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Toronto mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi.

jj thompson The Globe and Mail

Rocco Rossi is aiming to rev up a trailing mayoral campaign with a promise to take drivers underground - through an ambitious tunnel extending the Allen Expressway from Eglinton Avenue West to the Gardiner Expressway.

His vision for Toronto, he said Monday, includes a subterranean tolled highway whisking commuters between downtown and the stunted Allen.

Mr. Rossi compares it to the Chunnel, the 50-kilometre undersea link between England and France. But transportation engineers argue it's closer to the Spadina Expressway, a plan to turn the downtown north-south road into a highway that was rejected decades ago when the city decided the downtown core should not be a motorist's haven.

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The engineers say the multibillion-dollar tunnel would not address the issues behind Toronto's gridlock: It would just move the traffic jams elsewhere.

It's a bold idea - one of his boldest, he says - from a candidate polling well behind his leading rivals.

It plays into Mr. Rossi's vow to "be a mayor for all Torontonians" - not just the transit-friendly, car-eschewing type. It also follows pronouncements last week from both Mr. Rossi and rival George Smitherman that seek to front-runner Rob Ford base in the final few weeks before the Oct. 25 election.

Just after Mr. Smitherman proclaimed a "war on waste" at City Hall, Mr. Rossi announced that he would slice council in half - something Mr. Ford has been vowing to do for months. Mr. Rossi's plan also includes electing four "councillors-at-large" and creating a "board of control" for city council.

"Torontonians have been asking me - at the door, at events, at subway stops - 'What's your vision? How are you going to deal with the big problems?' "

In an interview Monday, Mr. Rossi said his two main opponents, Mr. Ford and Mr. Smitherman, are living in a "fantasy world" because of their pledges to cut or freeze taxes. Mr. Ford would cut the vehicle registration and land-transfer taxes and Mr. Smitherman would freeze property taxes for a year.

But Mr. Rossi said his plan to rejuvenate an idea that was discussed and rejected in the 1970s is realistic and feasible.

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"This is not our parents' Spadina Expressway," he said. "We need an integrated transportation strategy. Personal vehicles are part of our foreseeable future."

Mr. Rossi, who has spoken out against the implementation of toll roads on existing highways, said he would be open to using tolls to pay for this tunnel - possibly all of it. He doesn't know the exact route or where exactly it would empty out downtown, but said all tunnelling would be done underground to avoid disrupting neighbourhoods.

But even if the tunnel didn't have multiple interchanges between Eglinton Avenue and the Gardiner, engineers would have to determine how to ventilate the tunnel and where to install exhaust vents along the way.

The tunnel, which Mr. Rossi has not fully priced but estimates could cost "as little as" $105-million per kilometre, is meant to tackle Toronto's exacerbating gridlock. A Board of Trade report a year ago found the traffic chaos costs $3.3-billion a year in lost productivity.

But traffic-jam experts note that building a brand-new commuter artery underneath the city would cost several billion dollars and, at the end of the day, wouldn't actually ease gridlock: It would only funnel more vehicles - about 6,000 cars an hour - onto the Gardiner and into the crowded downtown core.

Unless there's somewhere for them to go - more capacity on the Gardiner, on downtown streets and in extra parking spaces - this would simply shift gridlock elsewhere.

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"When you put a new piece of infrastructure in anywhere, it brings more cars in," said Bern Grush, chief scientist at Toronto's Skymeter Corporation, which studies traffic patterns and markets toll-road technology.

"Where are you going two park them? Are you going to widen all the streets to accept them?"

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