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Why you should be thankful for Gardiner delays

In Canada on October 10, 2010 at 10:03
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Why you should be thankful for Gardiner delays

October 09, 2010

Alfred Holden


Construction along the Gardiner at the Jameson bridge.


I’m surprised by butterflies, all around, when walking the worn pavement where few people ever stroll, in the gulch of the Gardiner Expressway.

The monarchs are fluttering toward Mexico. They might be overtaking cars, were there any; such were the traffic delays, both ways, in September.

But the expressway is closed on a warm Saturday. A giant mechanical hammer — a “hoe ram” — is battering at the last leg of old concrete that held up Jameson Ave., where the bridge carrying the street crossed over the freeway’s median.

Tangles of old rebar protrude in the dust; here not even a stump will be reused.

“The original bridges were integral with the centre pier — all one piece,” explains Victor Zubacs, the city’s engineer on the project.

You can’t just swap out a part. The replacement bridges, using girders of corrosion-resistant steel, are more modular, Zubacs explains, as we stand near readied piers near Dunn Ave. Made by Mometal Inc. of Montreal, and trucked down the 401 from a plant in Montreal, the replacement spans (forecast life: 80 years) were lowered into place here during several late-night shutdowns of the Gardiner last month.

Closures, but more regularly delays, of which the thousands of commuters who use the busy highway don’t need to be reminded.

In all, three overpasses are being replaced. Jameson, plus the ones east and west of it where westbound Lake Shore Blvd. leaps to the north side of the Gardiner near Dunn Ave. and where it jumps back south near Dowling Ave.

The project is not very glamorous, yet it’s one of the larger infrastructure undertakings going on in Greater Toronto (budgeted at $16 million) and of the longest duration (work began in May and will continue until November 2011).

Anger and frustration expressed by residents has made the Jameson-area overpasses a flashing light for engineers responsible for infrastructure (like Zubacs) and, especially in an election year, for their masters, the politicians — both those in office and the wannabes.

Last month mayoral hopeful Rocco Rossi came by the Gardiner site, vowing a quick solution in “rapid bridge replacement” — the idea being to build the structure off-site and drop it in, so as to reduce disruption.

But what worked in Hamilton and Ottawa was not a good fit for the half-century-old Gardiner, says Zubacs.

We stand in our hard hats and day-glo vests, in the trench, considering the question: surrounding us are the Gardiner’s embankments, sliced by on- and off-ramps, the railway tracks are directly adjacent, then the rise into Parkdale.

“We looked at that. We have tighter space. The Gardiner is depressed. There just isn’t room to do three bridges,” Zubacs says.

It’s choose-your-evil. He estimates that a three- to four-week total shutdown of the Gardiner would be needed for “rapid bridge replacement.”

The shutdowns have been off-peak on weekends and at night. At all other times, two of three lanes each way are kept open.

The project is still more than a year from completion, but with the new spans in place, the Gardiner will be back to full service — three lanes each way — the first week of this November, five weeks ahead of schedule.

Commuters may not have noticed — it looks like it’s always been there — but a temporary road was built as a detour. The three lanes, sandwiched between the Gardiner and eastbound Lake Shore, carry westbound traffic on Lake Shore Blvd., leaving that road full-service.

Foot traffic to the waterfront from Parkdale has been maintained, by replacing first one half of the Jameson bridge, then the other. To the right of where the last Jameson bridge pier was being pulverized, cyclists and pedestrians were crossing the east lanes of the overpass.

That’s a bridge-builder’s optimism. But the wrath of the delayed is not easily allayed, observes urban geographer James Lemon.

He looks at the city’s online map of the overpass rebuilding project and reads, in the design for the highway built in the 1950s, a promise of unimpeded movement.

Unlike the old Toronto street grid with its right angles — where those pedestrians and bicycles come to cross the Jameson bridge — the Gardiner’s cornerless roads and ramps don’t begin or end, they only connect. In a picture that appeared on the Star‘s front page in 1954, Frederick G. Gardiner, the first chair of Metropolitan Toronto and a champion of the expressway, is pictured pointing to a rendering of a proposed interchange, under a headline promising “50 mph Lakeshore flow.”

Interrupt that flow, Lemon says, and people protest.

Bridges in Ontario are inspected every two years, with a log made of their condition. Spalling is appalling — it’s when the expansion of rusting rebars splits off chunks of concrete. Look at the pillars supporting the Gardiner’s raised portions further east and you can see evidence of the repairs. There are 400 bridges in Toronto, according to Zubacs; the three Jameson-area bridges were coming due.

Concern about infrastructure erosion typically grows during eras of cost-cutting. Around when the tax-cutting Conservative government of Mike Harris left office in 2002, Toronto-based planning consultant IBI Group produced the astonishing estimate of $55 billion as the capital investment required to bring Ontario’s infrastructure back up to snuff.

TD Bank Financial Group, in an updated Report on the Greater Toronto Area Economy in 2007 , found progress being made. The bank’s deputy chief economist, Derek Burleton, thinks the important point for Gardiner commuters now is not delays but that the work is happening.

“The Gardiner is obviously a key artery,” said Burleton. But when you crunch the numbers, “it’s cheaper in the long run to be rehabilitating rather than delaying.

“This is the problem you got into during the ’90s with the deficit-cutting.” Especially with infrastructure, “one can, from a political perspective, delay.

“Over time there’s a good argument we should be shifting to more efficient ways of getting individuals around,” said Burleton, who takes the GO Train, alluding to a need for strengthened public transportation infrastructure also discussed in the TD’s report.

Lemon, the veteran urban geographer, muses at the seemingly inexplicable: that in the 1950s, when Toronto and its economy were much smaller, money was found not simply to fix a couple of bridges, but to build the road. “It was a grand era of doing something.”

In 1950s dollars, the price was about $100 million.

There were other expenses. In the air above where Zubacs and I viewed bridge wreckage in the Gardiner gully, there were once lawns, gardens, trees. Before World War II, a neighbourhood was partly bulldozed to build Lake Shore Blvd. In the 1950s the Gardiner blew South Parkdale right off the map. Responding to opposition, Fred Gardiner complained of “too much nickel thinking.”

Interestingly, Toronto taxpayers, and not the inbound commuters who use the Gardiner most heavily, pay the road’s annual $6 million bill for upkeep.

The area’s city councillor, Gord Perks, is philosophical.

“You pay for civilization,” he says. “If you look at the record in investment in critical infrastructure through the early ’90s and in this decade, some governments thought they could maintain the city without investing in infrastructure. I’m one of many people around here who have it on our conscience that we just won’t have around bridges that are unsafe.”

Parkdale resident Matthew Blackett, who looks out over the area from his 24th-floor apartment on Close Ave., has posted views of the expressway on Flickr and his time-lapse video of the current construction can be seen at

From above, the original builders’ hunger for flow is clear in the ribbons of continuous asphalt; the contrast with Toronto’s 19th-century grid, with all its corners, is stark.

Looks can be deceiving. Certain on- and off-ramps are plagued with backups.

After the current construction, the roads’ configuration will return to what it was. But an ambitious Western Waterfront Master Plan has eastbound Lake Shore eventually pairing with westbound, jumping north of the Gardiner using parallel bridges. Jameson would become a pedestrian bridge to newly car-free parkland south of the expressway.

That’s the plan.

Who knows where it will go, with promises of budget-cutting heard in a municipal election campaign in which traffic delays are also a hot button.


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