Jennifer Keesmaat has decided to incorporate her first big argument with John Tory into her latest one, and it’s good for the city that she has.
Last weekend, Keesmaat — currently running to replace Tory as mayor of Ontario’s largest city — announced that, if she wins the election, she’ll urge council to tear down the stretch of the Gardiner Expressway east of downtown. Keesmaat argued for the demolition when she was Toronto’s chief planner (argued for it so publicly and forcefully, in fact, that Tory’s office insisted she shut up), but to no avail: council had already gone pretty far down the road of retaining the obsolete monument to motorism before Tory was even elected. The result of the final vote, early in Tory’s tenure as mayor, wasn’t terribly surprising.
It was, however, a mistake — and it’s good that Keesmaat’s saying so: the Gardiner’s eastern stub was intended to connect to a Scarborough Expressway that was never built, and the remaining vestigial limb is going to cost north of $1 billion to rebuild. That will be done entirely on the city’s dime, and it’s not as if Toronto doesn’t have other priorities that a billion dollars would come in handy for.
Keesmaat says that at, this point, tearing down the Gardiner’s eastern bit would save the city $500 million. Tory’s campaign says that she’s overestimating the savings and underestimating the traffic impact on local roads, but if she wins the election, she’ll have bigger problems than the claims of her vanquished foes. Her first obstacle would be convincing a majority of the new 25-member council to back the idea. If facts mattered, that wouldn’t be an impossible task, but the 44-member council had the same facts and made a different choice, and it isn’t obvious that the smaller council would change course.
And even if council did follow Keesmaat’s lead and vote to tear down the Gardiner East, the proposal would face an even more considerable hurdle: as the events of the past summer demonstrated, Toronto isn’t the master of its own house. Queen’s Park — and the more emphatically pro-motorist government now settling in there — has the final say.
So if Keesmaat were to win both the election and a vote at council, we could be looking, more or less, at a replay of Tory’s (losing) fight over road tolls: while the City of Toronto Act clearly anticipates that the city might want to impose road tolls, it explicitly leaves it to the provincial government’s discretion to make regulations allowing them.
Tearing down the Gardiner East wouldn’t require cabinet’s immediate approval the way road tolls did, but it would require the province’s sign off on an environmental assessment. (Last year, the province approved the environmental assessment for the rebuild.) If the Tories were to withhold it, they could block council’s choice while avoiding the kind of noisy fight kicked up this summer by their move to cut council in half.
Minister of Transportation John Yakabuski didn’t wade particularly deep into the matter when asked about it at Queen’s Park on Thursday.
“They have differing views, differing mayoral candidates,” Yakabuski told TVO.org. “They’ll have to decide as a council what they’re going to do about the Gardiner.”
Doug Ford’s record on the issue, though, is pretty clear: since his own time at council, he’s been a staunch proponent of keeping the expressway whole (although he did at one point support road tolls to help fund it). The government won’t need to provide a definite answer unless Keesmaat wins.
But even if Tory wins (the most likely outcome at this point, according to all the polling thus far), the Ford government has set the tone for the next four years. The mayor and councillors can make whatever proposals they like, but Queen’s Park is running things now, and the premier has been happy to legislate his own preferences over the choice of council. The precedent set by the Tories effectively means that they can weigh in on anything that will cost at least $25 million (the alleged savings from cutting council in half), which includes nearly any major decision Toronto could make on anything.
Cyclists probably shouldn’t expect any new bike lanes for a while — council will spend its next term looking over its shoulder (or rather, a kilometre or so northwest). And, of course, a council that’s too terrified of the provincial bigfoot to do anything is probably going to keep taxes low and services shrinking.
Which may be exactly what Doug Ford wants.
Disclosure: The author’s sister works for the Jennifer Keesmaat campaign (but John Michael McGrath’s views on the Gardiner East long predate this election season).
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