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How much will we really pay for the Gardiner Expressway eastern rebuild?

On Friday (or next week if council runs long), city council will discuss whether to ask staff to pause the project and do a cost update of the current plan
March 31, 2023
Alyshah Hasham

What is the real bill for the Gardiner Expressway’s eastern rebuild?

The price tag has already gone up by about $400 million from the near $800 million estimated cost that council signed off on in 2016. Now, Coun. Josh Matlow is pushing city council to find out how much more that cost could be, taking into account inflation, current construction costs and maintenance costs.

“We need to get real,” Matlow said. “I’m asking council to begin making choices based on evidence, based on the realities we face.”

The early costs council saw to compare three options for rebuilding the section were estimated in 2013 prices at $718 million, plus $60 million for public realm enhancements. The extra funds needed for utility diversions were not included and the costs could vary from 20 per cent less to 20 per cent more.

That initial total $778 million amount has since grown by more than $400 million to a budget of $1.2 billion “which can primarily be explained by increases in construction costs between 2013 and 2023” as well as utility costs not previously included, a city spokesperson said.

The city said the cost estimates will “continue to be refined as engineering design work progresses.”

This does not include the life-cycle costs to maintain the expressway. Those were estimated at $450 million in 2013 prices over the cost of removing the eastern section of the Gardiner, an amount which has not been updated since council approved the rebuild plan in 2016.

“I was a staffer at the time this was being debated and I recall being incredibly frustrated at the decision that was made,” Coun. Amber Morley said at an infrastructure and environment committee meeting this month. Not just because council chose the most expensive option, but because it is one that “will have cost a huge amount for future generations,” she said.

On Friday (or next week if council runs long), city council will discuss whether to ask staff to pause the project and do a cost update of the current plan.

The motion, made at the request of Matlow and seconded by Morley, proposes also looking at the cost of switching to alternative options including removing the elevated section, updating life-cycle costs, and estimating the value of land that could be freed up for housing under alternative options -- land that could be worth significantly more and provide space for thousands of houses that would bring in property tax revenue.

Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie has stressed the importance of moving forward and noted that the expressway is part of a trucking corridor into downtown.

“We cannot keep having the same conversations about decisions that have been made seven years ago,” she said in a statement earlier this month. “Changing course now is expected to save no money (and) possibly cost more money.”

Residents are also facing a gridlock nightmare on Lakeshore Boulevard.

Then there are the sunk costs.

About $550 million has been spent or is close to being spent -- leaving $650 million remaining in the Gardiner budget. Further construction is not planned to start until 2026, though further contracts would be awarded for planning and work is ongoing on transit and other projects in the area that could be stalled by any delay, staff have said.

City staff have said that they assume there will not be cost savings from switching options now, and estimate it could mean throwing away about $340 million already spent, though a detailed evaluation has not been done.

“It’s an important piece of public trust,” said Coun. Alejandra Bravo in support of a cost review. Speaking at the committee, she said there is a very different context now from the climate emergency to a housing crisis to roads in need of repair to the city facing a financial cliff.

Transportation Services head Barbara Gray told councillors at the committee that climate and affordable housing were considered in the option that is being built now.

The crumbling expressway is expected to become an election issue with Matlow saying he would change the plan if he were mayor, and Coun. Brad Bradford, another candidate, saying he will stay the course.

Coun. Paula Fletcher said she is left with more questions than answers and would like to see a cost review. “It is a very expensive thing to have,” she said at the committee. “If there is any lesson out of this, we have to have very clear oversight on big, billions of dollar projects, particularly on our waterfront.”