A Brief History of the Gardiner Expressway

In 2014, Mayor John Tory proposed a “hybrid” solution to the Gardiner problem, which combined repairs and partial tear-down that would leave most of the road in place. The proposal narrowly passed in a 24-21 vote in June 2015.


The Gardiner Expressway has been a controversial project from its infancy, and after more than fifty years in Toronto it’s still the subject of heated debate.

Named for Metro Toronto’s first chair Frederick Gardiner, the $103 million project faced many revisions, delays, and controversies throughout its construction. It was finally built over the course of a decade by the newly-formed Metropolitan Toronto in the 1950s, resurrected years after a failed initial proposal in 1947. 

The original plan to pass through Fort York was eventually changed in order to save the historic site, but the road did cause the closure of the popular Sunnyside Amusement park and numerous waterfront neighbourhoods. It was also briefly called the “Gardiner Freeway”, but had to be renamed as an expressway when the Ontario Highway Traffic Act stipulated the road had too many interchanges to be categorized as a freeway.

The Expressway opened in segments between 1957 and 1966, and from the very beginning it was a commuter’s nightmare: traffic consistently crawled along at ten kilometres an hour, despite a speed limit of 80. The first rooftop billboards on the Expressway were also built by 1963, targeting a daily 40,000 motorists at the cost of up to $3,000 a month for each advertisement.

Since the 1970s many changes to the road have been proposed and passed, but almost none have come to fruition: the only part of the massive series of neighbouring upgrades and changes to be made was the Queen’s Quay streetcar line in the 1990s.

By that time it became apparent that the Expressway was in dire need of repair. In 1999 two bridges were removed and replaced for $100 million, but other elevated segments began to crumble from decades of weathering, salt erosion, and vehicle impact.

Proposals floated to demolish what some councillors called the “mistake by the lake”, but instead the city continued with repairs. The millennium Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Task Force recommended demolishing the road from east of the CNE to Yonge St, but the cost of $1.2 billion was too much for the province and the City to carry. 

In 2014, Mayor John Tory proposed a “hybrid” solution to the Gardiner problem, which combined repairs and partial tear-down that would leave most of the road in place. The proposal narrowly passed in a 24-21 vote in June 2015, despite opposition from chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat and other public officials.

All of Toronto’s downtown city councillors voted to tear down the Expressway, while most of the suburban ward councillors backed the hybrid option. This narrow margin and significant opposition has left some Torontonians uneasy. One alternative motion to maintain the eastern portion was voted down 44-1, with only Councillor Rob Ford voting in support.

Construction work on the hybrid Gardiner won’t start until 2018, and will take up to six years. The plan will demolish the existing on and off ramps east of the Don River and will reconstruct them into a tree-lined, six-lane boulevard. The rest of the Expressway will be upgraded and fixed, costing the city about $400 million up front and more than $500 million in estimated maintenance over its estimated lifetime of a hundred years.