If there's one lesson to take from the ongoing Gardiner controversy, it's that the penny-pinching Ford administration seems not to mind sparing any expense, blowing tens of millions if need be, when it comes to pushing its narrow political objectives.
We saw it with Transit City - the mayor declared the plan dead the day he took office, effectively blowing millions on work already done, and millions more when TTC staff were directed to turn their attention to his privatized Sheppard subway scheming. More than a year was wasted on that endeavour.
We saw it with the Port Lands visioning exercise - a plan a decade in the making was over before mayor's big bro Doug got visions of Ferris wheels and shopping malls dancing in his head. For Doug's brain wave, we got another public consultation to determine what we already knew - that development in the Port Lands can't be fast-tracked even using the most optimistic projections, and a revamped plan with less greenspace.
In both cases, council ultimately intervened. But not before huge resources, professional and financial, were expended because, well Ford just couldn't leave well enough alone.
And now the Gardiner.
Some $500 million has been earmarked for maintenance and repairs over the next 10 years on the elevated mess. Already the costs seem to be rising. Some $600 million over 12 years is the number the Public Works and Infrastructure chair Denzil Minnan-Wong tossed out in a scrum with reporters a week ago. That's a hell of a lot of coin for a cash-strapped Toronto. The actual costs will be much higher when inflation's factored in.
"A positive story," Minnan-Wong termed it. "An infusion of new funds that we haven't seen in a number of years. We're building infrastructure, concretely and constructively."
The expenditure is being sold as necessary upkeep to make up for years of neglect, but like Transit City and the Port Lands before it, the real motive behind the outlay of cash is political. See the mysterious shelving of the Environmental Assessment looking into tearing down the Gardiner east of Jarvis.
That assessment was, in part, started precisely because the 50-year-old highway is becoming too expensive to maintain.
The future of waterfront planning was also supposed to be part of the EA exercise. That document points out that New York, Boston, San Francisco and Portland, are all cities that have turned the challenges presented by aging elevated highways into a catalyst for revitalizing neighbourhoods, enhancing greenspace and spurring economic growth.
The Gardiner presents an opportunity for city-building. The Ford administration, however, seems to view any talk of tearing down the highway as yet another front in the so-called "war on the car." Remember that?
Minnan-Wong has alluded to the Gardiner's importance in "moving cars, business and families." Whether the current numbers using the expressway justifies keeping it up is debatable.
The widening of Lake Shore Boulevard to take up excess traffic seems a reasonable alternative. An extension of Front Street was also seen as part of the traffic solution for a waterfront without the Gardiner before that was shelved by the last administration.
It may be simplistic to suggest Ford's motive for deep-sixing any talk of tearing down the highway had to do with votes from suburbanites who also happen to hate bike lanes. Call it a leap in logic.
But Ford has made no bones in the past about his dislike for Waterfront Toronto, the city's partner in the Gardiner Environmental Assessment. He's called the arm's length agency a waste of money, in fact, and signaled his intent to cut off city funding early in his term. Certainly, he had no qualms about throwing Waterfront Toronto's Port Lands plans for a loop.
The shamozzle over the Gardiner is beginning to look like another unnecessary and costly mess.
Late last week, both City Manager Joe Pennachetti and the Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat suggested there's no choice but to dust off the Gardiner assessment given the dollars being contemplated for repairs. On that subject, Keesmaat was quoted in the Star saying the cash would be better spent on transit.
We might have already known that if the Gardiner assessment had been allowed to continue. As it stands, we're two years behind where we should have been and being saddled with an ever-rising tab because of it.
So here we are, sorting out another Ford-manufactured mess. The budget committee has asked for a staff report on future options for the highway, which isn't expected until May.
By then, who knows what other drama we'll be dealing with? Don't look now, but there's already talk of fast-tracking private garbage pickup city-wide. That's right. The free market Fordists want to hand the entire job over to the private sector, create a monopoly, if you will, which has only led to rising costs in other cities where it's been tried. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. One boondoggle at a time, please.