanded the list to include public-private partnerships, utility bill surcharges, HST revenues from Ottawa, downtown congestion charges and more.

These proposals are coming soon, in PowerPoint form, to a community centre near you, and nearly all of them are too clever by half. Most attempt to extract the largest sum of money from the smallest subset of payers—whether drivers, employers or other levels of government. Some are the policy equivalent of Russian dolls: a successful congestion charge would result in fewer vehicles in the core, which would mean lower revenues. One of the more promising ideas, highway tolls, is best implemented across the entire GTA, which means Queen’s Park must also approve, and pity the poor soul saddled with forging that consensus.

Meanwhile, Toronto homeowners pay the absolute lowest property taxes of any municipality in the GTA, just as they have for years, according to figures compiled by the independent weekly municipal affairs publication Novae Res Urbis. The numbers are startling. Toronto’s municipal tax rate (excluding the education portion of property taxes, which funds the school system) is 0.55 per cent—less than half that of Ajax, Whitby or Oshawa.

The best comparison is probably with Mississauga, whose tax rate is also relatively low by GTA standards, and whose average property value is close to Toronto’s. For a house valued at $451,000 in 2011, a Mississauga homeowner paid $3,299 per year in property taxes, while a Toronto homeowner paid $2,534. Put another way: if Toronto had charged the same residential tax rate as Mississauga, it would have collected an additional $460 million in property tax revenues in 2011 alone, yet it would still be among the GTA’s cheapest cities. If Toronto had matched Mississauga’s tax rate a decade ago, there would be billions more.

Those uncollected billions are a giant hole, and we should all stare down into it for a moment to contemplate its blackness. That hole is the place where all of Toronto’s unrealized plans, including the Gardiner tear-down, can be found. So can our pride in being a green and leafy city, as Toronto struggles to replace a once-grand urban canopy now ravaged by old age and disease. The DRL is down there, too—it was first proposed back in 1985. The only way to make these things float to the surface is to start filling the chasm with money.

Last summer, TTC chair Karen Stintz and vice-chair Glenn de Baeremaeker proposed a modest property tax increase of less than $200 per household—less than $200!—phased in over four years, to fund an ambitious transit expansion that included the DRL. The idea went nowhere, and so will this winter’s public consultation process. Stintz argues that transit expansion will increase property values, so that’s the logical place to get the money. Others will counter that Toronto’s greater density—more ratepayers per square kilometre—should result in lower tax rates. And does anyone believe Rob Ford is even remotely interested in the relative merits of one form of taxation over another?

Revenue tools are poised to become the new Gardiner: the urgent-priority-cum-policy-fetish we will workshop to death while our infrastructure falls another decade behind. The creeping decrepitude will be easy to overlook—thanks to the condo cranes, Toronto always appears to be thriving. This is Toronto’s defining paradox: private wealth is transforming every corner of the city, despite a dearth of public money to abet it. People everywhere are investing in Toronto, but Toronto will not invest in itself.


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