News  Turcot commission: go back to the drawing board

Public commission tells Ministry not to demolish St. Henri housing for highway remodelling

Quebec’s Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) published a report last week encouraging the Ministère des transports du Québec (MTQ) to “go back to the drawing board” on its plan to reconstruct the Turcot interchange – the junction of highways 15, 20, and 720 that lies between St. Henri and the borough of Westmount.

The MTQ’s original plan, released in 2007, calls for an 18 per cent increase in the interchange’s traffic capacity and for the demolition of almost 200 neighbouring homes in the Village des Tanneries complex. The project has met with fierce opposition from coalitions of local residents, community leaders, and urban planners.

Jody Negley, a local resident and the founder of the Citizens’ Committee of the Village des Tanneries, explained her misgivings with the project. “The plan would demolish about 160 or 170 houses,” said Negley. “About 400 people would lose their homes.”

Hemmed in by the Turcot to the north and east and by railroad tracks to the south, the Village des Tanneries occupies an obscure and often-overlooked pocket of St. Henri. Each of the houses on the north side of Cazelais, plus an adjacent building of loft apartments, are slated for demolition if the MTQ implements its initial plan for the new Turcot.

“Most people to look at it wouldn’t be terribly impressed and couldn’t understand why we’re fighting to save this community,” said Negley, as she drove through the interchange, passing the row of houses that are absent from the MTQ’s blueprint for the area.

“I think the Ministry of Transportation also feels like they’ll be doing us a service by getting rid of what most people would consider an unhealthy area of the city,” she said. 
Negley explained that this attitude echoes events in the sixties, when hundreds of people were displaced by the construction of the Décarie and Ville-Marie expressways (highways 15 and 20, respectively). “[It’s] the same mentality,” she said. “‘Let’s clean up the slums, let’s get rid of the poor areas, and basically replace it with progress’ – and they saw this as progress.” 
Negley was one among the dozens of people to bring their grievances to a BAPE commission held in June, when stakeholders were invited to share their thoughts on the MTQ plan. During the five-day hearings, Montrealers submitted over 100 “memoires” to the commission, many of which criticized the plan for overlooking public transit options for suburban commuters, failing to address greenhouse gas emissions, and further isolating parts of St. Henri already largely cut off by the surrounding network of highways. Members of Mobilisation Turcot and the Conseil régional de l’environnement and the Community-University Research Alliance (CURA) were especially vocal opponents of the MTQ proposal.

After the hearings, the concluding BAPE report explicitly condemned the idea of expropriating local housing in the new development – something many of the locals saw as a victory.

The infrastructure kill-zone
The mammoth structure of the Turcot’s off-ramps and concrete pillars – an “aerial spaghetti of roads” in the words of journalist Henri Aubin – sits on top of an expansive landscape of mostly-unused vacant lots. A number of trucking and construction companies are headquartered in the warehouses to the south of the junction. A nearby hotel and spa for dogs and cats represents the lone outpost of the gentrification that has slowly crept into St. Henri in recent years.

Built in the run-up to Montreal’s Expo ’67, the Turcot’s now-crumbling frame has needed attention for years. With chunks of concrete occasionally falling off the ramps and injuring drivers or pedestrians, much of the structure has now been fitted with iron netting. A local construction firm has been contracted to repair the structure on an ongoing basis.

“The error in our cities is that in the forties and fifties we invested massively in this car model, and all that investment is coming to the end of its useful life,” said Jason Prince, the coordinator of CURA at McGill, and a co-editor of the book Montreal at the Crossroads: Superhighways, the Turcot and the Environment.

“We’re in this 25-year kill-zone where fundamental structure decisions have to be made,” said Prince.

The MTQ claimed its plan would cost $1.5-billion, though critics expect the cost of the project to overshoot its initial target. More importantly, though, critics have pointed out that the MTQ’s proposal contained virtually no plans for improved public transportation in Montreal’s east-west corridor.

“The MTQ, when they designed their project, only thought of cars,” said Mobilisation Turcot activist Denis Lévesque. “They’re plumbers working on building a bigger, better pipe for cars to flow into, but what they didn’t take into consideration is that there are other projects on the table that will change how commuters move about the city.”

Prince asserted that there is a swath of reasons that the City needs to divert commuter traffic into public transit. “Building more roads means more pollution, more accidents, more greenhouse gases, and more congestion,” he said. “Following this other path means less of all these things, so the public policy decision is clear: we ought to pursue this mass transit alternative.”

The MTQ plan calls for many of the ramps to be lowered onto raised-earth embankments, which would expand the footprint of the highways into land currently occupied by neighbouring apartment buildings in the Village des Tanneries.

MTQ spokesperson Mario St-Pierre said that such a structure would be more economical than the existing interchange.

“Maintenance on these roads would be a lot cheaper than the above-ground ramps that we have now, which have cost a lot of money over 40 years,” said St-Pierre, adding that the embankments would also make the structure safer than it is now. “Based on data we have looked at, we know that there will be an increase in cars. That has nothing to do with any plan or will of the MTQ.”

Prince, however, said that increasing highway capacity will only defer the problem of clogged traffic for a few years. He stated that the new plan needs to allow the Turcot’s frequent logjams to continue, while diverting commuters into a new public transit system. 
“Congestion is in fact what you want,” said Prince. “You need to have a problem in the transportation system before you can act. Traditionally, the reaction is to build more roads…which often become congested within a few short years. There’s a maxim in urban planning that you can’t build your way out of congestion.”

Governance schism
Prince explained that the section of the MTQ responsible for highways is separate from those responsible for public transit, and mainly concerns itself with regional transport, not city development – a major problem for the future of transit in Montreal.

“The [car side] should never work in isolation, and they have to work hand-in-glove with the mass transit sector. They should also think about this transit-oriented development…at a city scale, a neighbourhood scale – because all these things are interconnected,” Prince said.

He explained that the Montreal city government has been planning to shift away from cars for some time, but that highway projects such as the Turcot have historically been imposed by the province against the City’s will. 
Lévesque agreed, and hoped the MTQ would recognize the systemic importance of the Turcot, and other highway infrastructure like it. 
“We sincerely hope that [Quebec Premier Jean Charest], who pretends to be the next climate leader when he goes to Copenhagen…addresses transport,” Lévesque said.

“It’s worth taking the time to do it right – because when it’s done, we are stuck with it for half a century.”