Anybody want to buy a highway?
Toronto may be about to find out.
At a budget committee meeting on Monday, councillors commissioned a staff report on selling off or leasing out the Gardiner Expressway as a means of funding critical repairs on the decaying lakeside road.
The report, expected around May of next year, will also examine the possibility of selling or leasing the Don Valley Parkway, burying the Gardiner in an underground tunnel, and using the proceeds of any road sales to pay for planned Metrolinx and TTC transit projects.
"This is a city-building opportunity," said Councillor Adam Vaughan.
"If we have an ability here to fix the road while we build public transit, while we take pressure of Toronto taxpayers, I think it's something which we should study before we make any final decisions on the Gardiner."
Vaughan informally floated the idea of auctioning off the Gardiner last week following revelations that the 50-year-old elevated expressway was in worse shape that previously thought.
City council will vote next month on a $505-million plan to refurbish the highway, and according to city engineers, unless the deck on the section of the road east of Jarvis is fully replaced it will be unsafe to drive on in six years.
Given the mounting repair bill, Vaughan believes it might be better for the city to unburden itself of the highway and let a private entity pay to fix it, in exchange for a hefty sum and the right to charge road tolls.
The councillor estimates that the Gardiner and Don Valley Parkway together could fetch over $8 billion, and says that he's aware of several groups, including pension and investment funds, that might be willing to buy.
Vaughan, a left-leaning council member considered a prime candidate to run against Mayor Rob Ford in the next election, is perhaps an unlikely source for a plan to privatize a major public asset. He doesn't sit on the budget committee and so couldn't introduce the proposal himself. Instead, it was walked on by Councillor Peter Milczyn, a committee member.
It found traction with the other members, despite the committee being stacked with allies of Mayor Ford. Even Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor's brother and budget vice-chair, voiced support for exploring privatization options. But he was adamant that Vaughan wasn't the one who came up with the idea.
"Doug Ford presented that alternative two years ago," said Doug Ford, "and Adam Vaughan just took it and now he's trying to move on it."
Public works chair Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong also backed the study, on the condition that it doesn't delay approval of the 10-year, $505-million repair plan outlined in the 2013 capital budget.
"I think we should go forward and look at ways that we can finance infrastructure. It's long overdue. We have a significant infrastructure problem in the city of Toronto and we need ways to pay for it," said Minnan-Wong. "The reality is though that this capital budget has to be supported... We have a Gardiner that is in urgent need of attention, that our staff say is going to be in a very bad spot in six years."
Vaughan said that selling the Gardiner shouldn't delay any important repair work. If council approves the capital budget in January, he said, work to shore up the highway could go ahead as planned. Finding a buyer would take several years, and once a deal was completed, the purchaser would take responsibility for finishing the job.
Depending on the state of the road at that time, the buyer could be given a discounted price.
The half-billion repair plan could still face opposition however. Some councillors are pushing to restart an environmental assesment on tearing down the Gardiner east of Jarvis, rather than repairing it. The section is both the most decrepit and least used section of the road.
But while councillors of all policial stripes got behind the privatization study, Councillor James Pasternak had some words of caution about selling a vital piece of Toronto's transportation infrastructure.
"Historically, where either cities or countries make a major sale of real estate assets or infrastructure, it usually becomes a regrettable decision a generation or two down the road," said Pasternak, the newest member of the budget committee. "That having been said, I think it's a healthy conversation."